#997: “Actors never betray themselves…” – Final Acts: Theatrical Mysteries [ss] (2022) ed. Martin Edwards

I tend to read multi-author anthologies over — if I’m honest — a couple of months, to better ameliorate the often wild changes in style and content of each tale. In recent times I’ve sped this process up, so that I’m able to review the annual Bodies from the Library (2018-present) collections on this very blog, so let’s see how I fare doing the same for the latest Martin Edwards-edited collection in the British Library Crime Classics range, eh?

I’ll confess, too, that I sometimes struggle to get going with these British Library collections on account of the stories being printed in chronological order, which often means one must fight through weaker earlier examples of a form before getting to the grit of the genre’s Golden Age. I’ve overcome that in this instance by simply not reading the stories in the order they’re printed — why didn’t I think of that before? — but shall review them in contents order for the purposes of clarity.

And so…

In fairness, the first story here is quite a good — albeit straightforward — one: ‘The Affair at the Novelty Theatre’ (1905) by Baroness Orczy being one of the stronger tales from The Case of Miss Elliott [ss] (1905). A renowned jeweller, having worked on a set of pearls for a famous actress, takes the pearls to their owner at the theatre where she is appearing in a play; she, due on stage, leaves the pearls in her dressing room and is then alerted at the end of her scene that the stage doorkeeper has interrupted someone trying to steal the pearls — the scoundrel dropping the jewels when makig his getaway. So far, so good. But, upon inspection, the pearls turn out to be forgeries! The jeweller pleads innocence, and puts up the price of the pearls to be paid to the actress should they not be recovered within a year…but where are the real pearls?

This benefits, as do most of the early stories featuring Orczy’s knot-obsessed untangler of crime the Old Man in the Corner, from a fairly slick pace and straightforward telling, and the eventual answer will please even if it doesn’t exactly surprise. What I find especially interesting is that this text shares a common error with the version I reviewed above: namely, the misuse of ‘fiancée‘ when referring to Mr. Howard Dennis, the affianced of the Miss Phyllis Morgan, the actress in the piece. It doesn’t matter, it’s just interesting to note this story is simply taken as a ‘complete’ text and not proofread for such errors any more…or maybe I’m weird for finding that sort of thing interesting; decide for yourself.

‘The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel’ (1917) by A.E.W. Mason, however, represents everything that I struggle with when it comes to older stories: it is too long (56 pages in this edition), too slow, too repetitious, and contains too little of interest beyond the possibility that a man may have hallucinated the beautiful young woman who, intending to steal a string of pearls from a rich hotel guest, finds herself caught up in a murder plot…and even this is dismissed too quickly.

I’ve struggled with two of Mason’s novels — At the Villa Rose (1910) and The House of the Arrow (1924) — and must now, given this third thoroughly underwhelming experience, categorise Mason by his own words: to be looked at “with disfavour, as upon one who had half opened a door upon a theatre of great promise and shown [me] a spectacle not up to the mark”. Some of you will howl with rage at my cloddishness, I know, but the heart loves what the heart loves, and mine cannot be made to warm in Mason’s direction.

Nightclub entertainer Lalette is ‘The Dancing Girl’ (1926) encountered by Anthony Wynne‘s Dr. Eustace Hailey, a young woman “so pretty that you don’t know what to do”:

[She] aroused all sorts of emotions so quickly that they tumbled over one another until laughter, the laughter of children suddenly come to a Christmas fair with its bewilderment of attraction, was the only possible means of expression.

After witnessing a scene between a young suitor of Lalette’s and the wealthy Lord Rushmere, Hailey is surprised to be invited by Lady Rushmere to join her household for a weekend…only to find Lalette, Rushmere, and Michael Dale, the young suitor, in residence. And so begins a deceptively complex tale of who-told-what-to-whom as the various relationships and understandings thereof turn and turn about, with who Lalette might actually be changing at seemingly every encounter.

In essence this is a fun, if slightly confusingly-constructed, story, and best enjoyed without trying to think too closely about what everyone had been thinking prior to this weekend gathering. The one key clue doesn’t work — there wouldn’t be blood there — and I found Hailey a remarkably pompous and insufferable presence in such a short span of pages (“The vintage, he suspected, was the noble one of 1887…”), but the essential shape of this is pretty smart. However, if this does represent an example of some of the author’s “best work” as Edwards mentions in his introduction, I can safely lay Wynne aside and concentrate on other writers first.

“[Marguerite] Steen is not generally though of as a crime writer,” Edwards informs us in his introduction to ‘In View of the Audience’ (1934), and this tangentially-criminous story bears that reputation out. While adroitly written, with a firm handle on mood that shifts from lightly comedic to subtly sinister, I just think this type of story is very hard to write well: its delight residing less in an unexpected ending catching you by surprise than in the slow burn of an almost horror-esque anticipation of where it’s going. In that regard, it could be seen as very ahead of its time — it puts me in mind of the work of authors like Stanley Ellin some twenty years later — and I won’t deny enjoying Steen’s prose…

“I suppose, Mr. Brewster, you never by any chance happened to write a play?” The little man’s voice was apologetic, as though he felt that he was, merely by making the suggestion, attributing a wholly unjustifiable indiscretion to his unknown companion.

…but, for all that it does well, this simply didn’t work for me. I hope you fare better when you encounter it, though, because beyond simply personal taste I can find no real grounds on which to criticise it.

Having failed to appropriately rhapsodise about Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels, in recent years I’ve found her short fiction to be surprisingly to my liking. ‘Blood Sacrifice’ (1936) was Sayers’ contribution to the collection Six Against the Yard (1936), in which six authors wrote what they considered to be the perfect murder and retired Scotland Yard man Superintendent Cornish followed each story with a breakdown of how the perpetrators would be caught.

It always seemed to me that Sayers was the one author who didn’t quite meet the brief in that collection, because her murder of theatre impresario and leading man Mr. Garrick Drury — “Somerset House knew him as Obadiah Potts…” — is achieved by the intervention of sheer accident on not one but two occasions…and somehow that didn’t seem fair, y’know? Read in isolation, however, this flaw seems less telling, and the murderous intentions of playwright John Scales, whose morose anti-war polemic Bitter Laurel has been reshaped by Drury into a saccharine crowd-pleaser, come across more starkly. Plus, when not given enough space to become bombastic or start proselytising, Sayers really does write magnificently:

He felt as though, by saying this over and over again he might stifle something — something — some frightful thing within him that was asserting itself against his will.

So as well as enjoying this tremendously, I’ve found myself wanting to read Six Against the Yard again, too. Expect developments in the months ahead.

It’s wonderful that Edwards goes to the effort of including lesser-known names in these collections, but, as with Marguerite Steen above, it does mean that occasionally you get a story which — due to the author’s callowness in writing crime and detection — becomes frustrating for all the wrong reasons. Enter Brandon Fleming and ‘The Wrong Make-Up’ (1941) which posits the interesting notion of an actor found dead in his dressing room between acts of a play his face “disfigured by such a hideous, unmeaning, inhuman make-up, in which he could not possibly have gone on the stage in that play or any other” — so did the man make himself up thus before being murdered, or did his killer linger after the murder to apply facepaints in this way?

Alas, we get lots of creaking tropes, like our detective stooping to pick up and/or notice things not declared to the reader, and the solution when it comes makes a) the murder itself painfully plain if we’d only been told what clues there were and b) the make-up explanation ludicrous by resorting to an essential ‘drug unknown to science’ explanation that pushes this into the realm of fantasy. It’s 1941, for pity’s sake, the genre had developed significantly beyond these two devices by now, and if ever there was a reason for these dabblers to be forgotten Fleming has provided it here.

Having failed to find much in enjoy in my first encounter with Ernest Dudley‘s Doctor Morelle, ‘The Case of the Ventriloquist’s Doll’ (1944) reinforces my feelings that he’s little more than a series of cheap facsimiles of better characters knocked together for an easy pay day. Apparently an expert in medicine, science, psychoanalysis, jiu-jitsu, and crime-solving, Morelle is a Sherlockian also-ran even down to the condescending manner that lacks any of his illustrious forebear’s charm:

“For once you have found the truth in the obvious — you are improving.”

The theft of the eponymous doll at least has about it one half-decent clue, and Dudley has a good line in the ego of the performer — a shame he lacks the insight to poke fun at the same in his sleuth — but this is minor stuff, leavened only by the moment it seems to turn into a Harry Potter fan fiction (“Desist, Voxio!”).

Playwright James Annixter comes up with a scenario for the perfect stage murder — “How was Cynthia stabbed in that windowless room into which she had locked and bolted herself? How did the killer get to her? How was it done?” — gets drunk, is hit by a taxi, and then wakes up in hospital remembering every detail of his play except the solution. ‘The Blind Spot’ (1945) by Barry Perowne takes this fairly typical setup and manages to run with in in a manner that really leans into the style of crime writing that was going to start predominating the genre in the decades ahead — shades of Stanley Ellin again, this time ‘Unreasonable Doubt’ (1958) — to great effect. To say much more would spoil it, and, while I can’t quite agree with Otto Penzler that this is “one of the most ingenious stories ever written”, you’ll have a lot of fun seeing both where this ends up and how it gets there.

You could hardly have a collection of theatrical mysteries without including Ngaio Marsh,given her close involvement with the stage during her lifetime, but ‘I Can Find My Way Out’ (1946) does little to improve my opinion of her as a too busy writer trying to cram too much into too little space. Doubtless there’s an air of verisimilitude in the theatre as Roderick Alleyn is called in to establish how the drunken actor Canning Cumberland has been gassed in his locked dressing room, but, crucially, there’s no reason I can determine for Alleyn to suspect homicide instead of accident, and the investigation that follows his assertion of murder doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. I’ve read the explanation four times and can’t make head or tail of it, so I think I’ll just give Marsh and her reputation as one of the greats — I’ve been struggling through Scales of Justice (1955) for months now — a wide berth going forward.

I always thought that Roy Vickers‘ Department of Dead Ends — to which uncertain clues and cases with apparently no meaningful conclusion in sight get banished — was a wonderful conceit, but, upon reading the first collection, the freshness seemed to go out of the concept pretty quickly. ‘The Lady Who Laughed’ (1948) was the second story in that collection, but I didn’t remember it, and so reading about Lucien Spengrave — one the great tragi-comic actors of his time — and his plan to murder his wife (I should make clear that this is not a spoiler…) was effectively a new experience for me.

In many ways, this story highlights my feelings about Vickers and his fictional Department. He writes some superb individual sentences (“When he began painting he attracted a great deal of attention but very few cheques.”) and communicates the characteristics of his cast very well, not least here in his examination of why Spengrave’s centuries-old clowning act goes over so remuneratively with modern audiences (“The grey-white idiot face of the clown could flash into a disconcerting sensitiveness that gave a new tang to poltroonery.”). The murder scheme, too, is pleasingly very intelligent, and the motivation behind these slaughterous thoughts communicated excellently. But the means by which Spengrave is caught and definitely decided guilty fail to really convince, and so it leaves a miasma of dissatisfaction behind.

But, as with the Sayers, this has got me wanting to re-examine the collection from whence it came, and as such it can’t have been an entirely bad experience. Wow, that’s faint praise even by my standards.

Three short tales as we approach the finale, with ‘The Thirteenth Knife’ (1950) by Bernard J. Farmer concerning the beautiful knife-thrower Simone and her betrothed, Jean La Morse, who poses as the “living target” in her act. When one of Simone’s many suitors makes overtures that Jean feels compelled to comment upon, it’s not long before the rejected, affronted Monsieur Canew takes steps to put Jean out of the picture for good.

This is too short to really cause any offence, but surely the final line reveal works the wrong way round. I…can’t say more than that except that it makes more sense to me if the revelation applied to Simone rather than Jean…and, even then, as addressed in what I think was a story by William Brittain (or it may have been Edmund Crispin…) it’s not like it wouldn’t…work completely, right? All told, this is too brief to really justify too much contemplation, and unsatisfying as a result.

Equally unsatisfying, and equally brief, is ‘Drink for an Actor’ (1950) by John Appleby. Two actors sharing a scene in a play pour out drinks for themselves, and one drops dead. This also surely doesn’t work because the killer would see the setup…differently…when poisoning the glasses, right? Some lovely turns of phrase aside…

Gloria Dailey had the lacquered look of one whose every public appearance may lead to a photograph in a shiny magazine.

…this again feels both like more explanation is needed and that a single word more would tip what’s supposed to be a lithe little puzzler — albeit, not a fair play one — into tedium. An odd line to walk two stories in a row, but here we are.

Again short, albeit to slightly more successful ends, is ‘Credit to William Shakespeare’ (1950) by Julian Symons. The chief problem I have here is that the killer — again poisoning someone on-stage, this time the actress playing Gertrude in Hamlet — couldn’t be sure whether or not a man who had just discovered his wife murdered in the middle of a show would continue acting and see the play out or, y’know, have the human reaction and stop everything in its tracks. The mind…boggles.

Bringing the curtain down is Christianna Brand with ‘After the Event’, a.k.a. ‘Rabbit Out of Hat’ (1958). Murder and Shakespeare again, this time the strangling of Glenda Croy, thorn in the side of the hugely-respected Dragon Theatre Company, whose marriage to leading man James Dragon has seen her limited talents fill all the lead roles…much to the chagrin of the company as a whole. With an American tour coming up, and Glenda seeking to manoeuvre her way into the role of Rosalind by foul means, she is strangled in a moment of passion…and the Dragon family rallies round to cover up the deed.

There’s a very clever inverted mystery in here, tucked into a tidy framing that sees the unnamed Great Detective who investigated the crime trying to tell his story to an audience while Brand’s Inspector Cockrill sits by and interrupts his flow like a “horrid little boy who knew how the tricks were done”. My biggest problem is that the telling feels so jumbled: there are one or two excellent reversals, but given that so much of Brand’s reveals come through the horrendously jumbled dialogue I found myself having to reread certain sections in order to figure out what I’d been told. Maybe it would have worked better if performed for you rather than relying on you to put the correct intonation on the key phrases…I dunno, but I’d be tempted to edit this a little — sacrilege! — so the reader realises the key moments more compellingly.

Nevertheless, it’s very clever, and once you work out what’s going on Brand still has a delightful trick up her sleeve that you definitely fell for and should totally have seen (even if the Great Detective can’t have known at least some of the information which makes the trick work…but no matter). A canny, neat, devious little tale to finish on, and yet more evidence that everyone would be better off with more Christianna Brand in their life.

The expected mixed bag, then, as collections of this nature tend to be, with the highlights unsurprisingly provided by Brand and Sayers who are already well-known in the genre, and for good reason. Only really the A.E.W. Mason story feels like it doesn’t belong, and as such this collection will prove a success whether the smell of greasepaint gets your heart pattering or not. I’m grateful to the British Library for providing me with a review copy, and I’m tempted to take this as my cue to revisit some of the earlier collections and read them non-chronologically to see if I might get a little more enjoyment out of them.

Expect developments…

21 thoughts on “#997: “Actors never betray themselves…” – Final Acts: Theatrical Mysteries [ss] (2022) ed. Martin Edwards

  1. First you let Lorac back into your good graces, and now Vickers returns down the same path. Would love to see if your revisiting the D of QC produces a similarly positive result.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought that, apart from his fine writing and carefully observed social milieu, Vickers’ genius is in reducing the role of the Great Detective almost to the point of parody to emphasize the Hand of Happenstance. Making that sort of randomness GAD-worthy–and these stories are, for me, in the very top rank–is his consistent cleverness in having no piece, beginning or ending, fall into place as one would expect.

    And, with your forewarning, I look forward to savoring that dose of Brandian cleverness, as well as revisiting Perowne’s exquisite tale-that-eats-its-own-tail.

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    • I definitely have some Vickers somewhere — probably as an ebook — and I’ll reread them in due course with your assessment in mind, because I think you’ve made an excellent point. For a lot of puzzle plotting, it’s necessary for things to play out in a very particular way, and Vickers seems to have a handle on a type of anti-puzzle plotting, if you will, for the precise reason you point out. With more of the genre under my belt than when I first encountered him, it’ll be interesting to see what I make of those stories with this in mind.

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      • Yes, it’s weird how those stories work best as a reaction to what they aren’t—“anti-puzzle plotting” sums it up perfectly. It’s also weird how I wire-crossed the Queer Complaints and Dead Ends departments. (BTW, all collections of the latter have seemed strong to me.)

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        • Yes, I saw the Q in your initialism and knew what had happened — easily done! And I promise I’ll give the Vickers I have a go in due course with this in mind…I’m fascinated to see what I make of them second time around now.

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  2. Wait, oh my God, the stories ARE collected chronologically… I never realized!

    Sorry to hear this one is such a mixed bag, it’s one I specifically asked Martin Edwards about. He told me to expect this collection, and I was pretty excited for it. What are some other theatrical mysteries you’d recommend for us uninitiated, Jim?

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    • Aidan over at Mysteries Ahoy posted awhile ago in his ‘five to try’ series on theatrical mysteries. The only one I have read in that list though is Derek Smith’s Come to Paddington Fair and that is a good one.

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      • I thought you’d both know I already Come to Paddington Fair. 😦 I liked it, but I did solve it in Jim’s DMs on Facebook before the murder was even discovered. 😛 I’ll check out the other four though!

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    • I don’t know if I can think of any especially excellent theatrical mysteries off the top of my head — except Come to Paddington Fair, which has already been recommended, and the far more modern (though GAD-set) The Opening Night Murders by James Scott Byrnside.

      I feel there must be some wonderful rip-snorting GAD mystery which has a wonderful time playing around with character and assumption thereof…but it eludes me if I’ve read it 🙂

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      • Don’t you remember, Jim? I solved CtPF in your Facebook DMs before the novel even began? 😛 I liked it a lot, but I felt like the central trick is kind of spoiled by the fact it exists in a detective novel. The only way to not see the solution is to accept that the coincidence of two unrelated crimes targeted at the same person at the same time can exist, and as soon as you accept there’s no coincidence it’s pretty easy to see what the gambit has to be. I liked it less on account of figuring it out immediately, but it uses my favorite gambit of all time so I give it a pass….

        I do need to read Byrnside’s stuff, thanks for reminding me!

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          • Oh, sorry! You said it in a way where I thought you were suggesting I read it, and forgot I’d already done so! You know, it might not be good for my chosen career path if my reading comprehension is this bad… 😛

            Well, thanks for the help anyway, Jim! Sorry to bother you!

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  3. Thanks for the post as I will give this one a miss given its uneven quality.

    I already have the Brand story in another collection, Buffet for Unwelcome Guests, and as you say, it’s excellent. I always wondered if Brand had been as prolific as Christie and Carr, would she be better known. Nevertheless, she is a favourite of mine and I am pleased to see that Suddenly at His Residence (aka The Crooked Wreath) will be re-printed next year by British Library Crime Classics.

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    • The re-emergence of Brand onto the bookshelves is a wonderful thing, because almost everything I’ve read by her is a treat in one way or another. An incredibly high standard is maintained throughout her work, she really deserves to be a far, far bigger name. And maybe the BL are making that happen at last…

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  4. As soon as you explained the concept of the collection, my first thought was that After the Event would be a perfect story to include. I read it in Buffet for Unwelcome Guests and enjoyed it quite a bit, although the quality of that collection is such that it’s one of the less memorable stories. Here it looks like it may have been one of the standouts.

    Have your read The Blind Spot Before? I read it this past year as part of Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries and absolutely loved it. If I recall, you have that collection and that is how you reviewed Murder in the Automat.

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    • I need to track down Buffet for Unwelcome Guests…though lord knows how,

      ‘The Blind Spot’ passed me by completely — see my comment above about reading multi-author anthologies over a protracted duration. I have that collection, but I’ve read at most four of the stories in it. Maybe I should put this new speed reading philosophy of mine to use and just read the whole thing from beginning to end.

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      • Unfortunately, copies of Buffet for Unwelcome Guests checking the usual sources range from $50 – $150 so pricey. I didn’t pay that much for mine a few years ago. It is a good collection if you can find it at a more reasonable price.

        Given Ben’s track record, likely he found one in mint condition for 50 cents somewhere 🙂

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        • Mysterious Press did an ebook a little while ago, but that was a US only version, I believe. The rest of us will just have to hope that the emergence of these Brand reprints in recent years means a full reprint of her work is on the cards…though I consider that pretty unlikely.

          And, yes, I hear Ben was actually paid to take away the pristine first edition he tripped over in the street one day.

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  5. I remember reading “After the Event” and really enjoying it.

    A shame that most of these stories don’t seem like my thing. I was looking forward to reading all of these anthologies, but I think I was spoiled by Silent Nights, which has a good set of mystery stories right at the end.

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