Cast in Order of Disappearance by Simon Brett
Originally Published 1975
Charles Paris #1
Followed by So Much Blood
Who killed Marius Steen, the theatrical tycoon with a fortune to leave his young mistress Jacqui? And who killed Bill Sweet, the shady blackmailer with a supply of compromising photographs? Charles Paris, a middle-aged actor who keeps going on booze and women, takes to detection, by assuming a variety of roles, among them that of a Scotland Yard Detective-Sergeant, and the results are both comic and dramatic. As the mythical McWhirter of the Yard, he actually precipitates the crime; as one of the blackmailer’s victims, he finds himself in bed with the blackmailer’s wife; as a small-part player in a horror film (The Zombie Walks), he gets shot at by a murderer. And he arrives at the solution by way of the petrol crisis and an abortive attack of the German measles. It’s a light-hearted frolic that is, at the same time, a beautifully ingenious puzzle, and it fizzes with fun and wit.
Today’s review is perhaps a little overdue. I suppose that in a very literal sense it is overdue because I had meant to post it on Monday. Another self-imposed deadline missed. Whoops. What I really mean to say however is that Brett and his actor sleuth, Charles Paris, were really significant figures in my own development as a crime fiction fan.
I do not intend to dwell too much on my own history but I first wrote about these books well over a decade ago. It was in the early days of Shelfari and those reviews were really the first time I had ever written about mystery novels. I suspect that those reviews were light on any sort of deep analysis but I remember them and the work I did to track down copies of each of the books very fondly.
The book introduces us to Charles Paris, an actor whose career has been met with only moderate success. Work is irregular and several of the actors he came up with have gone on to greater things while he plays bit parts in largely underwhelming productions. He drinks too heavily, has separated from his long-suffering (and far more practical) wife and lives in dreary theatrical digs.
In the later novels in the series Charles can come over as a rather melancholy or depressing figure and certainly this novel has its moments in which he reflects on his aging and some of the disappointments in his life (and, perhaps more poignantly, the ways he has disappointed others). Brett however uses those moments to enhance the comedic developments in the story and while Charles certainly has his faults, he compares pretty favorably with all the other showbiz characters he encounters.
Charles Paris is not, on the face of it, a natural sleuth. He is not particularly inquisitive, nor does he possess much specialist knowledge. What he is able to use however is his aptitude for disguises and his gossippy show business contacts to get access to the main figures and learn more about the case.
Back in 2011 when the other books in this series were much fresher in my mind I did describe this plot as one of the best of the then-17 Paris titles. I would stand by that statement today. The reason that I think it mostly works is that Brett designs a story that is predicated on a relatively small number of points of interest. The case is not overly complex and we are not asked to find it credible that Charles would be trying to manage a murder investigation on his own. In fact for much of the book he isn’t really investigating anything definite – he is just trying to reach out to someone.
The person Charles is seeking out is Marius Steen, a showbiz tycoon who was involved with one of his ex-girlfriends. She had approached Charles when he suddenly disappeared, asking him to make contact with Marius on her behalf. She worries that he may be avoiding her because of a scandal that is building about sex parties that they attended together and wants Charles to reassure him that she is not involved in any blackmail attempts.
Eventually a body turns up but even at that point Charles’ interest is less to do with finding the truth and more to do with protecting a friend. This not only gives him a credible motivation, it helps to limit the scope of the investigation to areas Charles could conceivably handle on his own. The case presents several intriguing developments and while I think there is a twist that is not wholly original, I do think it is executed very well.
One of the aspects of this book that I was far more conscious of when reading it this time around are the fairly frank references to the sexual excesses of show business in the seventies. While I think revelations in the past five years have raised awareness of some of the abuses that took place in the film and television industries, it is still a little shocking to read a character casually referencing losing their virginity at twelve to a man several decades older than her because of his status in the industry.
As distasteful as that world can be, I think Brett does an excellent job of portraying it here. It is not just the descriptions of the work itself but the little details of interacting with other actors and directors that help bring the setting to life. These figures feel well-observed and while some of the concerns they voice may be rooted in a particular time (the 80% tax bracket gets several mentions), I recognized the types easily enough.
The other aspect of the book that really struck me was that while the key elements are all in place, neither his agent Maurice or his estranged wife Frances play significant roles in the story. This is a shame as I think Charles is always entertaining when exasperated by his ineffectual agent and humanized by Frances but it is clear that the general idea behind both characters was in place already at this point. Later novels in the series would capitalize on this a little more successfully.
I will say however that as much as I enjoy this book, I found the radio adaptation to be even more satisfying. That partly reflects the softening of Charles’ character, the general affability of Bill Nighy and a greater role for several recurring supporting characters. It does a good job of updating the cultural references too while retaining the core of the plot. It does perhaps lack some of the tension of the novel, particularly in the final quarter of the book, but I think that some of those dramatic moments aids with the piece’s credibility while I think more of the jokes land.
While it is not perfect and several elements feel of their time, Cast, in Order of Disappearance is an entertaining and clever read. Paris is an interesting if not always likeable protagonist and I think Brett does a really skillful job of presenting him as a credible sleuth. Revisiting this, it is easy to see why the character has enjoyed this longevity and why forty-five years later he continues to solve mysteries (though I will leave the issue of his age and continuity discrepancies for another day).