Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain

Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain (1934) is more than just a detective novel set in the theatre; an idea which many writers have employed notably Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer (1941) and Opening Night (1951), Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! (1937) and Simon Brett’s Murder Unprompted (1982). Before the novel begins, there is a printed playbill of the characters and in the structuring of the novel itself where every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger, the way a melodramatic play might close an act or a scene. The style of writing, which is often used to set up a location or a character can be likened to a play script, concise, sharp and crisp. Overall, the theatre motif and theme creates an artificial and unserious quality, which is reinforced by the consistent satire and humour.

Quick Curtain
Another great book cover chosen by the British Library, who have recently republished this novel.

 

 

The novel commences with a survey of the characters, unsurprisingly like the cast of play, big and minor parts included, ranging from the murder victim to three elderly fans waiting in the queue 3 days for a play to open. This play is called Blue Music and allows full range for Melville’s satirical comments as he describes the over the top sets and the inclusion of real camels. Nothing escapes the wit of the author, who worked in theatre as a producer, actor and playwright, covering everything from the characters whose baser qualities are exposed to the way theatres advertise, the quality of opening nights and the unprofessionalism of theatre critics.

AMPicture of Alan Melville looking as though he has seen something terribly amusing
http://history.buses.co.uk/history/fleethist/610am.htm

Murder quickly occurs ending chapter 1, with the main male lead, Mr Brandon Baker being shot for real instead of the planned sham shooting. Even more dramatically the man responsible for firing the dummy gun is found hanging in his dressing room. Murder is also a topic open to satire as Melville has one of the audience, who has seen the shooting say they are tired of seeing people shot, after having watched Journey’s End (1928) – a reference to the R. C. Sherriff play set in the trenches of WW1. The potential suspects are the people you expect in a theatre. There is Douglas B. Douglas, the big time theatre producer, Miss Gwen Astle, the female lead who has the usual colourful personal life, Ivor Watcyn, the author of Blue Music, Mr Foster, the unfortunate actor to fire the dummy gun and Herbert who is universal overworked stage manager who is on hand for every eventuality.
Our detectives for this novel are Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard and his son Derek who is a reporter. The humorous relationship this father and son share is one of the main strengths of the novel, as they try to undercut each other. Inspector Wilson on first appearance seems to fit the category of fictional sleuths which aim for their detectives to not look policeman like. In manner, he comes across as extremely polite and indifferent, yet in Melville’s style this is injected with humour such as when Inspector Wilson requests his son chalks the outline of the body. However, as the novel progresses individual quirks are revealed including a mild dose of literary quotation reciting on the part of Inspector Wilson (though not in the league of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen or Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey). In some respects Inspector Wilson reminds me of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn. Personally for me one of the funniest lines in the novel comes from Inspector Wilson who on asking for various items, has them provided for out of the seemingly endless pockets of Herbert, to which he says to Herbert ‘Positively a walking Woolworth’s aren’t you?’
The father and son detective team progresses through reconstructing the crime, attending both the funeral and the inquest. Again, bathos pervades as Melville shows the follies and vices of celebrity fans (a theme which seems even more pertinent today than the 1930s). More mysterious events follow as Miss Astle rings Inspector Wilson, asking him to call upon her flat, only for her flat to be in chaos and herself missing… The investigation’s focus then shifts to her disappearance, along with the suspicious behaviour of another. In keeping with the theatrical theme, Inspector Wilson deploys a dramatic technique for arresting his suspect, set within the bowels of  the theatre. The golden age trope of having the detective explain the crime to a small audience is also incorporated into the story. In a similar vein to the promise asked of audiences of Agatha Christie’s Mouse Trap (1952) I won’t divulge who did it. But what I will say is that the final chapter produces a flourish of unexpected twists which fit with what you have previously read in the book. However, for me, I think these twists needed to be further substantiated in order to produce a more satisfying ending.
For all those who enjoy comic detective novels, which don’t take themselves too seriously I would definitely recommend this tale and the humorous investigative style and dialogue of Inspector Wilson and Derek make this an enjoyable read.
Rating: 4/5
On an odd note, it seems Alan Melville made a big impression in Brighton, where he moved to in 1951, as it appears he has a bus named after him:

AMB

http://history.buses.co.uk/history/fleethist/610am.htm

19 comments

    • Hi Keishon, glad you enjoyed the review. I would definitely recommend this one, as a funny good read. Have you read Pamela Branch’s Lion in the Cellar, Joan Coggin’s Lady Lupin series or any of Craig Rice’s crime novels? They are also quite good detective/crime novels which have a lot of humour.

      Like

  1. Nice review, and thanks for picking up on the 1934 link – I’ll be including you in my round-up in the week. That bus is fantastic!

    (By the way were you at Bodies from the Library? I got Quick Curtain, plus a Frank Richardson in my goodie bag. Or is it just a coincidental?)

    Like

    • Thanks for including me in your roundup and yes that bus was an odd find on google images. Yeah I went to the Bodies from the Library conference (which was brilliant) and I did indeed get Quick Curtain along with The Mayfair Mystery by Frank Richardson which I’ve also reviewed on here.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m answering your question here since the thread ran out above -I enjoy translated crime fiction and Golden Age and go between the two. I love Jo Nesbo. He’s my absolute favorite translated author. Lately, I’ve been on a Patricia Highsmith kick and have read four of her novels this year. Meanwhile, I’m in discovery mode with reading more Golden Age writers like Sayers, Christie and others. I love Ed McBain, Robert B. Parker, Margaret Millar and others.

    Like

  3. Ah I didn’t realise threads ran out, I’m a little new to this. Think I have heard of/ read most of the authors you’ve mentioned, but I don’t think I’ve come across Jo Nesbo before. What sort of crime fiction does he write?

    Like

    • Sorry, didn’t see this comment til now. He writes police procedurals and is the best at it, in my most humble opinion. First book I read was Nemesis but most will tell you that you have to read them in order and if you’re a purist, you can start with The Bat (early, early work and not set in Oslo and published last) or you can start with The Redbreast which is set in Oslo and introduces a riveting subplot that goes on for three books. His books can be violent but that element is not put in for show and tell but that’s debatable I suppose.

      Like

  4. You might find this, which I just posted, with photographs, on the FB page of the Dorothy L Sayers Society, interesting:

    Coincidences upon coincidences….

    Am just starting on Edwin Greenwood’s “Pins and Needles”, positively reviewed by DLS in 1935. My copy appears to be a first edition.

    I peeked in the back of the book (carefully avoiding the end of the story!) to see whether there was a date anywhere suggesting when it was published , as there’s none in the front. (It’s maddening how so many of these books from early 20th-c. England simply include NO publishing date; plainly it wasn’t a priority.) Well, there wasn’t, but what I did come across was a 35-page catalogue of Skeffington’s publications (and now, upon a closer look, I see an indirect indication at least of this book’s issue date in the catalogue’s heading, “Skeffington’s; List of General Books and Novels by leading authors for SPRING, 1935”).

    Sayers makes an appearance in the catalogue. No, not one of her books, one of her reviews. An extract from her review of M. Doriel Hay’s “Murder Underground” caps the catalogue’s blurb on this one. I include a photo of it here.

    The review seemed so glowing, I wondered, “WHY didn’t I buy or at least hunt for THIS one when I ransacked ‘Taking Detective Stories Seriously’ [Martin Edwards’ miraculous compendium of Sayers’ 1933-35 reviews] for the crème de la crème? Hmmm….”

    So I went to my bookcase and took down TDSS, and found the full review, also shown here.

    As you see, Skeffington’s cited, naturally, only the glowing part!

    Browsing further in the catalogue, I noticed the one for Alan Melville’s “Quick Curtain,” also shown here. This one was remarkable to me because I happen to have JUST finished Ngaio Marsh’s “Light Thickens”, Marsh’s very last novel.

    Like “Quick Curtain” Marsh’s story gives us the leading actor’s more-or-less onstage death at the play’s climactic moment, AND the man from Scotland Yard happens to be in the audience that night (though it’s not, in contrast to Melville’s story, opening night), AND some of the audience is vaguely aware of what’s happened, PLUS a son is along to see the show and picks up on clues nobody else does…only in Marsh’s story the boy is the director’s son, not the inspector’s. PLUS, the question of re-casting (or closing) is essential to the story, AS is also a “re-play” of the pivotal moment, though in Marsh’s version it’s not a re-mounted performance for audience but a re-enactment for the investigation.

    Hmm…. Melville’s book came out in the mid-1930s, Marsh’s last work something like…30-40 years later?

    As you see in the photo, Skeffington’s doesn’t try to include even a positive-ish snippet from Sayers on this one!

    I thought, “Did Sayers review this one, too?” Looked it up in TDSS.

    Yep.

    Her surprisingly cold, dismissive review of “Quick Curtain” is on pp. 218-219.

    Sayers was not one to gratuitously abuse other writers, but the thing that seems, to me, to have most irked her was a writer disrespecting the reader, i.e., playing it too cute, sloppily cutting corners, wallowing in pretentious authorial “voice”, etc.

    From what Sayers says, Melville produced a murder mystery centered on the theater and Scotland Yard that served as little more than a polemical tract venting Melville’s contempt for the theater (including a number of its then prominent personages) and the police. All thinly disguised as “light entertainment.”

    Can’t you just *imagine* what an enchanting a story that made for….

    One can’t help wondering whether Ngaio, 1) read Melville’s book, 2) maybe read Sayers’ review, too, or at least came to similar conclusions, and, 3) very many years later said to herself, “Let’s just see whether I can do that story *right*….”

    Whatever the case, I think she did get it right.

    And now back to “Pins and Needles.” Greenwood’s sense of humor delights me, by the way. Right from page one.

    Like

    • Wow you’ve definitely done your homework!
      I wouldn’t agree with Sayers in thinking Melville was thinly hiding contempt for the theatre and police. The humour in the book doesn’t come across that way for me. It hasn’t got a nasty vibe to it. I would agree it is not his best work, as the mystery puzzle aspect has issues. However I would recommend reading Death of Anton in which humour and mystery are both brilliant.
      I’ve not read Marsh’s book. I’ve read many others by her and in the main not hugely enjoyed them. I find she sets her stories up well but it is then down hill from there. Inspector Alleyn has never floated my boat so to speak. I find him somewhat bland. I can’t say I have had similar issues with Melville.
      I’ve only read two titles by Greenwood – The Deadly Dowager and French Farce. The former was brilliant in its humour. The latter nearly made me throw up when it wasn’t boring me half to death. Hoping P&N is more like the former.

      Like

Leave a Reply to Kenneth Sears Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.