Anthony Quinn's novel about the West End theatre world in the 1930s keeps the reader guessing, says Peter Stanford
British writer Anthony Quinn knows all about the world of critics, having spent two decades as a film reviewer. Latterly, though, he has also been getting star billing as a novelist, winning awards. In his fourth novel, Curtain Call, set in 1936, Quinn's two worlds become one.
Among the principals is theatre critic Jimmy Erskine, largely based on James Agate, a leading theatre reviewer of the Thirties, hailed by Alistair Cooke as the "supreme diarist", but now largely forgotten.
Erskine is the doyen of Fleet Street, witty and incisive in his elegantly written judgments, but egotistical, spendthrift and professionally insecure, haunted by the fear that his star is fading and that his pursuit of younger men in shady clubs and public lavatories might bring about his downfall in an age when such behaviour is illegal.
But this isn't just a novel about newspapers, or the front and backstage dramas of London's West End, all out-sized egos, air-kisses and sentences beginning and ending with "darling". Neither, for that matter, is it a portrait of what it meant to be gay 80 years ago. These are all elements of the tale, along with a robust defence of the critic's role, but Quinn's genius as a novelist is that he works so much into a story and makes it so much more than the sum of its parts.
"The point is that good writing transforms the commonplace into the remarkable," Erskine writes in a review. By which measurement, Quinn undeniably makes the grade. There is never a dud scene, or a poorly drawn character. And scattered throughout Curtain Call are passages of lyricism that lodge in your memory.
There's something fascinating about watching a novelist's career grow and expand, each work connected to the last, but more ambitious. So far, since 2009, Quinn has established his hallmarks - a pleasing exactness about topography, an awareness of the sounds as well as the sights around us, a way of setting individual lives against key historical moments that keeps the two in balance, and an ability to capture distinctive voices and intonation not just in dialogue but in letters and diary entries.
All are there in abundance in Curtain Call. The abdication crisis, the fire that destroys the Crystal Palace, the rise of Hitler and the shadow of war are presented in a sharp but never too vivid focus. The impression of a society that is losing its way is mirrored by the lives of characters who don't quite know which way to turn next.
Stephen Wyley is stuck in a dull marriage with a wife he doesn't respect but fears hurting if he leaves her for the woman he truly loves, Nina Land. She is a rising star of the West End stage, tempted to make the transition into film but worried that it will turn theatre-folk against her. Erskine, meanwhile, thrashes about, throwing money and barbs around in equal numbers.
And then there is Madeleine Farewell, trapped by circumstance into working as an escort, but without the willpower to break out. Even Erskine's long-serving secretary, Tom Tunner, shares the general inertia, knowing that he is worth more than covering up the failing powers of his boss, but strangely tied to him emotionally, like an elderly couple in a sexless marriage.
Curtain Call marks a departure, though, for Quinn because this time he shows his versatility by choosing the format of a thriller. From the first page, the tension is building. Wyley and Land check into the Imperial for an afternoon in bed, but inadvertently stumble over the killer known as the "Tie-Pin Killer", preying on Farewell, his latest street-girl victim. The feisty Nina intervenes and saves Madeleine's life, creating a bond between these two very different women as the murderer pursues them, intent on finishing what he has started.
What follows works on every level. It had me on the edge of my seat. The only disappointment is when the curtain finally has to come down.
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