A Decent Interval by Simon Brett
In A Decent Interval by Simon Brett (Severn House, 2013) A Charles Paris Mystery, we join our hero in his lonely life as an almost consistently successful actor now arrived in the alcohol-fueled wilderness years better known as the late fifties. . . How wonderful it is when work does come in after an eight month hiatus even if he does briefly have to become a Roundhead. So he’s untimely ripped from the comfort of his chair in front of the television next to the bottle of Bell’s and sent on location with Tibor Pincus in deepest Newlands Corner (near Guildford) where he’s to re-enact the Battle of Naseby for a documentary. Fortunately, such is the amount of whisky consumed on the shoot, he has no problem in falling down in death many times, including some deaths in Cavalier costume. He’s not a one-man army, you see, but two armies for the price of one. Imagine his pleasurable surprise when there’s an immediate prospect of more work. This time from director Ned English who’s fronting for the entertainment mogul Tony Copeland. The plan is to bring high culture to the masses by transplanting two celebrities into a modern production of Hamlet as the titular Dane and Ophelia. Both have triumphed in television contests: one for singing and the other explicitly to cast a wannabe as Ophelia. The director needs everyone else to be reliable, biddable and prepared to work for the Equity minimum pay. This makes the rehearsals with two amateur actors interesting and, when part of the scenery falls on the young singer during the technical rehearsal, the understudy is quickly in his stride.
Sadly, understudies do not make for good box office. If the Twitter generation, which has the attention span of a gnat, is to be induced to part with money, there must be someone “they” want to see. A replacement with good looks and acting talent is drafted in. With the show now touring the provinces, the Twitterati’s attention is reignited by the mysterious death of the Ophelia. Appropriately, Charles Paris is the one to find her dead in a dressing room. This production is turning out to have the same potential for bad luck as The Scottish Play. With another understudy stepping into the role, business at the box office remains brisk as the ghoulish speculate on who will be next to be injured or die. With the police now interested in establishing the cause of Ophelia’s death (not drowning, you understand), our hero finally engages his brain and begins the process of analysis we readers know so well — this is the eighteenth Charles Paris investigation. So he listens to many, speaks to a few and soon has ideas about who might be responsible for what’s going on.
The pleasure in reading Simon Brett is twofold. What he writes is always drawn from the hard reality of the world. But to keep the mood on a lighter note, the text is littered with casual comments and asides that bring smiles to your lips. That said, the events on display here are essentially tragic. Relationships are fractured and broken, people’s hopes and dreams are shattered, despair abounds in many lives. Indeed, at every level, what we see is failure on an epic scale, broken only intermittently when individuals rise above the pack with a brilliant performance. Moments later, the light in the darkness is extinguished and the cast falls back into the reality of their mundane lives where compromise and forgiveness are the only ways to save people from themselves. As a matter of technique, Simon Brett makes it all flow so easily. Too often, authors who set out to leaven tragedy end up forcing situations to generate the humour. This is silky smooth with an elegance about it that few others can match. The result is a delight demonstrating two further truths: that knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to Heaven (although whether our hero considers the return to his lonely seat in front of the television heavenly is moot — a West End run would have been preferred) and that when a son gives to his father, both cry (although in this case, the father has such a monstrous ego, he won’t cry for long — probably only a few minutes in fact). A Decent Interval gives us food for thought while entertaining us. Charles Paris may not be Horatio holding the bridge, but he shows us he can be positively Nelsonian in the right circumstances. You can’t ask for more than that.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.