KEY SELLING POINTS
'Don't talk bunk!' said Mr. Douglas. 'You can't carry on with the show with a man dying on stage. Drop the curtain!'
When Douglas B. Douglas - leading light of the London theatre - premieres his new musical extravaganza, Blue Music, he is sure the packed house will be dazzled by the performance. What he couldn't predict is the death of his star, Brandon Baker, on stage in the middle of Act Two. Soon another member of the cast is found dead, and it seems to be a straightforward case of murder followed by suicide.
Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard – who happens to be among the audience – soon discovers otherwise. Together with Derek, his journalist son, Wilson takes charge of proceedings in his own inimitable way.
This is a witty, satirical novel from the golden age of British crime fiction between the world wars. It is long overdue for rediscovery and this new edition includes an informative introduction by Martin Edwards, author of The Golden Age of Murder.
'Blows the solemn structure of the detective novel sky-high ... Light entertainment is Mr. Melville's aim, and a fig for procedure!' Dorothy L. Sayers
- Fans of the British Library Crime Classics
- Historical Mysteries
About the Author
ALAN MELVILLE (1910-1983) was a well-known television broadcaster, as well as a playwright, producer and scriptwriter. Among his works are several crime novels from the 1930s, often set in the popular entertainment world he knew at first hand.
Read an Excerpt
M. René Gasnier's bald pate loomed suddenly over the rail of the orchestra pit. M. Gasnier smiled to a few complete strangers in the stalls, opened his score, pulled down his cuffs, tapped on his desk with the tip of his baton, reminded his first violins that the double pianissimo sign called for some slight restraint in their playing, and launched his orchestra out on the overture and introduction to Act One.
Blue Music, as a glance at the programme will have told you, was a Douglas B. Douglas production. Not that it was at all necessary to pay sixpence for a programme to learn that bit of news. London, and, indeed, the whole country, knew it pretty well off by heart by this time. Mr. Douglas was a master of publicity.
Not the loud, blatant kind of publicity that hits you in the eye, yells at you, knocks you over, and ruins green fields that once were beautiful. The other kind: the softer, subtler variety. The kind that had London rumouring, long before Blue Music was ever written, that D.B.D.'s latest show was a hundred-per-cent knockout. The kind of publicity that got people really interested. That made them talk about Mr. Douglas's show, write to their cousins in Canada about Mr. Douglas's show, discuss Mr. Douglas's show at company annual general meetings and Dorcas Society outings. The kind, in fact, that made everyone become publicity agents themselves for and on behalf of Mr. Douglas without actually knowing it.
Mr. Douglas always believed in a preliminary canter at Manchester. A very good idea, that. Not only did it provide an added dollop of publicity (for most of the London papers sent down their critics to Manchester for a provincial skirmish), but it saved a lot of money.
Mr. Douglas thought a man several varieties of idiots if he went to all the trouble and expense of having endless rehearsals in an empty theatre if the good people of Manchester could be persuaded to come and witness those rehearsals at eight shillings and sixpence a stall. And, afraid of being thought unappreciative of something that was obviously going to be a success in London, Manchester paid its eight-and-sixpence like a man and applauded vigorously.
And London, equally afraid of being thought behind a place like Manchester in the way of appreciating a good thing, paid its two-pounds-ten on the opening night in town and applauded rather more vigorously. Everyone was pleased. Manchester was pleased at getting its rehearsal before anyone else — although, of course, it was billed not as a rehearsal but as a "world première". London was pleased at getting a Douglas B. Douglas production that had been licked into shape and had the few blemishes removed in its little sojourn in the provinces.
And Mr. Douglas B. Douglas was very pleased indeed. The only fly in a very satisfying brand of ointment was that he had to turn away two thousand and fifty-eight applications for first-night seats at two-pounds-ten. That was unfortunate. But Mr. Douglas bore up wonderfully well over it, and kept his stall prices for the opening fortnight of the show up to thirty shillings — and that for a seat which any normal-minded person would have recognized immediately as the third or fourth row in the pit.
Tuesday, June 18th, you will have noticed, was the great day. On Sunday, June 16th, when most of the Blue Music company were still in Manchester and finding out the truth of all those jests about the provincial Sabbath, seven grim females parked seven rickety campstools outside the gallery entrance of the Grosvenor Theatre.
They were joined a little later in the evening by four more females and a lone male. They unpacked sandwiches and munched. They uncorked thermos flasks and drank hot coffee out of the aluminium tops of the flasks. They discussed with one another Mr. Douglas, Miss Astle, Mr. Baker, Mr. Douglas's past successes, Miss Astle's last divorce, Mr. Baker's profile — both the port and the starboard view. They half slept. They suffered endless agonies on their stupid, unreliable camp-stools; they each contracted stiff necks and shooting pains in the lower reaches of the spine; they were photographed for their pains by a man in a dirty waterproof and appeared on the back page of the Daily Post under the title "Gallery Enthusiasts' Three-Day Wait for New Douglas Show". They were still there on Tuesday morning, proudly in the van of a fair-sized queue. The lone man who had arrived late on the Sunday night felt his chin and decided to go and have a shave, leaving his precious site guarded by a street entertainer for the sum of threepence.
At seven-thirty, when the gallery early doors were opened by a massive royal-blue and yellow-braided commissionaire, they staggered inside the theatre, past the box-office, up the Everest of stairs, and flopped wearily on to the unsympathetic seats of the Grosvenor gods. Bleary, dirty, sore, and ill-tempered. Nitwits, you say. And you are perfectly right. But you forget that this was a Douglas B. Douglas production.
What is there, you wonder, about a Douglas B. Douglas show that makes normally intelligent and sober individuals behave in this extraordinary way — some of them paying a working-man's weekly wage for a bad seat in row M to witness the first night, and others — if they cannot afford this — leaving their homes and husbands and children for three days so that they may end up in the front, instead of the second front, row of the gallery?
Well, first there is the fact that nobody is quite sane on a first night. The players themselves alternately shower one another with passionate kisses and then instigate libel proceedings against one another. The audience, on their side of the heavy red curtain, are equally affected. Their sense of what is a long period of time, or of what is a large sum of money, is, as we have seen, warped and twisted by the importance of the occasion. So is their sense of what is good and what is rotten.
The god of the 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."
There is that, then, about a Douglas B. Douglas first night — or about any first night, for that matter. There is also Mr. Douglas B. Douglas himself. They say that nothing succeeds like success, and certainly nothing succeeded like Mr. Douglas's successes. Even his failures — he had had quite a few — were brilliant failures. Mr. Douglas was a short, squat man with a total absence of hair and a flair for picking legs, spotting personality, and persuading the public that something merely mediocre was something simply sensational.
In his day he had been most things. Bell-boy at nine, porter in a railway station at fifteen, steward on an Atlantic liner at twenty. At twenty-one Mr. Douglas had found his true vocation, joining the Henry Phillips West End Repertory Players when that company were on their beam-ends in the not exactly cheering town of Gateshead. Mr. Douglas had made a notable success of his first part on the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, serving the sherry as the butler in Interference as if he had been on the boards for years instead of hours. On the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the same week (Gateshead demanding a bi-weekly change of repertoire) Mr. Douglas had scored an even greater success as a monk in The Rosary. On the Sunday after The Rosary Mr. Douglas had drawn the company around him, explained in a few well-chosen phrases exactly what was wrong with them, had offered his services as producer and general manager at a salary of three pounds ten per week, and had launched the West End Repertory Players out on their first stretch of calm water. From that date, Mr. Douglas had rarely looked back. When he did, it was always with a pleasing sense of satisfaction.
There was also Mr. Brandon Baker. Brandon Baker was an idol of the gods, a household god of the orchestra stalls. He had been so now for nearly thirty years, but no one bothered to think that kind of thing out, for Mr. Baker kept himself very 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. There was no getting away from the fact that Mr. Baker's was an uncommonly good profile. Particularly the west side, which Mr. Baker was always very careful to place towards the footlights. (There had been quite a number of occasions in his career when Brandon Baker had thrown up an otherwise good part because some inconsiderate fool of a producer had demanded that the east side be shown to the audience all through a long love-scene.)
If you had bothered to take a census of those seven determined females who parked their camp-stools outside the gallery entrance on the Sunday night, it is almost a certainty that you would find all of them to be members of the Brandon Baker Gallery Club. Membership — slightly over two hundred thousand, scattered all over the world. Mr. Baker employed three secretaries to sign the autograph books of the two hundred thousand. They met — the two hundred thousand, not the secretaries — at various festivals in the year, such as Mr. Baker's birthday or the anniversary of Mr. Baker's first success or the night of Mr. Baker's five hundredth performance in Hotter Than Hell, and went through quite a complicated system of devotional rites. A valuable asset, a profile.
And then there was Miss Gwen Astle. Another curious sidelight on the psychology of the theatre. If any other young woman had behaved as Miss Astle behaved — had married six times, twice into the peerage, had been divorced six times, twice out of the peerage and much to the relief of the dowager countesses concerned — the world would merely have screwed up its nose in an end-of-a-drain sort of way, and expressed its feelings by spitting out the word "Bisom!" sharply and spitefully.
But then, you see, Miss Astle was On The Stage, and you had to make allowances. Also she was really rather a dear. And so the more Miss Astle Carried On, and the harder it was rumoured that last week-end at the Savoy ... or that the reason why the Rumanian Ambassador had been recalled so suddenly was that ... the more that sort of thing went on, the higher Miss Astle soared in the public's affections. Respectable middle-aged spinsters, reading their Morning Posts in the shadow of Bournemouth aspidistras, dropped a silent tear at the dreadful things Miss Astle was made to confess in the witness-box, and muttered sympathetically, "The poor lamb!" as though they themselves had been through it all and knew all about it. Spectacled school-ma'ams, learning that Miss Astle had announced her engagement to young Mr. Johnson P. Lambert, son of the well-known American multi-millionaire, of Lambert's Self-Supporting Brassières and Corselets fame, on the same day as her decree from Lord Keverne became absolute, thrilled at the thought and said, "How romantic!" Hard-boiled business men, hearing over the wireless that Miss Astle's jewels and famous pearl necklace had been stolen from her Park Lane hotel by her publicity agent for the third time in four weeks, picked their teeth and said, "Poor kid! Damned shame, isn't it? Nice bit of stuff, too." Miss Astle, you see, for all that people said, was Rather a Dear. Mr. Douglas, in a moment of inspiration, had billed her in Blue Music as The Girl Mae West Came Up and Saw.
Douglas B. Douglas, Brandon Baker, and Gwen Astle, then. As castiron a recipe for a success as ever landed in the West End, even without Manchester's preliminary okay. Not that that was all about Blue Music. There was Ivor Watcyns (book and music), and Carl Carlsson (lyrics and additional numbers). Mr. Watcyns was another of the public's darlings. He was young, naughty, witty, spicy, terribly, terribly brilliant. And he had hair almost as wavy as Mr. Baker's, which of course clinched the matter. Mr. Carlsson had, unfortunately, straight hair, but he had a most attractive foreign accent to make up for this regrettable omission. True, the accent went astray at times and had been described as more Cockney than Continental when Mr. Carlsson lost his temper, but the public knew none of that. There, then, you have the team.
Oh ... George Fuller (very low comedian) in the part of Hiram P. Whittaker, Miss Astle's millionaire poppa (there were going to be some rather risqué jests on the subject of Miss Astle's latest engagements) — and Mr. Douglas B. Douglas's One Hundred and Ten Ladies and Gentlemen of the Chorus. Revolving stage. Scenery designed by Karismajinsky. Dance Ensembles by Boy Batterly, specially imported from Hollywood for the occasion — the occasion being an all-British musical comedy. Gowns by Clair of Paris. Shoes by Phillipsons. Aeroplane in Act One, Scene Twelve, kindly supplied by International Aero-Routes, Ltd., Miss Astle's evening gown in Act Three, Scene Four, designed and executed by Norman du Parque. Augmented orchestra under the direction of René Gasnier. Entire Production under the Personal Supervision of Mr. Douglas B. Douglas. Right....
The seven grim females and the rest of the gallery queue revived in time to applaud each distinguished arrival in the stalls below. Many of the arrivals were a little surprised at being applauded, having, in their own opinion, no claim to such fame; on the other hand, several unemployed West End actresses who came in unrecognized were extremely put about, and flashed their teeth gallerywards in an effort to catch the eye of the public.
Most of the Cabinet was sprinkled over the stalls, there being nothing more important on at the House than a vote of censure on the Government's unemployment programme. Mr. James Amethyst, dramatic critic of the Morning Herald, filed his usual protest regarding the seat he was invited to occupy, and whiled away the time until the rise of the curtain by engaging a complete stranger on his left in a one-sided discussion on the Mentality of the Cinema-Going Public. Mr. Watcyns arrived in a stage box — alone as was his custom. He smiled sadly at the reception given to him, and patted the corrugation of his hair with his thumb and forefinger. Mr. Douglas B. Douglas ushered in a distinguished party to the box opposite — Mrs. Douglas, a younger member of the Royal Family, two well-known screen stars, and an American cabaret singer. Mr. Watcyns smiled weakly across at Mr. Douglas.
Mr. Douglas was to blow his nose loudly on a red silk handkerchief at the end of the show; that was to be the signal for Mr. Watcyns to go on the stage and say that this was the happiest, proudest moment of his life and thank you all terribly for your marvellously kind reception. The house lights dimmed at eight-fifty, exactly twenty minutes late. M. Gasnier brought his overture to a snappy close, and the curtain rolled up smoothly.
Just in case you didn't see Blue Music, perhaps a sentence reminding you of its plot — such as it was — might not be out of place. A sentence will do, because Mr. Watcyns had written the entire book between the grapefruit of one breakfast and the tomato juice of the lunch immediately following that breakfast. Even so, it had suffered a good deal of cutting and mauling and general malformation to bring it into line with Douglas B. Douglas's own requirements. The story of a string of pearls, then, belonging to the daughter of a wealthy American, stolen by a charming and quite impossible brigand, restolen by a rival and a very unpleasant gentleman named Phillipo Consuelo, recovered by the charming brigand (who wasn't a brigand really, of course) and returned in Act Three, Scene Eight, to the beautiful daughter to the tune of the big hit "Say My Heart is in Your Hands". Not strikingly original, and well below Mr. Watcyns' real capabilities.
Excerpted from "Quick Curtain"
Copyright © 2015 Estate of Alan Melville.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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"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....a thousand hurrahs to the British Library and Martin Edwards for rediscovering Alan Melville."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The first chapter of "Quick Curtain" is interesting with an unusual commencement, a prelude before the deaths occur. A thoroughly well-written mystery taken as a whole; the unique slow beginning, though, did take me me few attempts to get through. The plot is very simple- Two stage actors are found dead on the night of a premier performance. One is shot dead by a prop revolver and the "killer" committed suicide because of the unfortunate accident of killing his peer. Among the audience are our detectives, a father-and-son-duo from Scotland Yard and from the press. Something sinister and evil is behind the case, or is it really? "Quick Curtain" is full of humor that makes it a fun, leisure read. It is an one of a kind mystery literature from the golden age detective fiction era. There are few unexpected humorous twists and the author's supreme writing skill holds my curiosity throughout. The plot itself is far from an exceptional one but the author's wittiness and his unconventional style help to establish "Quick Curtain" an unique mystery read, something turns out to be extraordinary out from a plain, simple plot. The cover arts of the British Library Crime Classic series are always something to-die-for, and this one is no exception. The cover does capture the essence of such a witty and fine crime story. Thank you, Poisoned Pen Press, for bringing another old school but a real gem back on the market. I appreciate the publisher's generosity for letting me to preview "Quick Curtain" for my opinion via Netgallery.