quick curtain“Mr René Gasnier’s bald pate loomed suddenly over the rail of the orchestra pit.”

After a very stress-free long weekend in Cambridge (in which I inexplicably managed to walk just under forty miles in four days), I have returned. What with all the walking, less reading was done than I would’ve liked, but hey, sometimes you need a break from everything. Fortunately, I did manage to get in Quick Curtain, another one of the forgotten masterpieces from the Golden Age of Murder that are being rediscovered and republished by the British Library. Having made my way through The Sussex Downs Murder and Antidote To Venom, I was hoping that this one would also prove to be just as wonderful in these modern times.

The story begins on the opening night of Blue Music, a Douglas B. Douglas production, he being the greatest musical producer in history, with a wonderful mastery of publicity. The show has been hyped for months and he’s got a great writer, a great cast, some great songs, and everyone in London is desperate to get their hands on tickets. On opening night, it seems to be going smoothly until the opening of the second act, when the lead, Brandon Baker, is shot dead by a fellow actor by what is thought to have been a prop gun. The show is cancelled, refunds are offered, and Inspector Wilson, a policeman who happens  to be in the audience, springs into action, accompanied by his journalist son, Derek. When the killer is found dead, hanging from the ceiling of his dressing room, it seems like it was a clear case of murder-suicide.

But Inspector Wilson isn’t so sure. The bullet hole in the wall doesn’t seem to match up with the one fired on stage; there’s no apparent motive for the killer to have struck; and how would anyone have the nerve to commit murder in front of a packed theatre? The Wilsons set about trying to solve the case, aided by the cast and crew of the production. Things aren’t as simple as they first appeared.

Predominately, this book is hilarious. It’s not often a book makes me genuinely laugh out loud, but this one did several times over. The bickering Wilson father-son duo are great, the elder constantly exasperated by the junior, particularly regarding his continued use of new-fangled American slang. The book is also a satire of many personalities in the theatre industry. I’m sure that in the 1930s, they were parodying specific people, but those details are lost now. Instead we just have promiscuous actors, hysterical chorus girls and critics who don’t even bother attending the shows before they write the reviews.

Melville is chatty in his style, as if you’re the only person he’s talking to, and seems happy to pepper the narrative with jokes of his own, as well as from the lips of the characters. At one point midway through he reintroduces a character we haven’t seen for a while and insists on recapping who the man is because readers famously have appalling memories, apparently. It feels rather modern, and while one thinks that by now they might’ve seen all the tricks that a murder mystery can throw at them, sometimes there’s still room for surprises.

Inspector Wilson seems also a parody of detectives in these stories, as he’s never hampered by a superior, and seems to be just left to get on with police work as he’s defined it. Perhaps it’s all a bit unbelievable, but who cares, really? It’s a fun romp, and full of great characters, not least Inspector Wilson. His son, Derek, is great fun and hugely sarcastic, and I especially enjoy Miss Prune, the owner of a small village post office who becomes the conduit through which strange telegrams are sent between the Wilsons. She is every gossipy busybody you’ve ever heard of in a small village, and becomes almost sick with excitement that something strange is going on and she’s part of it.

The British Library is doing an enormous service to the literary world by bringing these books from the past and into modernity. Much as I love Christie, she was by no means the only one busy with crime at this time, and it’s great to see her contemporaries finally getting some recognition too.

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