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Penguin Random House
REVIEWED BY PETER STUPPLES
McAllister, now a retired professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, had written an academic paper about detective fiction before penning The White Murders. The book is made up of eight murder-mysteries, each of which illustrated one of the types of stories he had analysed in his research paper.
McAllister outlines his theory to Julia about the four necessary ingredients to a murder-mystery: ‘‘a set of characters called the suspects... the victims, the detectives and the killers. The number of suspects must be two or more... the number of killers and victims must be at least one each... [and] the killers must be drawn from the set of suspects.’’
Over the next few days, as there is only a single copy of the book between them, Julia reads aloud to McAllister each of the eight stories that outline one or other of the many possible permutations of characters that combine for a traditional crime story.
Of course, there could be many more than just eight possible combinations. Every night she prepares and analyses one of the stories to read to McAllister the next day. She finds points of inconsistency in each, as if these ‘mistakes’ had been included to keep the reader alert for clues as to the identity of the murderer(s).
As time goes on, Julia becomes suspicious that something fundamental is wrong with the both stories and with McAllister’s responses to her analyses and editorial criticisms, until things come to a head, and the ninth story - the real-life relationship between the author and editor emerges.
The eight central stories are reminiscent of short tales by Agatha Christie. They have a dated quality for readers in the 21st century. Purposely so, as if what we are reading really are exercises to demonstrate a theory. It is curious that, as such, they fail to convince.
They are obviously contrivances, as, of course, is all fiction, but here the very conventions of the genre are the subject of the work, rather than the character relations of the stories themselves. Yet they are wrapped in a fictional relationship between author and editor that becomes more engrossing as the book proceeds.
Very much a book for crime-fiction buffs. Others may feel irritated at being played with in such a direct fashion, rather than being dragged into a fictional world in which, at least momentarily, they can lose themselves.
Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago