Hall of Mirrors (Christopher Fowler)


From this distance Tavistock Hall appeared so timeless and elegant that it was impossible to imagine the terminal collapse within. It was like the State of England, a carapace forged and hardened over centuries that hid the hushed disquiet of its inhabitants.

Ch. 40

By 1969, the country house party and the country house mystery had become passé, a relic of a wealthier age. Tavistock House is falling apart: the ceiling in the master bedroom has fallen in; one of the bathrooms has subsided, taking half the plumbing with it; and one simply can’t get the servants anymore. An American millionaire wants to buy the place and turn it into a business college; its owner, hard-up peer Lord Banks-Marion, wants to live in an ashram in the grounds with his pet pig (à la Emsworth), his model train (à la Avengers), and his dope habit. But then a particularly gruesome murder occurs: someone falls into the macerator that treats raw sewage from the house. With ten suspects trapped in the house, and the body count rising, Bryant and May spend an agreeable weekend in the country.

Hall of Mirrors is Fowler’s affectionate tribute to the Golden Age detective story. “This one did play out rather like an Agatha Christie novel,” Bryant remembers. (Even if few of Christie’s books are country house mysteries or involve the aristocracy.) ““Unguessable?” asks his listener. “Unbelievable. Not that here’s anything wrong with that. The beauty of Christie is that beneath all the rubbish about strychnine and vicars there’s usually a simple unconscious truth.”

Fowler’s plot is clever and certainly surprising; there are two layers of deception here; the minor deception is more satisfying than the major – but the murderer’s identity does come out of left field; I’m not sure we could predict it. Or could we? Fowler cunningly anticipates his reader’s bemusement, and forestalls criticism.

“A murder mystery is a construct that relies on anagnorisis, the sudden revelation that reveals the true situation,” explains Pamela Claxon, a detective writer staying in the house.

“So it’s like cheating,” says another character.

“No, it’s technique. We mystery writers use many other devices: red herrings, unreliable narrators, deus ex machina, peripeteia – that’s reversal of fortune. Then there’s Chekhov’s gun, in which a minor character is revealed to be of major importance.”

“But it isn’t how real life works, Pamela,” Wilson reasoned. “Only a madman would do something like this.”

Pamela Claxon, by the way, is the author of The Three Coffins and Trench’s Last Case (in which the butler did it), and has a low opinion of Poirot and Miss Marple (204). Fowler peppers his story with in-jokes: there are references to victims hit by meteorites (Innes’s Weight of the Evidence); death by poisoned pots of marmalade (Christie’s Pocket Full of Rye); trained monkeys (Knox); electrical cables hidden in bedsprings (Phillpotts?); poisoned trifles (Christie’s 13 Problems); rifles hanging out of windows on bits of string; and John Dickson Carr’s novels in which people kill victims with “ludicrous Heath Robinson contraptions”.

It is also (like Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life) an acerbic look back at the Sixties. Cool Britannia ruled – but not for all. Go down Carnaby Street or the King’s Road, and you would see girls in miniskirts and knee-boots, young men in Adam Adamant capes, lace shirts, and loons – but, Fowler tells us, “for every trendsetter there were at least two old men in raincoats and caps” in a London still full of bomb craters. The Sixties may have been a glorious age of pop culture (James Bond, The Avengers, Monty Python, Julie Christie, Peter Cook); it may have been “the era of affirmative action, self-expression, free love, political commitment”. But, Fowler says, it all went “horribly wrong”.

Swinging London was a commercial flop. The idea of a new egalitarian nation hit the old barrier of class, and the dream turned into a nightmare. Rising inequality, industrial disputes, deregulation. The seventies.

Ch. 1

Compare, if you will, The Avengers – stylish, witty, Op Art spy fantasies – to its Seventies sequel, The New Avengers. It may have given Joanna Lumley her breakthrough role, but it’s a joyless, excessively violent, macho show, largely set in concrete-strewn industrial wastelands and abandoned factories and warehouses. It’s the headache, the morning after the champagne.

Other reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.


Blurb

Among the guests are young detectives Arthur Bryant and John May. In disguise and out of their depth, they’re protecting a whistle-blower set to turn Queen’s evidence in a massive bribery trial. The house’s owner – a penniless, dope-smoking aristocrat – is intent on selling the estate, complete with miniature railway and hippy encampment, to a secretive millionaire, and events soon take a horrible turn. Bryant and May need help, but the army has closed all the roads and it simply won’t stop raining.

It is 1969. Ten guests have been invited to spend the weekend at a magnificent stately home. But beware – someone is harbouring murderous thoughts…

With their futures on the line, Arthur and John must go it alone. Amidst the murder, the madness and the macabre discoveries, they realise that, at the fag-end of the Swinging Sixties, the good times are drawing to a close and nothing is quite what it seems…


Contemporary reviews

Fully Booked: The prequel to end all prequels, wonderfully literate, full of great dialogue and, at times, very poignant. Top quality entertainment.

Crime Fiction Lover: Fowler always manages to keep things fresh, and Hall of Mirrors is no exception … as well written and original as ever.

Sunday Telegraph: One of our most unorthodox and entertaining writers.

Ann Cleeves: I love the wit and the playfulness of the Bryant and May books.

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