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The Cinderella Killer by Simon Brett

June 7, 2014 6 comments

The-Cinderella-Killer-A-theatrical-mystery-starring-778950-a245c5bc2b9155d3b724

In The Cinderella Killer by Simon Brett (Severn House, 2014) our heroic actor and sleuth, Charles Paris, treads the boards for the nineteen time. As it’s coming up to Christmas, Paris is fortunate to be offered work in Pantoland, better known as Eastbourne. The producers are cooking up a traditional offering of celebrities and people who appear on television as the headliners. Ignoring the presence of the real members of the acting profession, these tent-poles proceed to make a meal of theatrical conventions. Indeed, on the first day of rehearsal, Paris gets to tell the ex-television star sojourning from America, all he needs to know about British pantomime. For reasons unclear at the outset, our renegade from the Colonies has beaten a retreat from America to play the part of Baron Hardup in Cinderella. He seems not to have been aware of the precise nature of the role before accepting the part. But this is not really a concern. He’s being well-paid to allow his name to appear outside the theatre and as the top name on the billing. Kenny Polizzi is in lights to encourage fans of his now cancelled show to buy tickets and ogle him in the flesh. Surprisingly, he throws himself into the role with something approximating enthusiasm, particularly when he gets to reinvent the story to include an acting style with which he’s familiar.

We’re also treated to a nicely catty television interview with our fallen star which indicates where the feet of clay may be buried (forgive the mixed metaphors). As the introductory sequence proceeds, we meet the rather cosmopolitan cast (including both actors in fact and from television, a stand-up comedian, boxers, and those who dance). Kenny’s agent who may be giving his client some protection, enters from stage lefty, and not so all-righty, we hear news that Kenny’s current wife may may also be about to put in an appearance (Oh, no she isn’t! Oh, yes she is! Repeat for effect as required).

Simon Brett

Simon Brett

As you would expect in a Simon Brett novel, some of the jokes are excellent. I particularly like the change in punctuation and spelling for the couplet from the Broker’s Men. Overall there’s a quietly pleasing wryness to the descriptions of the theatrical world and of Charles Paris as he charts an unsteady progress through it. The social problems of the acting community, in the case of our hero, aggravated by his taste for Bells, are sharply exposed. This time with illumination shed on the travails of those who work on the other side of the Pond. Kenny has a past, goes through big-money divorces when he can afford them, and has his very own stalker. It’s tough having a face that’s launched a thousand episodes of a long-running television series. So it no doubt comes as a shock to him that someone might actually want to kill him (although the expression on the body found under the pier appears slightly more calm than shocked). So now all our hero has to do is pick one of the many possible suspects who might have done the dirty deed, all the while coping with the emotions he feels after his wife announces she might have cancer. Indeed, this time around, what with it being Christmas and a time when the loneliness of a B&B makes a man look back on a wasted life as an actor with a tear in his eye, he does wonder whether he might try to resurrect his marriage to the long-suffering Frances. Quite whether she would tolerate the idea is left nicely ambiguous.

The mystery itself is elegantly structured with our bloodhound following the trail from one body to the next with unerring accuracy. The police are intrigued by him happening to find two dead people. Three would be stretching credibility just a little. The only minor complaint is the element of coincidence as we come into the final stretch, but it’s something I can note and pass on by. I mellow as I grow older. Really the case all depends on the order in which things happen. It’s one of these plots that flirts with the obvious but plays the game of bluff and double-bluff so well, it doesn’t really matter whether you got the right answer or not. It’s fun arriving at the end. So I recommend this book to anyone who knows a little about pantomime and wants all the inside dope on how these productions are put together in rehearsal and emerge fully fledged on to stage in time for the Christmas season. The Cinderella Killer is knowingly precise and engagingly amusing on its way to solving the odd murder or two.

For reviews of other books by Simon Brett, see:
Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess
A Decent Interval
The Strangling on the Stage.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Strangling on the Stage by Simon Brett

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.

Simin Brett

Simon Brett

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.

For reviews of other books by Simon Brett, see:
Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess
The Cinderella Killer
A Decent Interval.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Decent Interval by Simon Brett

A Decent Interval

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.

Simon Brett in the pink

Simon Brett in the pink

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.

For reviews of other books by Simon Brett, see:
Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess
The Cinderella Killer
The Strangling on the Stage.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess by Simon Brett

February 29, 2012 1 comment

Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess by Simon Brett (Felony & Mayhem, 2012) is as magnificently ridonculous as it’s possible to get on a wet Friday afternoon in the Gobi Desert when your umbrella sticks halfway shut and all you get for your troubles is a sweat-soaked sun tan. It’s the second title in what has now amounted to a hill of four beans — actually since we have two series characters in Blotto and Twinks, I suppose that should be eight old beans, what?

As to whether you will like this. It’s a bit hard to say. I loved the hyperrealisation of upper-class antics in defence of the realm — fighting a German bomber with cricket bats is definitely hyperreal if not delightfully absurd. It took me back into the past to the time when I was young and devoured the works of Sapper (aka Herman Cyril McNeile), particularly favouring the Bulldog Drummond books (later continued through the kindly ministrations of Gerard Fairlie), Dornford Yates (aka Cecil William Mercer) with his Berry books, and so on. There was something inherently pleasing about my betters pretending to be stupid, but actually being ace detectives and crime-fighters on the sly. These Edwardian bods were supposed to be our lords and masters, so I appreciated one or two of them taking time out from their busy schedules of country house parties to solve a few murders and disrupt the operation of some fiendish criminal gangs. It made me think they were worth having around. Indeed, without those literary inspirations, I would more rapidly have turned into the cynical republican I am today. Now I’m all for abolishing the House of Lords and sending the current batch of relics out to pasture. There’s not a decent crime-fighter among them to follow in the tradition of Queen Victoria’s exploits as a demon hunter.

Simon Brett wondering whether the pen is mightier than the cake

Continuing in this retrospective mood, the problem with the books I read when young was their appalling jingoism and patriarchalism. Think about it. Apart from Molly Robertson-Kirk from Baroness Orczy, Tuppence Beresford and Miss Marple from Agatha Christie, Maud Silver from Patricia Wentworth, Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley from Gladys Mitchell, and Harriet Vane, later Lady Peter Wimsey, from Dorothy Sayers, there were no major female detectives who could interact with the upper classes. They were all so terrible middle class, my dears, apart from Harriet Vane who became respectable through her marriage. To this sexism was added an inherent racism as part of a casual anti-foreigner bias. This was beautifully lampooned by Flanders and Swann who, in the chorus of “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice” assert, “The English, the English, the English are best, I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest!” So reading about the exploits of Blotto and Twinks is very equal opportunities as Twinks has the brain that powers the duo to their successes. Although, truth be told, Blotto can occasionally interject the odd idea of merit when no-one is looking.

So putting all this together, anyone who delights in seeing Edwardian period charm mercilessly deconstructed and ravaged by a senior pro from Dover with an eye for absurdity, will enjoy Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess. I’m not sure I could read one of these every week. Simon Brett is wonderfully laid back and a consummate professional when it comes to stringing words together, but there’s an inherent shortage of targets. I suspect some aspects of the humour would get monotonous quite quickly. But once in a blue moon, this is the book to lift your spirits and gladden your heart — assuming you enjoy a very English sense of humour, of course.

For reviews of other novels by Simon Brett, see:
The Cinderella Killer
A Decent Interval
The Strangling on the Stage.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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