Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £12.99
The 1930s, W H Auden’s “low dishonest decade”, fascinate the lover of novels. The contemporaneous literature has a restless vigour, a dark-edged vivacity: Greene and Waugh, Orwell and Maugham, Cold Comfort Farm and Rebecca. And there were the peerless crime writers: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and early Josephine Tey. They lay out a feast of feeling and fear, dry satire and social doubt.
Wedged between two terrible wars, scarred by the first and cringing from portents of the second, they hammered the angst and unease of the moment into universal truths. The Edwardian style was, at times, stubbornly clung to and, at others, scornfully rejected; “surplus” women were emerging from chaperonage to strike out in the working world and negotiate independence. Servants were rarer and less devoted. Currents of fascism and communism surged and swirled beneath a surface that a battered generation tried to believe
Eighty years on, Anthony Quinn captures this decade’s fascination, unease and feeling for character at near-perfect pitch. Moreover, as a stylist, he is – like those 1930s novelists – untroubled by the irritating modern desire to show off, deploy gimmicky narrative techniques or “push the boundaries of the novel form”. Curtain Call is a smooth ride: you know where you are, you know who is who and the prose follows Orwell’s dictum by providing a clear window rather than demanding admiration for its own craft.
It is, on the face of it, a murder mystery set in London’s theatreland. A young actress, Nina, has a hotel assignation with a married society painter, Stephen. She hears a struggle in one of the rooms and sees a young woman fleeing in terror from a man. He later, it becomes clear, murders another girl in a series of “tiepin” killings with a rather horrid (if dandyish) trademark. So far, so crime fiction. But the interesting thing is that the murder and the issues of recognition and discovery are pushed to the side for a long time as we get to know the protagonists, not all of whom are involved with the crimes.
Quinn’s mission is to portray the society around the couple and he is fearlessly Trollopean in his willingness to marshal a large cast. There’s the fascist sympathiser who gulls the socialite painter into contributing to his cause, the penniless Jewish-Hungarian intellectual, the West End actress and her deluded late-Edwardian mother. And there is a working girl falling unwillingly into prostitution and trying to leave it: a trajectory handled with an admirable lack of prurience.
At the heart of the novel, as a particular delight for this reviewer (being a theatre critic in our less glamorous Costa Coffee-sandwich era), we have the fascinatingly appalling Jimmy. He is the critic for an important newspaper and is one of the old school, stout, elegant and hedonistic. He overspends his income, hosts restaurant dinners at which he can dominate the conversation and crafts elegant put-downs from a soporific position in the stalls (“Averagely competent, averagely performed, averagely staged and lit. It positively shimmered with averageness . . .”). In a lovely, sly line, Quinn observes: “He loved the way his prose fell into place. He was also rather sick of it.”
Jimmy tends to fall asleep in the stalls, assisted by two bottles of wine, but remains upright afterwards, or partly so, to haunt the alley bars of Charlotte Street where off-duty guardsmen oblige gentlemen in need (in one case, with an interesting practice involving Scotch that was quite new to me, even in fiction). He is also constantly fearful for his job, despite his fame, because his paper’s proprietor has views on such proclivities and the police are forever mounting undercover honeytraps and infiltrating drag balls dressed as Bosie. But Jimmy has a secretary to run his life – Tom, the most likeable character in the book and the one whose journey in life and art is treated with the most sympathy.
Night after night for a happy week, Quinn filled my dreams with glossy surfaces and hidden vices, silk stockings and champagne and intellectual snobberies and long walks home on hard London pavements. Anyone who paces the West End streets will find them more haunted after reading this book. Hindsight is sparingly but hauntingly used; the Crystal Palace burns down, a dream foreshadows the Blitz, but 1936 dances on. And, yes, the Tiepin Killer is finally unmasked, though not without disaster.
Libby Purves is a broadcaster and critic. She reviews at theatrecat.com