A bonus 1934 book for this month’s Crimes of the Century, Quick Curtain will be published by the British Library on 2 July this year.
This is a light-hearted theatrical mystery, in which a fatal shot is fired during the first London performance of Blue Music, a musical comedy starring darlings of the stage Brandon Baker and Gwen Astle. Baker is killed by a gun fired by a member of the supporting cast, who is subsequently found hanged in his dressing room. The mystery seems cut-and-dried, if it weren’t for an out-of-place bullet hole in the stage curtain.
The small circle of suspects include theatrical impresario Douglas B. Douglas, his flamboyant writer Ivor Watcyns, the much-dallianced Miss Astle, and a Herbert (‘you will find a Herbert behind every big musical show’).
This cast allows Melville, who was a theatrical type himself, to poke well-informed fun at the artificial world of the West End.
Mr. Baker kept himself Juvenile Leadish with the aid of massage, mud-packs, Turkish baths, and a resetting of his permanent wave at least twice a month. It was his profile that did the trick. It used to be the profile and the waist combined, but now – massage or no massage – it was the profile alone.
The investigators are Inspector Wilson and his journalist son. Wilson is quirky (pipes and crosswords), comes across as quite dim at many points in the story, and is one of the least policemanlike of policemen I have encountered. The Martin Edwards introduction quotes Dorothy L. Sayers on Quick Curtain:
‘Light entertainment is Mr. Melville’s aim, and a fig for procedure!’
And it does seem as though Melville slacked on the realism a bit. When the victim’s funeral and inquest take place on the same morning, the Inspector opts to send his son along to one of them (rather than, say, a qualified police officer). And that’s the least of his unprofessionalism.
The father-and-son crimefighters engage in a lot of friendly cross-talk:
‘You don’t know what work is, you policemen. Snooping around marking the spot where the body occurred with a bit of chalk, and then going home to your hot-water bottle. While we poor benighted reporters have to stay up all night concocting a juicy story for our nitwit readers.’
Melville has an engaging style, addressing the reader directly at several points in the narrative. It occasionally verges on the arch –
Mr. Ivor Watcyns – but before going a syllable further, do you remember who Mr. Watcyns was? Of course you don’t. How true the newspapers are when they say that the Memory of the Reading Public is Notoriously Short-Lived.
– but in general it makes for an easy read. Best bits: A nosy postmistress who gets increasingly bewildered and frustrated by Wilson junior’s cryptic telegrams to his father. A coroner always looking to make a newsworthy sound-bite out of proceedings (‘Coroner’s Wit Enlivens London Inquest‘). A disastrously half-arsed cycle ride to Buckinghamshire which results in saddle-sores and a recourse to the train.
1934 touches? Nazis were still funny. ‘If that isn’t a bullet-hole, then I’m a Nazi!’ (a phrase which occurs twice – was this on everybody’s lips in ’34?), ‘When in Rome do as Mussolini tells you’.
Heavy on the theatre and light on the detection, this is the Golden Age at its frothiest, perhaps not an absolute classic, but good fun nonetheless.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.