Fest by Robert McCrum is both a murder story and pastiche on literary festivals. It probably succeeds better as the former. McCrum was the distinguished editor of Faber for many years and knows the publishing world intimately. The result was that the satire on literary festivals was rather inclusive and indulgent. You can imagine his literary friends saying x must be so and so whereas the average crime reader would be disinterested. Nonetheless, a literary festival provides an interesting and different backdrop to the cosy village of Jane Marple or the seaside villa often by a golf course that drew Poirot.
McCrum has constructed a clever mystery of the death of an acerbic critic where red herrings abound. The sleuth Francis Meadowes is a crime writer and, although one reviewer commented that it was unlikely the police or suspects would tolerate his intrusion, when did reality creep into detective fiction? McCrum at any rate does his homework on police procedures and the book, as well as drawing on his obvious publishing knowledge, is well researched on magic mushrooms for example. The setting Mold is clearly Hay and the victim has much to say on the celebrity culture he wishes to unmask. The big literary beasts – Faulks, Barnes etc. – are all there.
One of the oddities is that, for a man steeped in editing, his own prose style is rather clunky. He adopts a 70s hip argot. The frequent reference to ‘scenes’ and the drug-related world seems rather dated, as if McCrum could describe that ‘scene’ 40 years ago at university where I knew him, but not a more contemporary one.
Although I guessed the murderer through various clues, McCrum maintains the suspense right down to the end. Detective fiction is generally underrated by reviewers, normally parked somewhere under crime, but it’s actually quite hard to plot a murder convincingly and if you can do so the reader will forgive weak characters and dialogue, as Agatha Christie has shown. It was interesting that McCrum, despite his reputation and presence, had to self -publish but he received ubiquitous reviews, most of them complimentary, so he probably has a deserved winner on his hands.