Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn, book review: Murder and morals in theatreland

A beautifully written historical whodunnit, set in post-Victorian Soho
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There's a character in Anthony Quinn's fourth novel called Madeleine Farewell. No one who hears the surname can resist toying with it ("Sounds like someone from a Restoration comedy"), and I don't see why I should be an exception. Curtain Call is full of farewells.

Its subtitle, "A Distinguished Thing", is Henry James' description of death, which is omnipresent in Quinn's story. It can be real – a series of brutal murders – or figurative: the climactic events unfold during the Crystal Palace fire of 30 November 1936, which for some represented 20th-century England burning its bridges with its Victorian past.

We begin with suave social portrait painter Stephen Wyley, whose prosperous, content but somewhat hollow life is jolted by talented but chaotic actress Nina Land. Having reduced Wyley's wife to tears with her performance as the "lover" in a West End play, Nina reduces Wyley himself to jelly as his playful lover across the West End – or as close to jelly as his sangfroid will allow.

This couple brushes up against three other main characters. James Erskine is a haughty, brilliant and recklessly promiscuous theatre critic, whose bon mots and after-hours cruising are inspired by those of James Agate. Tom Tunner, his secretary, plays Clov to Erskine's Hamm: always threatening to leave, but never quite managing it. At the centre of Quinn's flawless jigsaw is Madeleine Farewell. Having quit her department store job when one slimy boss gropes her, a desperate Madeleine falls into prostitution through another greasy spiv.

The quintet are united by a plot that could be drawn from one of 1936's literary hits: Agatha Christie's ABC Murders. A killer is brutalising young women across Soho and Bloomsbury, leaving a tie pin as an effete calling card. Madeleine is about to become his third victim at Russell Square's Imperial Hotel when Nina intervenes.

Quinn clearly enjoys playing with genre conventions. The whodunit is fun without being funny, as is the relentless path-crossing of his cast, who career between romance and melodrama, comedy and pathos. There are moments when he flirts with contrivances that Erskine would skewer for breakfast, as if he has been seduced by the surface elegance he also satirises.

Navigating this is Quinn's refined narrative voice which is as crisp, melodious and sure-footed as Erskine's own. It proves perfect for the witty one-liner. When Wyley raps nervously on Nina Land's hotel door, she answers by saying: "That knock sounded like a small boy come to the headmaster's office for a thrashing."

The novel tilts at entertainment, but is also intent on graver moral questions. Almost all the characters find their pursuit of public decency undercut by private desires – for sex, love, power, money and, most dangerously, happy obliviousness. Erskine, for example, is constantly caught between loyalty to friends and serving his own skin.

Broader political commentary is embodied by Wyley. Caught red-handed with his Land girl at the Imperial, he is blackmailed into supporting a West End theatre. That the fund-raiser is a Fascist is a matter of brusque indifference for a man as busy and absorbed with his reputation as he. When his negligence returns to haunt him, one thinks of Edmund Burke's famous epigram: 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.' Curtain Call is a beautifully written, absorbing work of historical fiction. If it's too impeccable for its own good, then it's a fault stylish enough to be excused. A distinguished thing indeed.

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