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.
Simon @ Shiny New Books: Considering 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.