CALM DOWN, MAN, IT’S JUST A PASTICHE!

I’ve got five glorious days off from school . . . and I conveniently forgot to bring that set of film papers home to grade! It gives me just the time I need to settle down to a good book. I was going to read and review Anthony Horowitz’ new mystery, The Word Is Murder, but both Kate and JJ beat me to the punch.

That’s not going to stop me from starting it tonight, for it sounds right up my alley – a novel by a modern author who has enough understanding of classic tropes to turn out a fine crime novel in the traditional style. (See The Magpie Murders.)

Americans are just getting around to Magpie, but I paid attention to my British blogging mates and the wonderful people on the GAD Facebook page and ordered my British copy via The Book Depository. When word of Word got out, I followed suit and purchased it months ago. But that darned TBR pile of mine – and a little thing called work – has so far kept it out of my grasp.

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Reading JJ’s review made me want to get on with this one all the more, but first I took a little detour, due to a comment in another of JJ’s posts about a book called Ten Dead Comedians, by Fred Van Lente, which seemed to be an homage to Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. In his comment, our friend John painted the book this way:

“A very American, very vulgar and sometimes clever send-up of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Even comes with a floor plan! How retro Golden Age can you get?”

John promised a “review coming soon,” but I found the book in my local library and have beaten him to the punch . . . line! (Ah har har har!) And if you thought that was funny, you’re gonna love this book. As for those of you with taste and discernment . . . well, read on, and see what I think.

I have to warn you that I’ve been known to wax vitriolic over modern novels that are billed as being “just like” Agatha Christie, and, sure enough, the inside jacket blurb calls this one “a darkly clever take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and other mysteries. I would love to know what “other mysteries” the blurb writer has in mind because this one pretty blatantly rips off one plot and one plot only. Having read it, I think back to John’s description – “very American” – and wonder if I don’t owe my buddy a punch in the kazoo! 🙂

The novel takes place in modern day yet begins fairly promisingly in a traditional mode, jumping from one introduction to another as eight comedians are texted an invitation to join successful comic Dustin Walker on his secluded island estate in order to collaborate on a mysterious new project. Each character conveniently represents a different style of comedy, and together they provide a diverse cross-section of America. There’s the Latino late night talk show host, the Joan Rivers-style insult comic, a black road comic who comes off like Chris Rock with a drinking problem, an Asian lesbian podcaster . . . actually, the variety starts to get a little tiresome.

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Once they meet up on the boat to the island, they are greeted by Walker’s assistant, a brand new stand-up comic who happens to be female and black and British and . . . oh dear, there it goes again. She insists that Walker is excited to have them all be his guests. But when they get to the island, there’s nobody in sight: no Dustin, no caretaker named Dave (“Dave’s not here!” Har har har!); instead, it feels like the place has been abandoned for at least a week. More ominously, the food is spoiled, all communications are non-functional . . . and every sharp object is missing.

So, here’s a funny thing: I read the book up through this set-up, put it down to make some lunch, and came back to find that my cat had chewed up the first page. “Sonny! Don’t be a critic!” I cried. I should have heeded his warning . . .

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Van Lente clearly wants to invite comparisons to Christie’s classic novel, which strikes me as both a presumptuous and a dangerous thing to do. In the first chapters, he hews closely to Christie’s plot: instead of a record, the comics are treated to a video seemingly made by their missing host, accusing them of “crimes against comedy” and hinting that they will not make it off the island alive. (This is a motive for mass murder?!?) The first killing repeats Christie almost verbatim, as one of the comics is poisoned after raucously toasting his fellow guests. Of course, this being a modern novel, he can’t just die. No, the blood has to spray out of his mouth, dousing the other comics. Most of the subsequent murders follow a similar pattern of being more macabre and more violent than Christie would have ever imagined being. That’s show biz, folks!

I would suggest that being a bad comic is not quite as serious a crime as having killed someone (although writing a bad novel comes closer), but there are bigger problems at work here than the plot. It’s lightweight, but it’s not a terrible plot. There are some twists at the end that you may or may not see coming. (The book may have a floor plan of the estate and other trappings of a classic mystery, but don’t hold your breath that it plays fair with the reader.) Most of the characters are pretty loathsome, so you kind of don’t mind their getting the ax – sometimes literally. The biggest crime is that here we have a houseful of comedians – and nobody is funny. I don’t think Van Lente intends this. He’s clearly working very hard here to delineate, if not characters, then various comic styles. Between every murder, Van Lente even includes a past “set” by one or another of the comics. Sadly, I found these lacking in much real humor (or taste) and therefore eminently skippable. As a result, I may have missed out on a clue or two on the way – I can’t be sure.

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Along the way, we’re treated to several bits about tropes in mysteries – mostly, modern mystery and horror films, as in the all too true standard that if a dog or cat appears in a scary movie, it’s doomed. So when a cute little doggie named Asshole shows up in the book . . . well, it’s only a matter of time. That’s my only spoiler, and I do it on behalf of the ASPCA! Besides, the bit’s not funny at all.

Again, my tolerance for this sort of thing is regrettably low, and I have a feeling some of you might find this perfectly entertaining and even clever. As for me, I will continue my search for the perfect modern pastiche of Dame Agatha. It hasn’t come from Sophie Hannah, who has been hired to create “new” Poirot adventures for reasons that elude me. (Not about the writing as that reason is obvious – ka ching, ka ching – but about the choice of writer.) It hasn’t come from Camilla Lackburg, Sweden’s new heir to the Christie mantle, or Ruth Ware, who must be grinning all the way to the bank for unfairly being pinned with the same label. And it sure wasn’t Ten Dead Comedians. I wonder if I should just stop trying . . .

16681926_1656907901002927_3160468089310427221_n                                  Sonny’s final warning to you: Read something else!

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22 thoughts on “CALM DOWN, MAN, IT’S JUST A PASTICHE!

  1. Gosh, Ten Dead Comedians sounds like a very bad book — not even a good pastiche to Agatha Christie or GA in general. With And Then There Were None, the convention of having a group of people bumped off one by one is often parodied, copied in modern horror flicks, and made the butt of jokes in sitcoms and unfortunately in the book you’ve recently read Brad. But what made And Then There Were None such a success wasn’t merely the bumping off of 10 people but the way she executed it, something that doesn’t work well in the many incarnations of the convention that you see today. Christie made it work and yet, the book still deceives many today. It sure deceived me!

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  2. I find the overall motive for bumping characters off one by one more credible in the 1973 film with Vincent Price, ‘Theatre Of Blood’, than in Ten Dead Comedians. And yet the film was just as bad. The Lifetime Channel just premiered a film simply called “Ten” with the subtitle “Murder Island” not too long ago. The parodies and pastiches continue but none have the mastery and command of execution like Christie’s book. Could it be that a plot that’s been used countless times becomes a joke in and of itself, that it can’t be taken seriously anymore?

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    1. Oh, I thought Theatre of Blood was campy fun. Even better was The Abominable Dr. Phibes, another one where Price bumps off a bunch of men. (It was written by the father of a guy with whom I went to high school.) They’re not meant to be taken too seriously, and never once did I associate them with Christie!

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    1. He called it Utter crap. He just left the same comment again while also insulting my writing. You wonder why he’s not invited to leave comments over at Pretty Sinister Books?

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      1. Just read your review, John. Well written, as usual, and it makes me wish the book had hit me this way as well! I think I struggled to the point where I stopped reading as closely and missed the sense of a finely put together puzzle. It’s certainly a book I wanted to like!

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  3. Oh, man, I’m really being bounced around with this title. When I first read about Ten Dead Comedians, I had the futile hope of it being somewhere between Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Tough Crowd with Colin Quin (with the O&A comedians), but dismissed it as a wishful thinking at the time. Like you, I tend to be very skeptical when it comes to contemporary crime novels. But then John’s review filled me with hope again. Only for your review and Santosh’s comment to cruelly tear it down again. I suppose I’ll move this one down the list for now.

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    1. Now, now, Tomcat, I’m just one man with one opinion. I did not see John’s review, but if it’s positive, you should give this one a try. The author is taking some big risks – trying to emulate both Christie and multiple styles of comedy. He’s bound to divide audiences!

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      1. I’m fascinated by the fact that the three responses by people whose tastes I have a moderate handle on are at the extreme ends of the spectrum — even if it is 2 to 1 against, anything that divides opinion this starkly will always catch my eye. I, like TomCat, will probably delay this a little on account of other things that command my attention more urgently, but I’m hugely curious to see what the ground is like here.

        Though the threat of an absence of fair play doesn’t delight me, it has to be said…

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  4. It was probably unfair of me to say that. Nobody really acts as a detective through this, and I don’t see anyone saying things like, “I knew that you were behind this, Blah-Blah, because of your propensity for this, or for the thing you said, or for the clue of the stuttering parrot.” It’s more of a slasher movie, where you don’t know who the killer is until the end, but clues don’t matter. There is a nice reveal of the killer’s identity that involves a bit of past knowledge, I guess. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind, and I won’t hold my breath until you do! There are many more – and better – fish to fry . . .

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  5. There really is a difference between campy fun, which can be, well, fun, and something like this, which doesn’t sound fun at all. It takes a lot of talent to pull of a pastiche so that it’s enjoyable, and when it falls short, it really falls. Sorry to hear this one was such a disappointment, Brad. Maybe you should’ve brought home those papers and graded them… 😉

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    1. It doesn’t sound much fun or funny at all when someone is poisoned and blood spurts from someone’s mouth. Why do modern mysteries have to be so gory? I know murder isn’t clean and tidy but why, oh why, does it have to be described in all it’s awful glory? So that it can come across as realistic to the readers?

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  6. A punch in the kazoo? Really? Geez. Guess you missed my joke there. It IS very American. It’s base, and vulgar and tasteless. My blog post says so too. That’s what I meant by “very American”! And it IS fair play. The clues do matter and they help you identify the culprit. But I have to say his plotting was well done. I can’t believe you won’t give him credit for that. I’m willing to call out the strengths of even a mediocre book. I don’t think this is a masterpiece and I do agree much of it is really not funny. But his plotting was clever you ought to admit at least to that.

    My full review calls it “a mash-up of Christie and the Saw franchise”. Yes, it’s a parody not an homage. Yes, the motive is unreal. But the entire book is ludicrously unreal! Why must the murder motive be real? The more I read it I saw it more along he lines of Neil Simon’s Murder By Death — a fun movie, but largely very stupid and juvenile in its humor (“lionel Twain”, the Wang jokes, the bathroom humor, the low farce). I hinted that the exposition of the book is a chore to get through, that much of the humor was not funny. I think I was a lot more fair in my review because I was willing to see it for what it is, sort of surrender to its vulgar excesses and its sophomoric bathroom humor, and not wishing it to be something it had no intention of being.

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  7. Don’t get mad, John! I re-read my review and am willing to concede that it’s “unfair” in terms of my setting it against the criteria of classic mysteries and, most specifically, of Christie’s novel. That was how it was introduced to me in your comment over at JJ’s, and that’s how the book’s blurb described it. But of course, I understand it is a parody, not the real thing, and even there I’m happy to state that Van Lente worked on creating a “fair play” mystery. One clue I remember revealed a talent that the murderer had which sets us up for the big reveal. See, I was paying attention.

    I just didn’t like the book. I didn’t find it funny. Are the “routines” funnier than I thought? I have a feeling most comedy works better in performance than on the page, but I still wasn’t amused by the material I read. And I don’t take offense at your equating, both in your review and here, “American” with “base, vulgar, and tasteless.” Parts of Vegas are exactly that! Our President is BV&T! But it doesn’t work for me as a rule, and it doesn’t work here . . . for me! And that’s . . . okay.

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    1. Ok, my final words and responses for you since you did ask a question

      The only monologue that works is Janet Kahn’s anti-heckler tirade. I thought a lot of it was hilarious. I read it out loud to my partner Joe doing an awful impression of Joan Rivers and he thought it very funny, too. But maybe he was laughing at me and my less than skilled vocal impression. I still maintain that’s the funniest part of the book. Skipping over all of those sections was actually a wise decision on your part. Except for the last one with the improv guy. That turned out to be part of the story and helped explain the killer’s motive.

      For two years my brother worked as the company manager for Blue Man Group in the Orlando location. He used to tell me stories about all the Blue Man performers and techies, many of them acted and sounded like overgrown children. Of course theater is plagued with spoiled and temperamental personality types and when those types turned up in TEN DEAD COMEDIANS I thought the writer was right on target. Also being armed with the kind of inside dope on a real Blue Man Group company I found all the stuff about Orange Baby Man absolutely hysterical.

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      1. Only because you mentioned Blue Man Group again, John . . .

        I’ve been blessed with having many talented students over the years. One of the best is a guy named Peter who, after college, went to New York and got a job with Blue Man Group. He performed with several of the companies, including New York, and I had the good fortune of seeing him on tour. I am sure that there are many stories of egocentric actors and the odd idea that a play could become a franchise. I can only say that Peter got a great deal out of this group, including a regular salary, and it did help train him for doing some amazing performance work in New York today. This is not to negate your enjoyment of the parody in the book. I wasn’t offended by any of the takes on different comedians or types of comedy. I just wanted to offer a different take on Blue Man Group.

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