Sunday, August 25, 2019

Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain

Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain was published in 1934. William Melville Caverhill (1910-1983) had along and colourful career in the theatre, radio and television as an actor, producer, playwright and presenter. In the 30s he wrote a handful of successful detective novels under the name Alan Melville.

It all starts, fittingly, on opening night In this case the London opening night of a musical comedy spectacular from producer-impresario Douglas B. Douglas. In Act Two a brigand is supposed to threaten the hero with a revolver and then fire a single shot. The hero will suffer a slight flesh wound. It’s a dramatic moment but on this opening night it’s even more dramas that it was intended to be. Brandon Baker, playing the hero, suffers more than a flesh wound. The actor is shot dead on stage in front of two thousand people. Shortly thereafter the actor who fired the fatal shot, Hilary Foster, is found in his dressing room. He has hanged himself.

Luckily the opening audience includes Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard. Also in the audience is Wilson’s son, a newspaper reporter, who will function as Wilson’s sidekick.

Inspector Wilson has a theory about the gun. He also has a theory about the bullet fired from the gun. Unfortunately his theory is not quite compatible with the medical evidence presented at the inquest.

One odd thing about the inquest is that Brandon Baker’s widow was there. Brandon Baker’s widow was also at his funeral. But they were two different women.

There’s also the matter of the word written on the wallpaper in the leading lady’s flat.

Some of the action takes place in the theatre but much of it takes place in a small village in Buckinghamshire.

This is a comic detective novel. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. The problem is that it tries too hard to be funny, and it tries to be funny all the time. Sometimes it is funny but sometimes the humour is a bit forced. And sometimes it’s a bit wearying.

Still, there are plenty of things to like about theatrical murder mysteries. The idea of theatre people slaughtering each other is very appealing. And there’s the potential for interesting and offbeat murder methods. The first murder in this book has some potentially interesting angles although they’re not developed very much.

The main problem here is that the author is not interested in writing a detective novel. He’s interested in writing a witty satire, mostly a satire on the commercial theatre but also a satire on detective novels. His main interest in detective fiction is in making fun of it. That’s a generous explanation for the sketchiness and dullness of the plot. A less generous explanation would have been the common one of a writer from outside the genre thinking that writing detective novels is incredibly easy and then failing when it they try to write one.

It’s always irritating when you get to the end and the author pulls a rabbit out of a hat. In this case the author pulls a whole troop of rabbits out of a hat. And does so in a way that suggests a kind of sneering contempt for fans of detective fiction.

As a detective novel it’s a washout. As a theatrical satire it might have been amusing at the time but the people it’s satirising are now long dead and the kind of theatre it’s satirising is also long dead.

The fact that the British Library Crime Classics collection now includes no less than three Alan Melville novels can only be described as bizarre.

Quick Curtain is quite simply a waste of time. Avoid this one.

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