Behind the curtain…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The latest of the British Library’s vintage crime anthologies, Final Acts contains fourteen stories all connected in some way to the theatre. There are on-stage murders, back-stage murders, off-stage murders! Lots of potential for disguises and make-up to fool the onlookers, and lots of dramatic reactions to events. And we all know about the loose morals of these actor types, so plenty of affairs, jealousies and betrayals to drive them all to become murderer or victim! I love the theatre as a setting for mysteries because the setting and characters are especially well suited to concealment and misdirection, and drama! What the audience sees is very different to the reality hidden behind the curtain.
There’s the usual mix of authors, some very well known, like Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, some who have become regulars in these anthologies, such as AEW Mason and Julian Symons, and a sprinkling of ones who are new to me. Of the fourteen stories, I rated twelve as good or excellent, and the other two weren’t complete duds either. That makes this one of my mostly highly rated of these anthologies to date. There’s the usual introduction from Martin Edwards, and little bios of the various authors preceding each story (I always read these after I read the story, because very occasionally they can be a bit spoilery).
As usual, here’s a flavour of some of the ones I enjoyed most:
The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel by AEW Mason – A struggling young singer is tempted to steal a string of pearls, but when she sneaks into the hotel room of the lady who owns them, she finds men already there, burgling the room. They are dressed for the masked ball that is taking place in the hotel that night, so she is unable to describe them clearly. Inspector Hanaud of the French police is in London visiting his friend Ricardo, and becomes unofficially involved in the investigation which will take him into the world of opera. This is a fairly substantial story at around 50 pages, and I grow fonder of Hanaud and Ricardo each time I meet them. Neither of them is particularly likeable – Hanaud is one of these insufferable know-it-alls who is very mean to poor, pompous Ricardo. But there’s usually a lot of humour in the stories, the writing is very good, and this one is particularly well told, I think.
Blood Sacrifice by Dorothy L Sayers – Garrick Drury is an actor-manager, a great romantic lead with his finger on the pulse of what the public wants. John Scales’ first play is a dark and brooding tale of the degrading impact of war on his protagonist’s character. He’s thrilled when Drury contracts to produce and perform in the play, knowing this will bring him instant success. But the contract gives Drury the right to make alterations, and he turns the play into a romantic sob-fest with a happy ending. Scales grows to hate him… I’m not a fan of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books, but I must say her short stories are excellent. This one is a great story with strong characterisation and motivation, and her description of Garrick Drury made me laugh – “Mr. Drury (forty-two in the daylight, thirty-five in the lamplight and twenty-five or what you will in a blond wig and the spotlight) was well fitted by nature to acquire girls…”
The Blind Spot by Barry Perowne – Annixter, a playwright, is in a club getting drunk because a woman dumped him. It’s when he’s drunk that his best ideas for plays come to him, and tonight it happens – a wonderful idea for a locked room murder mystery. He tells a man in the club all about it, in the way drunks do, then walks outside and gets hit by a taxi. When he comes to, he remembers everything about his plot except the solution to how the locked room element was done. He begins to hunt for the stranger from the club, but the man seems reluctant to be found… I thought this was a fantastic story, one of the best short mystery stories I’ve ever read. It starts out full of humour, then gradually the tension mounts and the denouement is beautifully paced so that the reader gets there just before Annixter does. I’ve only read two stories by Perowne and loved them both – must seek out more!
The Thirteenth Knife by Bernard J Farmer – Simone is a knife-thrower and each night she performs in a club, throwing her thirteen knives at Jean, the waiter to whom she’s engaged. But she has attracted the unwanted attentions of another man – a rich man, who’s used to getting what he wants. This is a very short story, so that’s as much as I can say without spoilers, but it’s very effective and manages to create real tension in such a short space. And a nice little twist in the tail!
So lots of variety, and loads of enjoyable stories – highly recommended!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.