Death of Anton was one of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog and I gave it a glowing review. I was excited at the news that Quick Curtain would be released this month and the moment my copy arrived I set all my other books aside in favor of it.
The book begins at the opening night of a lavishly produced musical spectacular that a Scotland Yard detective and his journalist son happen to be attending. The play seems to be going well until a pivotal scene in which a character is supposed to be shot. The stage death turns out to be all too real and the play must be halted. Before he can be questioned the actor who fired the shot is discovered dead in his dressing room, apparently from suicide.
The initial assumption is that J. Hillary Foster shot Brandon Baker either deliberately or unwittingly, and then in a fit of remorse took his own life. Inspector Wilson takes a different view, suspecting foul play, and works with his son Derek to try to solve the case.
The first thing to say is that, to an even greater extent than with Death of Anton, Quick Curtain is written as an out-and-out comedy. Though it may adhere to the general structure of a detective story, the author’s primary purpose and source of amusement is in its satirical commentary on the theatrical and show business communities rather than constructing a clever crime and challenging the reader to solve it.
So, is it funny?
Obviously taste in comedy is very subjective and so I will dodge the question a little by saying that this is exactly the sort of material that will delight some readers while infuriating others. I personally fall into the earlier category, being rather partial to theatrical satire and there are certainly plenty of jabs made at producers, actors, landladies at theatrical digs and reviewers. Fans of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris will likely be in heaven as will anyone who enjoys irreverent banter in an interwar style.
The most successful material seems to fall in the first half of the book as Melville often throws in amusing character details and commentary in the process of introducing characters. I particularly enjoyed the outline he gives us of the career of the show’s producer, Mr. Douglas B. Douglas who is something of a master publicist and the introduction of the reviewer who pens his reviews before actually seeing the production.
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.
The father and son detective pairing are irreverent, continually riffing comically on the situations in which they find themselves. This dialogue can be amusing and clever but it causes issues of balance within the novel because it seems to minimize the importance of the investigation. Two years later in Death of Anton, Melville found a stronger approach by having his hero, Mr. Minto, take his investigation seriously in spite of some farcical events taking place around him. That provided a welcome contrast between comedy and mystery elements – here the former absolutely subsumes the latter.
The reader’s satisfaction therefore is likely going to come down to the manner in which they approach the novel. Those who come at it expecting something lighthearted and diverting are more likely to put it down satisfied than those hoping for a good puzzle mystery. Though the observations on aspects of theatrical life will leave some cold, I personally found them to be very enjoyable and felt that these observations and the quality of the theatrical satire was of a very high standard.
Unfortunately I cannot issue an enthusiastic recommendation in the manner I did for Death of Anton but nonetheless I did find the book to be an entertaining read and think it is worth a look for fans of comedic adventure stories. I am still looking forward to when Weekend at Thrackley, another Melville story, gets released as part of the British Library Crime Classics range next year and I hope that I will be more impressed with that effort.