The Strangling on the Stage by Simon Brett
The Strangling on the Stage by Simon Brett (Severn House, 2013) is one of the Fethering Mysteries and it contains one of “those” lines guaranteed to upset a moderate slice of the male population. As a man who, for many years, played cricket on a regular basis, I am doing my best not to be outraged by the suggestion cricketers are the most misogynist of sportsmen. Given the time commitment at weekends, when partners might expect joint activities like shopping, I might admit some degree of selfishness in treating standing solitary on the boundary of a field with a gale blowing and the prospect of rain imminent as preferable to standing in a queue at a checkout. But such solipsism does not inherently betoken hatred for the opposite sex. Indeed, how can one not value the fair sex even more when they cluster together to give us warmth when we come in from the rain, and supply restorative tea and limp sandwiches between innings?
Perhaps I should explain that this “throwaway” dismissal of a sporting fraternity is germane to the resolution of the plot. Indeed, the entire book is a kind of excoriation of the pretentiousness of the English middle class (although one Scottish engineer does come in for a real bashing as well — unfortunately, there’s no-one to complete the joke, “An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walked into The Cricketers and. . .”). So we’re deep into the world of amateur dramatics which, for better or worse, is the preserve of young aspirants and ageing performers with invincible egos. This time Jude and Carole, our pair of lady sleuths, get caught up in the investigation of a death by stage prop.
The retired Scottish engineer passes the time by “inventing” interesting devices for stage productions. For The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw, he builds a gallows which, to the surprise of the leading man, proves unexpectedly effective. Indeed, everyone seems completely amazed. There was supposed to be a trick to it all. The engineer had produced a noose that was held together only by a sliver of velcro. The moment any weight was applied to the noose, it should have sprung apart, releasing the victim before even the slightest physical inconvenience could be caused. But someone seems to have substituted a real noose for the “stage” version. Hence the dead man hanging centre stage.
So our dedicated team in their fifteenth outing take up new roles. Jude is recruited into the cast while Carole finds her true vocation as the prompter who notices every mistake and is not afraid to call out corrections during rehearsals. Between them they contrive to talk to everyone who might be able to shed light on the sad loss of such an acting talent. The most unusual conversation is with the deceased’s wife who registers strongly on the weirdometer (as do all collectors, of course — did I mention I also collect books, but not on cricket which would be obsessional?). But, not to put too fine a point on it, none of the actors or the stage crew come over as entirely normal. Or perhaps the other way of viewing the book is that when an author launches into an examination of stereotypical middle class behaviour, he’s not short of likely targets from which to choose his victims. This is not to characterise the book as a satire on south coast village lifestyles. Although there are some pleasingly sharp observations and smile-inducing moments, the book lacks the savagery required to make it genuinely satirical. For better or worse, Simon Brett likes his cast of characters too much to completely dismantle them. This leaves the book in a slightly uncomfortable hinterland. It’s not even remotely a “cozy mystery” in the emerging American style, but it’s equally not a tough-minded, take-no-prisoners book that skewers all-comers. This leaves me placing the tone as probably adjacent to Alan Ayckbourn in some of his studies of the existential despair that afflicts many in apparently normal relationships and roles.
Truth-be-told, The Strangling on the Stage is just another highly enjoyable read from Simon Brett. The puzzle for us to solve depends on who had access to the prop at the relevant time, and who would have had the motive to execute the leading man. As is required, we have a limited cast of suspects, and more or less everyone would have had a motive to execute this Lothario whether it’s the women spurned or their “cuckolded” husbands. In fact, the theme of the solution turns out to be inherently historical and subsequently theatrical, as one might expect in a book such as this. The combination of interesting murder and social commentary provides good value for those who have the proverbial eyes to see and then look away when it comes to holding the guilty to account.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.