So Much Blood by Simon Brett

Originally published in 1976
Charles Paris #2
Preceded by Cast, in Order of Disappearance
Followed by Star Trap

Appearing in his own one-man show on Thomas Hood at the Edinburgh Festival, middle-aged actor Charles Paris finds himself falling for a gorgeous young girl with navy-blue eyes. He also finds himself being dragged into a complex murder investigation involving the death of a fading pop star, a bomb scare in Holyrood Palace and a suicide leap from the top of the Rock.

It had been a few years since I last read a Charles Paris mystery so, inspired by having recently binged several of the radio adaptations starring Bill Nighy, I decided to keep going in order and pick with the second in the series – So Much Blood.

I had read the novel a little more than a decade ago during a period where I was rediscovering my love of the genre. I happened to pick up one of the books (this was one of the earliest, if not the first I read) by chance when looking for something quick and easy to read during a lunch break and soon found myself tracking down all of the others. The books even led me to write some of my first reviews of mystery fiction as I wrote up my thoughts on each of the books on Shelfari. Sadly I never kept copies of them elsewhere so I can’t say with any great confidence how I originally received this.

So Much Blood finds Charles heading to the Edinburgh festival fringe where he is to perform his one-man show about the poet and humorist Thomas Hood. As a last-minute stand-in, he has been set up with lodgings along with many of the performers from the Derby University Dramatic Society who are preparing for their own show, Mary, Queen of Sots.

During the rehearsals however calamity strikes when during the stabbing of Rizzio one of the prop knives turns out to be all too real and effective. The victim is a former pop star who in addition to playing the play’s murder victim has composed the music for the production. While the death appears to be a tragic accident, Charles becomes suspicious when he learns of a previous accident on set and decides to flex his investigative muscles…

While I am unsure how I originally received this book, one thing I am certain of is that I came to this with a greater appreciation of some of the references made than I had the first time around. Part of the reason for this is that I recently read Denise Mina’s novella Rizzio which explores that crime (the murder of Mary Queen of Scots’ secretary), helping me better understand some of the historical references made here. The other is that after reading the book the first time I took the opportunity to read some of Hood’s work, giving me a better sense of that much-discussed figure. Though I think you can follow the book without that background, having it made for a richer and more satisfying experience overall.

What impressed me most however is the conceit of the murder in which an actor is killed in circumstances that seem to mirror those of the character he was playing. The unexpected and unwitting murder feels quite shocking, in part because it comes so suddenly and because Brett takes the time to treat the moment seriously, exploring the psychological impact that inadvertently stabbing someone might have on a young person. Though the book is still first and foremost intended to be a comical work, this more emotional material is both powerful and effective while also allowing the novel to play with the ambiguity of whether it was a murder or simply a tragic accident.

Brett does a wonderful job both in conveying a sense of Edinburgh during the busy festival season and also of the amateur, student actor dreaming of turning their passion into a career. He seems to have a really good grip both on the setting and also the type of characters he wants to use to tell that story and while I have some issues with the way a couple of them are used in the story, I was struck by how convincing they were.

Several characters, beside Paris himself and his long-suffering wife Frances, particularly stood out as interesting to me. One, the former owner of the digs where Charles is staying, makes an impression for being so different from most of the other characters in the story and I enjoyed the friendship he forms with him over the course of the adventure.

The other that really stood out to me was the young actress Anna, who Charles quickly shows an interest in and pursues. I have mixed feelings about these scenes which are rather reflective of the period in which the book was written. I think we are meant to read that relationship as sweet and enlivening, at least at first, but there is something rather uncomfortable about the size of that age gap (previous blurbs played up the desirability of her youth) and power relationship between the two. Brett does end up acknowledging and exploring that a little towards the end of the novel, reflecting on Paris’ feelings about her and the relationship, but I wouldn’t blame those who feel uncomfortable with some passages prior to that.

The investigation itself though is superb and stands out to me as one of the best puzzles Brett created for the series. As an amateur with no really applicable skills, Charles tends to rather bungle his way through a mystery, accusing almost every character in turn of the crime. Here he certainly makes his fair share of missteps and poor judgements but he sets about this case quite logically. Though he may struggle to get to the correct solution, the reader is given pretty much everything they need to explain what happened and why. Those answers largely satisfy and while I think the killer will likely not be too tough for seasoned mystery readers to identify, I think the manner of the reveal and the way it plays out are both memorable and satisfying.

My only disappointment, other than the occasional ‘of its time’ moment, are that I think the attempt to draw a few recurring characters into the action feel a little too self-conscious. One in particular seems like an unlikely coincidence, though I understand and appreciate the effect it has on Charles and I would have missed that character. The other, while generating some humorous commentary about unethical billing practices, doesn’t do much and so feels rather redundant to the investigation overall.

Beyond those issues however, I found the book to be rather engaging and entertaining. In terms purely of the quality of the puzzle, I would place this among the author’s best efforts.

The Verdict: Though not perfect, the puzzle is broadly satisfying and I would suggest that this is the best the series has to offer.

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