Reviewed by Simon
Shiny New Books has been a consistent and delighted fan of the British Library Crime Classics series, which has been rather a phenomenon in the publishing industry recently, and rightly so. The biased part of me argues that this is simply recognition that the 1920s and 1930s are the best decades for literature, culture, and literally everything else; the more rational part of me sees that a mixture of nostalgia, excellent cover design, and the enduring legacy of Agatha Christie also play their part.
Considering how many novels were published during the Golden Age of detective fiction, it is curious how few have remained in print. I won’t say ‘stood the test of time’, because reprints like these demonstrate that plenty of the era’s books can stand the test of time. And I am going to go all out and say that Quick Curtain is the best detective novel I have read, after Agatha Christie’s. A big claim, yes, but deserved – this was a huge delight of a novel, and should never have gone out of print.
As Martin Edwards acknowledges in his introduction, the plot of Quick Curtain is rather slight. It doesn’t matter at all. Dorothy L Sayers wrote a review of it at the time, and lamented its lack of police procedural accuracy. Well, I am no fan of Sayers’ novels, and was thus not surprised that she entirely missed the point of Quick Curtain – but I think even those who like Lord Peter will truly love Wilson, snr. and Wilson, jnr., the Inspector and journalist father and son who set out to solve the crime.
The crime? An ageing heartthrob actor, followed by many eager and earnest members of the Brandon Baker appreciation society, is shot and killed during a performance of a melodramatic play called Blue Music – seemingly by the fellow actor whose character is firing a gun at the time. This second actor is then found hanged in his room, presumably from guilt at having accidentally committed murder; the Wilson pair doubt this version of events, and start trying to work out who might be the person or people responsible.
There are some necessary archetypes of the Golden Age detective novel, from spurned wives to assumed identities, forgeries and hastily scribbled clues, and so on and so forth. The denouement is cleverer than it initially seems, but all of this detection is really of secondary importance. As a rule, characters serve the plot in excellent detective fiction; here, it is the characters and the witty writing that make Quick Curtain such a triumph.
Wilson (father) and Wilson (son) have perhaps my favourite ever fictional parent/child relationship. To use a word that has been rather ruined in recent years, they constantly banter with each other. They have a healthy disrespect for each other’s professions, and a well-hidden respect and affection for each other. It’s the sort of loving relationship that mostly takes the form of politely informing each other that they are idiots. Melville has a brilliantly firm hand with this sort of thing, never allowing it to get awkward or forced; it’s a constant delight, and the sort of thing that would fall apart quoted out of context – so you’re going to have to take my word for it.
The other sphere in which Melville’s humour is exhibited excellently is regarding the theatre. Melville (real name William Melville Caverhill) was himself a playwright, lyricist, actor, and personality – and his knowledge of theatrical types abounds. Perhaps most glorious is Mr Amethyst, the theatre critic, who had written his review of Blue Music before seeing it and whose response to the murder was to transfer his review to another play, as he was so pleased with it. The actors, actresses, producer, and playwright all come in for their own doses of Melville irony – and, though this isn’t even remotely a bitter novel, he does have a wonderful way of making people look a little ridiculous. Only some of the characters, such as the wonderful Wilsons, manage to accept and thrive in the ridiculousness.
So, a thousand hurrahs to the British Library and Martin Edwards for rediscovering Alan Melville. There are two of his titles now back in print (well, Death of Anton is coming in August) and I have high hopes of them being followed by as many others as possible.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and loves anything connected with the theatre.
Alan Melville, Quick Curtain (British Library: London, 2015). 978-0712357890, 287pp., paperback.