Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn, book review: Danger in theatreland

There is nothing edgy or experimental about this gripping novel - instead, refreshingly, Quinn uses traditional third-person narrative

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The Independent Culture

It’s 1936. The King will abdicate. Hitler is becoming ever more menacing. The Crystal Palace burns down.

Anthony Quinn’s Nina Lund is a successful West End actress, Stephen Wyley a successful portrait painter, James Erskine an esteemed drama critic and Madeleine Farewell a girl with a living to earn. At large in London is a sinister serial killer. His prey is women and his trademark a tiepin through the tongue. Thus begins this nicely crafted story which, like all the best detective fiction, is a great deal more than the sum of its parts.

Highly entertaining, for example, is the character of Erskine. Quinn’s immaculately observed account of how it feels to keep seeing plays and having to opine authoritatively about them will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to do it. The depiction of Erskin’s louche “gay” set at a time when their very existence was illegal is memorable too: the erotic lure of the public lavatory, the fear/excitement of being deliberately trapped, the joy of camp behaviour and company including, sometimes, flamboyant fancy dress.

Quinn knows the theatre world – or is an impeccable researcher – because the backstage atmosphere and the relationship between Nina and her dresser are deftly done. He also understands the moral ambiguities of the day as Stephen Wyley tries to juggle his brittle home life, including children who are unhappy at boarding school, and the warm, loving, extra-marital affair with Nina. The scandal of the twice-divorced Mrs Simpson who can’t be Queen rumbles on in the background.

At the same time the Tiepin Murderer, beloved of the tabloid press, seems to be closing in on Quinn’s engaging network of interesting characters. We first encounter him, fortuitously thwarted at the very beginning – seen by Madeleine and heard by Nina although neither should really have been in the hotel on Russell Square in the middle of the afternoon. Quinn then skilfully maintains and tightens the tension until the eventual dénouement. And I had no idea how this gripping tale was going to end until a page or two before the revelation.

There is nothing edgy or experimental about this gripping novel. Instead, refreshingly, Quinn uses traditional third-person narrative. Occasionally the prose creaks a bit, but it’s none the less a page-turner with some apt metaphors: “squashed pagoda hat” and “a battlefield chaos of pots, paints and cratered powders …” I am new to Anthony Quinn. His backlist beckons.