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.”