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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.

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.

Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost

As I sit here, peering uncertainly out of my window at a night sky polluted by light, there is nothing but darkness. Not a single star twinkles back at me. The contrast with my childhood could not be more stark. Long before the development of the high-pressure sodium lamp and its characteristic yellow taint, I grew up in a house overlooking dark tides that sucked unwary swimmers to their doom, the milky way stretching my imagination across storm-tossed seas to other lands of mythic grandeur. I could stand on the headland at night, the looming mass of the gothic keep rearing up behind me and the immensity of outer space spread out in front of me as a smorgasbord of infinite possibility. This, if nothing else, explains my interest in SF and fantasy fiction.

Sometimes an author is overambitious and misjudges what is required to produce good metafiction. It is all very well to want to subvert conventions, but there are times when you can go too far and, rather than produce a literary masterpiece, produce a literary mess. The key problem is always to provide a consistent vehicle for the subversion. In some senses, it works best in the theatre when you watch actors perform a play, e.g. The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard or Sounds Off by Michael Frayn because it breaches the convention that the proscenium arch is a barrier through which no member of the audience may pass. Or on stage, cinema or television when a performer demonstrates awareness of role and steps through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. In literature, we have wonderful examples such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, where the author appears as a character and offers alternative endings to the book.

I muse along these lines because of the entrancing duology by Gregory Frost, Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet. Before coming to the books themselves, a minor gripe. Given the propensity of the publishing industry for profit maximisation, this could have appeared as a brick-sized book. At that length, there is a risk we might have left it on the shelf because of the risk of pulling a muscle lifting it down. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to read the work as a continuous whole rather than wait months for the publication of the second volume. Then we come to cost. A single work costs marginally less to buy and ship. Two volumes, even though in trade paperback size, cost more to ship separately and at a retail price of $28 for both, are at the edge of prices for a single hardback volume. Continuing the gripe, there is a slightly dead patch quite early in the second volume. If an editor had been working to produce a manageable length for a single printed book, that would have been tightened up. As it is, I suspect it was left in to make a better balance between the two volumes as a page count.

That said, this is an author at the top of his game. He has constructed a story about a young girl who makes her living as a puppeteer, moving from span to span on the ever-widening network of bridges that magically encircle this world. In each new place, she captures a local story to make her puppet dramas resonate with local cultures. Thus, the narrative is continually interrupted by the telling of other stories that illuminate the history of the world and the all too human condition of its peoples. This sets up a subtle interplay between the mythic universality of some of these stories and the current dilemmas of the protagonists. In turn, this braiding of narratives threads eases us through the novels. They intertwine and, significantly, assume direct parallels with the myths we know so well on Earth. Indeed, the structure of the narrative comes to have three strands: the narrative arc of the primary characters that ultimately becomes the stuff of myths in its own right, the increasingly complex stories of mythic characters who can affect the primary characters’ actions, and the potential for the first two strands to become a retelling of a familiar Earth myth. Or perhaps that should be the other way round. Perhaps the Earth myth as a character directs the actions of the people in the story so that what happens to them transcends their place and time, achieves universality and matches the original myth.

So at an intellectual level, this pair of novels is magical. It equally involves the reader’s emotions because the main characters remain so true to their own fallible natures. It is all too common in fantasy for there to be hero figures who, when in danger, pull out a sword and hack the opposition to pieces. Frost has created real people who have greatness thrust somewhat arbitrarily upon them. Their lives are made extraordinary by accident or design depending on your point of view. Having been forced into excellence, they must rise to the occasion as danger comes looking for them. They become players on a wider stage, seeking something more than survival as they care for and fight for each other. The outcome, in the literal sense, is the stuff of legend. For me, this was the best pair of fantasy books for 2008 and I cannot recommend them too highly.

For my other reviews of books by Gregory Frost, see: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Fitcher’s Brides.

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