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.
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.
Picture of Alan Melville looking as though he has seen something terribly amusing
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.
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: