This is the second novel Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon wrote together and is a sequel to A Bullet in the Ballet (1937). In America it was published under the title, Murder a la Stroganoff. Brahms real name was Doris Caroline Abrahams and she worked as a journalist. She met Simon, a Russian student from Manchuria, at the student digs her mother ran. Later in her life Brahms commented on this partnership discussing how the detection and love scenes were written by Simon, whilst the ballet scenes were hers. Shortly after they first submitted this follow up novel to their publishers, they had to choose a new murderer and rearrange the clues and red herrings, as when their publisher started reading the first few pages they guessed who had done the crime straight away. Oh dear! Contemporary reviews of the novel focused on the humour of the work and Brahms and Simon would go on to write 10 more novels together, with only one of these being part of the “Stroganoff series,” entitled 6 Curtains for Stroganova (1948). Their collaboration was cut short by Simon’s early death in 1948. But in 1980 Brahms published Stroganoff in Company, which was a collection of four short stories and one of these had been collaboratively written with Simon in the mid-1940s.
This story is set in the south of France, where Brahms holidayed a lot with her family. In a manner similar to Toad in Wind in the Willows, Stroganoff, (who is the owner of the ballet troupe in the first novel), buys a casino on an impulse, (as you do). He believes the money from the casino will fund his ballet troupe, but he soon realises that he has been swindled, as there is another casino in the area, owned by his business rival Lord Buttonhooke. This rivalry is part of the backdrop to the novel’s central murder, the murder of Citrolo, a critic who is far from being a fan of Stroganoff’s troupe. In fact on the night of Citrolo’s murder Stroganoff is trying to bribe him into writing a favourable review. When that doesn’t work he drugs Citrolo and writes a review in his name, leaving him to sleep off the effects of the drug overnight in his office. This backfires considerably on Stroganoff when he finds Citrolo strangled the next morning and given Stroganoff’s personality it is not surprising that the less than capable local police arrest him. Thankfully he has invited Inspector Quill, (who has recently retired from Scotland Yard), for a visit and it soon becomes Quill task to solve the mystery. We soon find out that Citrolo is an extensive blackmailer and that a whole rake of people secretly went to Stroganoff’s office on that fateful night. There are a number of other minor crimes being perpetrated in the novel, which intertwine with the murder. Suffice to say Quill is an island of sanity in the sea of mad behaviour exhibited by those around him.
I’m glad to say that this novel is a much stronger effort by Brahms and Simon. The comedy elements work more effectively and like Ianthe Jerrold they indulge in some humour over the Watson character, saying of Quill’s less than helpful Watson that ‘he interrupted far too often and he did not say ‘wonderful’ once.’ There is also an entertaining romantic comedy element too. Perhaps more importantly for us mystery fans the investigation into the murder is better put together than in Brahms and Simon’s debut novel. This mystery is technically a locked room mystery, but this story is not worth reading for that aspect solely, as it is a rather minor facet. This is a story to read for its locale, characterisation and writing style. Citrolo makes for an interesting victim, as in a little book detailing his blackmailing work, he also has a treatise on blackmail, which attempts to promote it and de-criminalise it. Watching Quill investigate outside the confines of Scotland Yard is quite intriguing as he no longer has a boss dictating what he does and in particular I think he handles information differently, acting more unconventionally. So if you enjoy the ballet and are in the mood for a fun/not very serious crime novel then this one might be for you.
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