No other genre of literature has been subject to as many strict rules as detective fiction in its “golden age” of the 1920s and 30s. Crime author Ronald Knox established 10 commandments for its mechanics and insisted that it should present “a mystery whose elements are clearly presented at an early stage in the proceedings”. Jorge Luis Borges and WH Auden came up with their own formulae, the latter with an elaborate Aristotelian analysis in his essay The Guilty Vicarage.
The world of the classical whodunnit is one of order, repression and good manners, which is why it was so successful among the English middle classes as a place to explore shocking subconscious desires. And there is plenty épater les bourgeois in Alex Pavesi’s first novel Eight Detectives. A set of seven golden age-style mysteries with an abundance of brutal slayings in genteel surroundings are rendered in a heightened pastiche of the form. These are nested within a greater narrative where their fictional author, Grant McAllister, discusses his own set of rules for the detective story with an editor, which leads to an eighth murder mystery.
This metafictional conceit has much potential, but Pavesi doesn’t quite pull it off. Much is made of his author’s theories, but they seem rather banal and offer no real or relevant challenges to the protagonists. And Pavesi himself breaks the golden rule of the form by concealing much crucial information until the last minute.
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As homage, the stories are entertaining enough, and at times capture the deadpan surreality of the early 20th-century whodunnit. Victims are dispatched by absurdly gruesome methods – at one point a detachable fork tine proves fatal. But Pavesi lacks that delicate precision needed to construct a true mystery as accomplished as any classics of the period. The golden age was characterised by a formal elegance, in a mathematical as well as literary sense: the denouement should be like a balanced equation with the reader able to follow the workings of the puzzle. Instead we are led into a series of confused twists that don’t seem to rely on any clues given to us early on, so we are effectively locked out of the game. In their day the masters of the form could produce exquisite labyrinths to astound and engage the reader in equal measure. Eight Detectives is a bit of a clumsy maze in comparison.
• Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi is published by Michael Joseph (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply