Is there an end to postmodern blurring of boundaries of author, narrator, detective, villain?
After retirement, Sherlock Holmes at age 89, moves from London to Sussex, and rooms in a house run by the wife of a Malayali pastor, The Reverend K.T. Panicker of the Church of England. Rev. Kumbhampoika Thomas Panicker is a high-church Anglican vicar who has lost his faith, and is riddled with doubts. He looks to this old lodger for clarity. This at least is how Michael Chabon imagines the great detective in his slender pastiche, The Final Solution. A mysterious mute boy turns up with a remarkable parrot that utters numbers in German, and the detective once again picks up his magnifying glass and the game is afoot, with Rev. Panicker as his Watson.
Concluding the case, the old man ponders over the meaning of detection: ‘ The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings – the discovery of the sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life.' The recent movie Sherlock Holmes showed us (once again) that what endears us to Conan Doyle's creation is how Holmes can morph into whomever we want him to be, and wherever we want him to be. Tibet in Jamyang Norbu's The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes. Watching a cricket match in Bombay in Vithal Rajan's Holmes of the Raj, as he crosses paths with Tagore, Vivekananda, Ramanujan, Annie Besant, and Jinnah.
A pastiche of an entirely different order is the ingenious work of the French culture critic and psychoanalyst, Pierre Bayard, author of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd and Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong. Bayard proposes a new method of reading literature that he calls ‘ Detective Criticism'. Here a reader should read in a method that is ‘more rigorous than even the detectives in literature and the writers who create them, and thus to work out solutions that are more satisfying to the soul.' The main premise of Detective Criticism is that the killer unmasked by the author is not the true murderer. As in life, the true culprits allow secondary characters to take the rap, eluding justice.
By using DC, which is essentially suspicious by nature, the text is re-investigated, the author questioned, the real criminal brought to light, and the names of the innocent cleared. Thus Bayard demonstrates that Roger Ackroyd was not killed by the book's famous killer but by Agatha Christie, and Sherlock Holmes did not satisfactorily solve the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles, proving that even his creator, Conan Doyle, could be wrong. Gilbert Adair, though, is the most devilishly entertaining, stylishly clever and wittily erudite post- postmodern maker of pastiches. As he himself said once, if he likes a book, he will simply rewrite it. It's his way of parodying, celebrating and critiquing it. (Death in Venice becomes Love and Death on Long Island). In The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and The Mysterious Affair of Style he took on Agatha Christie.
His new book, And Then There Was No One brings Christie, Conan Doyle and Adair together to face-off. Yes, Adair himself is the narrator of the book and a character in it!
When the book begins, Adair has just finished his latest postmodern riff: The Unpublished Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of apocryphal Holmes stories (such as The Giant Rat of Sumatra). On the strength of this he's invited to a Sherlock Holmes festival taking place in Switzerland. On the list of guests he notices Umberto Eco is an invitee; next to his name it says: (unconfirmed), and disappointingly enough Eco doesn't turn up because of an illness in the family.
After he reads from his book to the audience gathered there, he fields many questions (“What is the difference between bookshops in Switzerland and bookshops in Britain? Adair: Your bookshops sells fifty types of books and one type of coffee, while ours sell fifty types of coffee and one type of book”), and it is at this point that one of his characters from the earlier Christie pastiches - his heroine, in fact, the crime novelist Evadne Mount - turns up at the book-reading and demands to know why he would waste his time on pastiches since postmodern playfulness and self referential novels are all a thing of the past? Why won't he invent his own detective? Why borrow a famous one?
Sherlock Holmes pastiches are cheap and commonplace, she reminds her creator. The bookshops are swarming in them linking Holmes to Jack the Ripper, Sigmund Freud, and every type of modern day villain. ‘All of them tosh, I call him the bogus Holmes – Schlock Holmes, ha ha!' Eventually, there's a murder and Adair and his heroine will have to solve it. But not before Adair finishes answering his heroine on why he persists in pastiche-making.
The story Adair reads out at the festival is a full fledged thrity page Holmes pastiche that he invents for the book. At the end of the story, Watson as usual sits down to record the case but Sherlock asks him to desist for personal reasons. Watson replies that he will write the case but with the stipulation that it be opened and read only a hundred years from now. Holmes laughs. ‘A hundred years? 2011? Oh, how you do exaggerate, Watson! I can assure you that in 2011 the name of Sherlock Holmes will have been consigned to the most complete and utter oblivion.'
Watson tells us that his friend is usually right but notes down as the last entry in his casebook: ‘In this instance, however, I fancy he might be mistaken.'