Close-Up On Death begins with stage actress Millie Hale arriving at a house she has arranged to view with her best friend, the popular and talented TV actress Liza Drew, only to find her lying dead on the floor, her mouth eaten away with acid (this sounds grizzly but the descriptions of said damage are thankfully minimal).
The initial appearance of the body suggests suicide although the circumstances are confusing but when an autopsy reveals that the damage was administered after death it becomes clear that Liza Drew was murdered. The problem is understanding who might have had a reason to kill her, particularly when everyone keeps asserting that she was loved by everyone who knew her and worked with her.
The investigation soon focuses on three individuals, all of whom were closely linked with Liza. Her best friend, her boyfriend and her mother. Each of the three had the opportunity to kill Liza but the stumbling block is understanding exactly why.
Maureen O’Brien decides to present her story from the perspective of that best friend, Millie. This is an interesting choice, in part because it puts a little more distance between the reader and the investigation, but also because it allows us entry into her mind, understanding how the case affects her and also giving us additional insight into her personality and allowing the author to focus on how a murder affects the lives of the people around the victim.
I think each of the main characters in the book are interesting and complex, each changing as a result of the murder investigation, but Millie has the most complicated journey, in part because the death of Liza has a material effect on her career. Pushed into the spotlight when the media hounds her, she finds herself responding unexpectedly to that pressure and this results in some opportunities opening up for her.
One of the most appealing aspects of the novel is the way O’Brien fills her story with details about what it is like to work as an actor. Clearly drawing on some of her own experiences, she not only captures the factual details but what it feels like to live that life. An example that is likely to stick with me is Millie’s comparison of the way backstage people treat you when working on the stage as opposed to the way a star might be handled on television. It makes for fascinating reading that feels grounded in real, personal observation.
I think it is also important to say that those theatrical themes and details are not treated as dressing but are actually as important to this story as catching a killer. O’Brien ruminates on the nature of success as an actor, the idea of the public and the private persona and the casting process and while those moments sometimes impact on the mystery narrative, they are also interesting explorations of theme in their own right.
The sleuth, Inspector John Bright, is an interesting creation, in part because O’Brien chooses to present him in a highly antagonistic manner. He agitates, irritates and manipulates the three suspects, trying to break apart their support networks to try and make them more vulnerable to his influence. For much of the book he is far from likeable, particularly given we see him through Millie’s eyes and she tends to dehumanize him, referring to him as “knife blade” for most of the novel.
What makes him so compelling is that his method is shown to work. His actions destabilize the relationships between the group, twisting and turning them against each other as he acts the provocateur. It is fascinating to see how he achieves this, to see the effects it has on their lives and how unrepentant he is about the damage he does. He has a job to do and he will cheerily do it.
The choice to keep him in the background, albeit as a lurking and threatening presence, for much of the story is similarly pretty interesting. Some of the comments I have read about the book question why it is billed as the first Inspector Bright novel when he is not the protagonist but I think the point is that he is always affecting the characters, even when he is not present in a scene.
It ought to be said that the approach to solving this case is principally psychological. There are no problems of alibis to sort out – we learn very early on that all three suspects cannot prove their stories – and the means of death is similarly clear. The question becomes understanding which of these three people would have committed that crime and how they could have done so given everyone’s insistence that Liza Drew was sweet and had no enemies. Puzzle-focused readers may be frustrated with this approach but I found that to be a compelling problem to try and solve.
This brings me to the novel’s solution and here I must confess to having some mixed feelings. Let’s start with a positive – I think O’Brien’s exploration of the killer’s reasons and the choices they made makes a lot of sense both psychologically and practically. Those reasons are explained pretty clearly in the final chapters and I never had any difficulty accepting them.
On the flip side, I think while the story tries to maintain multiple suspects right to the end, I think the eventual solution comes to feel quite inevitable by the end because the other possibilities would not resolve some of the key themes of the novel. That, to me, dulls the surprise in the reveal.
How you view that ending will ultimately depend on whether your interest is purely in the puzzle or if you prefer a more thematic approach to your crime fiction. If you fall into the former group then it is likely you will be frustrated by the choices, particularly in the manner in which O’Brien reveals what had happened. She does this through a device that I think is a little clumsy, providing some finality and a sense of resolution that is not directly and deliberately prompted by the mechanism of the investigation.
When viewed the other way, looking at it in the context of the themes developed throughout the novel, I think it becomes a much more powerful ending. I personally fall into this second camp and with the exception of not liking the mechanism by which all is revealed, I felt satisfied by a conclusion that made sense and helped me understand exactly why that crime took place.
Overall I had a great time with this first Inspector Bright novel and I am certainly eager to read more of the series. I have already set to work tracking down a copy of Mask of Betrayal so expect thoughts on that at some point in the next month or two.