#408: Quick Curtain (1934) by Alan Melville

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In German there is schadenfreude, pleasure at the misfortune of others, which I believe is the intended response to Richard Hull’s Murder of My Aunt (1934).  I’m sorry to say that in reading it I experienced more the Spanish vergüenza ajena, that toe-curling horror of watching someone make a prat of themselves, and not in any sort of a good way.  But in order to (hopefully) prove that I’m not a humourless prig I’ve opted for another light, funny mystery with Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain (1934), having enjoyed but not really retained much of the similarly-republished Death of Anton (1936) from the British Library.

The theatre has always struck me as one of the most fitting places for a Golden Age novel of detection.  The closed circle, the conscious contrast of actors deliberately playing parts, the scope for hocussed props, the timing of entrances for a show adding an extra layer of complex clarity to the who-where-when elements of the detection…the country house may well be where the murder mystery was born and raised, but when it grows up it definitely runs away to join the theatre.  Derek Smith’s Come to Paddington Fair (c.1954) showed near-perfectly how to exploit the opportunities provided by the theatrical setting, Norman Berrow used the less glamorous backstage milieu to brilliant effect The Secret Dancer (1936), Kelley Roos’ debut Made Up to Kill (1940) wrung plenty of atmosphere out of a threadbare plot, and even The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) by Ellery Queen uses its space and the tensions therein smartly (right up to that massive cheat…no, let it go, JJ, c’mon…).

So Melville is in good company, and has chosen his setup well, and distinguishes himself with a comedic eye that is simultaneously waspish and warm, rebuking savagely and then rebounding with a smartness that catches you off guard, lambasting as much as it welcomes you with open arms.  Humour, it must be said, is very much Melville’s métier, as for a story about an actor shot on stage on opening night by a fellow thespian, said assailant then found having apparently hanged himself in remorse — a setup which Sayers would use to examine the Evil That Men Do — there’s a lot of very confidently and smoothly funny stuff in here.  Some of it is descriptive, like Mr John Hackett described as a “tall, thin man with a mustache which would have been mistaken for an error in shaving if it had been one hair less”, and some comes from dialogue, such as our detective Inspector Wilson’s reporter son’s lament:

“I rang up Miss Astle, bless her.  Unfortunately she’d been rung up earlier in the morning by the Morning Herald, the Daily News, the Daily Observer, the Morning Courier, and practically everyone else except the Christian Herald and the Feathered World.  All she said was, ‘Oh, go to hell!’ Just like that.  Crisply and snappily.  Not a bit lady-likely.  Not even leading-lady-likely.  But I made a half-column exclusive interview out of it, so it didn’t really matter.”

But if comedy is his calling, plotting is not.  It’s very breezy and jaunty, but the events herein do not really warrant the pages they’re given from a GAD perspective (note that ‘D’ — that’s sort of why we’re here).  For a start, it is rather too verbose.  Virtually nothing is allowed to happen without a lengthy, semi-screwball preamble detailing the history, tendencies, incidental interactions, and eventual plot-relevant occurrences of the person whose actions are being described, and it gets a trifle wearying to have an exciting development drop at the end of a chapter only to turn the page and read about it all developing from, say, the perspective of the postmistress who sends telegrams between the younger and elder Messrs. Wilson.  Melville should be commended for not simply giving us seventeen funny opening pages and then launching into a standard murder plot as so much “comic” GAD writing does, but equally the prevalence of humour over plot grinds a little as you realise, 200 pages in, how little actual plot there has been.

Similarly, the detection is…well, it isn’t.  Melville takes us through the crime, the investigation of the scene, the secondary crime, the funeral, the inquest — with the delightfully Dickensian-named Mr. Halliwell Ogle, coroner — an abduction, a (poorly-motivated) piece of suspect-chasing, and an eventual recreation of the crime without anything approaching a clue or a chain of reasoning.  There’s also a ton of physical evidence that goes unexamined and unremarked upon, and when it comes to redrawing the opening murder, hairy Aaron could it ever use a floorplan or three.  So as a tome filling in part of the history of detective fiction it finds itself significantly lacking.  But as a light, easy, and witty read you can do far worse for a few hours.  Which feels a bit like a back-handed compliment, but, in fairness, that’s all this really deserves.

~

See also

Simon @ Shiny New BooksConsidering how many novels were published during the Golden Age of detective fiction, it is curious how few have remained in print. I won’t say ‘stood the test of time’, because reprints like these demonstrate that plenty of the era’s books can stand the test of time. And I am going to go all out and say that Quick Curtain is the best detective novel I have read, after Agatha Christie’s. A big claim, yes, but deserved – this was a huge delight of a novel, and should never have gone out of print.

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!As entertaining as some of the comedic commentary can be though, there were times where I found myself wishing that the jokes were being made in service of the mystery itself. Often these asides seem to interrupt the story, a problem that becomes more frustrating as the story develops.  The lack of focus on developing the mystery and the investigation means that the case feels bland and underdeveloped. I felt that this was a deliberate choice on Melville’s part, especially in light of its ending, but I did not find it a particularly satisfying one. Some key developments seem to happen in spite of the actions of the main characters rather than resulting from their efforts and there is frustratingly little in the way of actual detection taking place.

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The 8 Mansion Murders from last week because the nominal detective involves a family member in finding the solution to the crime.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category During a performance of any sort.

25 thoughts on “#408: Quick Curtain (1934) by Alan Melville

  1. I had a feeling you wouldn’t enjoy this one as much as I did, but I would say we’re both in agreement with the superior quality of Death at Anton. It would be interesting to see if he returns to the conventional detective mystery in any of his other novels. Thrackley is more of a thriller, whilst Warning to Critics is an inverted mystery, so that just leaves The Vicar in Hell and the 11-27 – surely the latter must be involving a train timetable of some sort? lol

    • I think I’d need to be reassured of the detection content before picking up any more Melville. Sure, he’s witty, but witty wears increasingly thin where plot is concerned, and the verbosity of this became a chore the more it wore on (and on and on…).

      Give me clues, man! Give me scheme! Give me something to get my teeth into, and begone with these trenchant trifles!

  2. Thanks for quoting my review – we seem to be in agreement on this one. I found reading it to be very diverting and enjoyable but it fails to deliver on the fundamentals of a detective story.

    • It’s a good one, perhaps, for those people who have not read much in the genre — like Death of Anton in that regard — but this series, and recent reprints in general, allows anyone with some mileage behind them to pick up something more challenging and rigorous from a crime and detection perspective. And at least I managed to prove to myself that I do have a sense of humour, and it’s Richard Hull’s fault I didn’t find his book funny or entertaining 🙂

  3. I have this and Anton from the BL but, naturally, haven’t read either one yet. Comments I’d seen elsewhere led me to suspect the detection aspect is slighter but, personally, that’s not a deal breaker for me, and I do realize that sounds odd when discussing a detective story. Still, a good and entertaining piece of writing that features some detection can work fine for me so long as I’m in the right mood and know what to expect.

    • I, too, am a fan of mixing up the precise ingredients of my reading, and there are undoubtedly times when something a bit lighter and more frivolous fits the bill. It was lovely to be able to dive into and tear through this after the sludge of Muder of My Aunt, and I was definitely in the mood for something to just blast away a few cobwebs, so it worked on that level. I guess the rating is merely trying to put it in a context-free position, hey, and evaluate it against everything else I’ve ever read — no mean feat!

      But for all its flaws, go in expecting a light, fluffy, and proceedure-free time and you’ll have a blast.

      • Yeah, that’s essentially the impression I got from what you’d written.
        On the Hull book, I was toying with picking it up for a time but always kept putting it off as some comments on it I’d seen had me thinking it might not be my thing entirely. I do have the same writer’s Excellent Intentions, which appears to be more highly regarded.

  4. I listened to this story on Audible, and honestly, I quite liked it. That may be due to the fact that I listened to it while driving to and from work, possibly not giving it my full attention. I loved the relationship between the Chief Inspector and his son. I also loved the telegram business. I’ve already listened to it twice, and I now want to listen to it again.

    • Yeah, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, Elizabeth — it’s the perfect thing for audiobooking because you can do and concentrate on other things while it happens around you, and catches you with a steady supply of witty observations and dry asides. It’s not quite suited to the level of, for want of a better word, concentration that reading requires, because it’s easy to pick aaprt when all you have is the book to concentrate on.

      Now you’ve got me thinking — I’d’ve enjoyed this slightly more as an audibook, but are there books which would be less enjoyable if heard rather than read? It stands to reason there are, so I wonder if there’s a brilliant reading experience that a horrid listening one (performer idiosyncracies and listener preferences aside, of course…).

      • I have had my Audible account for many years and I can give an unqualified yes to that question! There are very bad performances that quite spoil a book for me. Also, there are books that I’ve read many times (Campion, for example) that I love but when I listen to the audiobook I can only get through the first chapter because IMO, the narrator is all wrong or just unpleasant to listen to. Now, Nadia May is one narrator that seemingly NEVER gets it wrong. I’ve loved everything that she has read.

  5. Shame this wasn’t a total goer for you, and it looks like Aidan had the same experience. You wont hear this often from me but Marsh’s book Enter a Murderer, which has the same premise of actor shot on stage is pretty great. Combines both the humour and detection well. I agree the theatre is a lovely setting for GAD. The Flying Stars by Chesterton uses a theatre set up perfectly in a meta way as well.

  6. I’d have said that the name that immediately should spring to mind when it comes to theatre mysteries was Ngaio Marsh, but then I remembered where I am.

    🙂

      • …I’d say “name one”, but then I’ll feel obliged to try her again and I’ll end up hating her again and it’ll be more of my life wasted. So don’t name one. Not yet, anyway.

    • It’s precisely the waste of the potential in her setups that frustrates me so much with Marsh. Well, that and the turgid writing. And middle-class superciliousness. And boring detective. But also the inability to appropriately exploit the theatrical stuff. Also that.

  7. The theatre has always struck me as one of the most fitting places for a Golden Age novel of detection.

    I totally agree. There’s nothing I look forward to more than the prospect of theatre people getting themselves murdered in grisly and imaginative ways!

  8. It just goes to prove that sometimes writers disappear into obscurity because they’re simply not very good. For every neglected gem out there awaiting rediscovery there is going to be at least one turkey.

    I’m always suspicious of comic detective novels. Writing a successful comic detective story is awesomely difficult. If it’s not done well the results are usually excruciating.

    • I’d wager that this is true of a comedic anything: comedy is such a personal thing, and films, books, TV shows, newspaper columns, social media accounts, all of the ways something can be deliberately funny are all open to accusations of missing the point, purely because comedy either lands or it doesn’t. Hell, even something that doesn’t have to have a strucutre or the trappings of any other expectations — for example, the work of most modern comedians — fails to land with me, so attmepting it with a novel of detection puts the writier on a hiding to nothing from the outset.

      And, man, I admire your optimism that the gems to turkey ratio is as high as 1:1 — what a world that would be to live in!

      • Actually, I may be lucky, or just set the bar lower, but I don’t really come across that many books I’d refer to a turkeys. Sure there are some which leave me bored and exasperated but I reckon they are few overall and the majority I’ve read did offer me something worthwhile after I’d spent whatever time I’d needed to read them – while certain aspects may not please me, I find it’s a rare book that hasn’t satisfied on any level.
        Mind you, I don’t think you were calling this a turkey, JJ. At least, that’s not the impression I came away with and you 3/5 rating doesn’t indicate it either – I’d have thought a single star, or none at all, would signal a dud.

        • Oh, this is far from a turkey — on its own terms it’s perfectly successful, and disappointing to me only because I usually hope for a more nuanced detection element in my reading.

          I’m like you, I usually manage to find something that a book does well, though I look over my records this year and find that nine books in 2018 have failed to fulfil even that basic requirement. I’m honestly not trying to find fault, I read so much because I want to enjoy what I spend my time and money on, bubt I’m sure I’m also filtering out many of the duds by a) picking slightly carefully, and b) sticking to genres that interest me. But for that filtering process, I’m sure a lot more duff books would get past my outer defences…

          • Yeah, I usually see positive elements mentioned by yourself even in those books which don’t always measure up for you, and that’s something I appreciate anyway.
            I think we all go through good and bad runs, and that filtering is necessary to halt the rot on occasion. I quite agree on the need to enjoy what one reads – the activity does cost in terms of money and time and we have a right to hope for a decent return on our investment. That’s why I try to avoid writers I know I’m unlikely to get on with – yes Sayers, I am indeed looking at you!

            • Dotty and I are edging ever-closer to some kind of accommodation, as I’m slowly gaining an appreciation of her writing through her short fiction (‘The Haunted Policeman’ in the BLCC Miraculous Mysteries collection, ‘Behind the Screen’ and ‘The Scoop’). It’s a way off still, I feel, but I’ll be ready to gird my loins for an assault on Have His Carcase at some point, hoping the impossible angle sustains me even if she resorts to her old tricks in the prose department.

              So, yeah, I feel your Sayers pain!

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