“I mean, if someone came up to you and arrested you for the murder of two human beings bang in the middle of an enjoyable musical comedy, it would be a bit of a shock to the system, wouldn’t it?”
For days, audiences have been lining up for the opening night of Blue Music, the latest musical extravaganza from Douglas B. Douglas. And the show more than lives up to expectations, especially the attempted murder scene in Act Two. The shooting of leading man Brandon Baker is no act, however.
The case seems open and shut; after all, thousands of witnesses watched Baker’s costar fire the fatal shot. Inspector Wilson isn’t so sure, however. Along with his journalist son, Derek, the Inspector must enter the bohemian milieu of the theater in search of a killer who craves the spotlight.
Quick Curtain is an entertaining romp with a solution as audacious as the crime itself. The Wilsons make a delightful team of father-son sleuths, as their investigation takes them from the bright lights of London’s theater district to the darkness of a lonely country lane. There is about ninety percent more comedy than detection, but it all more or less comes together in the end.
From the start, the author has a simple explanation for the whole affair: “nobody is quite sane on a first night.” Melville devotes the first chapter to gleeful descriptions of Blue Music in all its demented banality. Hundreds of people exert the most strenuous effort on behalf of a ridiculous production that is, at best, no different than the show that’s already playing down the street.
The god of gods, the hero of the show, opens with a wrong entrance and is wildly cheered for five minutes. The leading lady sings her big number on a key quite unconnected with that in which the orchestra is playing the accompaniment, and the house rises to demand seven encores. The low comedian, realizing that his material is definitely on the thin side, introduces most of the old gags he put over when he made his first big success at the Gaiety in 1909, and the audience collapses under its seats, helpless with mirth.
So it is that very often those wise men, the dramatic critics, end their notices the following morning with the remark: “It is only fair to add that, in spite of the above remarks, the entertainment appeared to meet with the approval of the first-night audience.”
The ill-fated Brandon Baker is sharing the stage with supporting actor Hillary Foster (who helped him begin his career only to be left behind), much-married leading lady Gwen Astle, egocentric writer Ivor Watcyns, and stage manager Herbert, the only one who can keep his head amidst all the madness. That’s not to mention producer Douglas B. Douglas, whose presence anywhere in the theater would not be questioned. In addition, there is also a whole audience full of potential suspects. Despite these challenges, Inspector Wilson expects a swift resolution.
“Wasn’t it a funny thing to do, by the way? Shooting a man in full view of about two thousand people, and with not the chance of a lump of margarine in hell of getting away with it.”
“But he has got away with it, blast you,” said Mr. Douglas, exasperated.
“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Wilson. “So he has. I’d forgotten that.”
Having a theater for a crime scene certainly offers unique challenges. “It’s not much use marking the spot where the body fell if the whole stage behaves like the planetary system and spoils everything, is it?” the Inspector laments as he tries to figure out the bullet’s trajectory from a revolving stage. With 110 chorus girls prancing through the murder site, little physical evidence remains.
The relationship between Inspector Wilson and his son is great fun; their friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) bickering may be a bit much at times, but it provides a recognizable human element in an otherwise arch narrative. Their desire not to lose face in front of one another spurs them on to new discoveries in some cases, but also hinders the investigation at other moments, as when they set out to interview a witness, only to miss the person entirely because they cannot agree on the best route to take.
Their interactions showcase the best qualities of Quick Curtain, the humor and characters. However, they also reflect its less pleasing aspects. There is very little real detection to be found here, something that Melville tends to plaster over by filling the “investigation” scenes with banter that, while funny in itself, obscures the lack of actual information-gathering. There is also a tendency to take a joke to absurd lengths. The repeated inside jokes between the Wilsons are particular offenders. As the story grows longer without really progressing, it sometimes feels like Melville is trying to stretch his material in order to pad out the page count.
Derek’s undercover investigation in the countryside, for example, is easily twice as long as it needs to be. It starts out very well, as Derek decides to masquerade as a cyclist, his resolve lasting until “he had a brief but animated argument with a four-ton lorry…There is a sort of discrepancy between a four-ton lorry and a pedal-cycle that makes a meeting of the two rather one-sided.” His attempts to keep a low profile in a quiet rural town instantly arouse the villagers’ suspicions. This is all quite funny at first, but then it just goes on and on, growing a little less funny each time until it is no longer amusing at all. The same events are repeated from multiple viewpoints with nothing much being added.
Luckily, Quick Curtain manages to shake off its third-act problems to roll out a bold solution that is perfectly in keeping with the fizzy, anarchic spirit of the story. Whether that solution is supported by the rest of the book is another question. For most of its length, Quick Curtain barely qualifies as a detective story, but I enjoyed it enough not to care.
For all those who enjoy comic detective novels, which don’t take themselves too seriously I would definitely recommend this tale and the humorous investigative style and dialogue of Inspector Wilson and Derek make this an enjoyable read.
I’m really disappointed. I enjoyed Death Of Anton by the same author, also from the British Library range, it was great fun. So I had high expectations of this one. But the problem is the wit. It’s incessant and clearly the author is enjoying himself, in part being able to take several shots at the theatre industry. But the non-stop “cleverness” of the humour rapidly became wearing to me.
So as a tome filling in part of the history of detective fiction it finds itself significantly lacking. But as a light, easy, and witty read you can do far worse for a few hours. Which feels a bit like a back-handed compliment, but, in fairness, that’s all this really deserves.
Those who come at it expecting something lighthearted and diverting are more likely to put it down satisfied than those hoping for a good puzzle mystery.
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.
Quick Curtain is available from British Library Crime Classics and Poisoned Pen Press.