After Death on the Cherwell, I have checked out a few more of the British Library’s Crime Classics series and Alan Melville‘s books really stand out among the bunch for the quality of their writing. Melville wrote a few crime novels in the 1930s before turning his hand to writing for the theatre and TV. He went on to appear as a panelist on various television programmes as well.
The first of his books that I read was Death of Anton and I have just finished Quick Curtain (1934), in which Melville satirises the theatrical world.
‘Don’t talk bunk!’ said Mr Douglas. ‘You can’t carry on with the show with a man dying on stage. Drop the curtain!’
When Douglas B. Douglas—leading light of the London theatre—premieres his new musical extravaganza, Blue Music, he is sure the packed house will be dazzled by the performance. What he couldn’t predict is the death of his star, Brandon Baker, on stage in the middle of Act 2. Soon another member of the cast is found dead, and it seems to be a straightforward case of murder followed by suicide.
Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard—who happens to be among the audience—soon discovers otherwise. Together with Derek, his journalist son, Wilson takes charge of proceedings in his own inimitable way. (see: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25571844-quick-curtain)
The plot of Quick Curtain is in many ways as slender as that of “Blue Music”, although I note that it predates Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer by a year in having an actor shot on stage with a real gun at the point when his character is meant to be killed in the play.
The introduction by Martin Edwards quotes a contemporary review by Dorothy L. Sayers, who thoroughly disapproved of Melville’s refusal to take the genre seriously. She exclaimed disgustedly that he is interested only in “light entertainment” and “a fig for procedure!” Sayers was quite correct – Quick Curtain isn’t even trying to be a police procedural, but despite her misgivings, it is all the better for that.
Melville was writing about a world he knew through and through, and this shows (contemporary readers apparently enjoyed spotting famous theatrical figures in the novel). Similarly, his talent for dialogue shines through (despite the usual period inability to convey the speech of the “lower orders”), particularly in the relationship between Inspector Wilson and his son. There are plenty of good one-liners and a wealth of witty description, which sometimes put me in mind even of the great P.G. Wodehouse. The whole thing is played for laughs, and it gets them. “Light entertainment” and “a fig for procedure!” it is, and I say hurrah for that.