FICTION

Book review: Curtain Call - Anthony Quinn pastiche of '30s sleaze

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 9:34pm
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Set in 1936 Britain, against a backdrop of Blackshirts, tea shops, seedy boarding houses and the smoke of Woodbines, Anthony Quinn's fourth novel  tells the story of an actor, Nina, an escort, Madeleine, and an artist, Stephen, who get involved in a murder mystery, in which a killer is strangling prostitutes and leaving a tiepin skewered through their tongue.

Also prominent, but not directly involved, is Jimmy Erskine, a long-serving theatre critic based not too loosely on James Agate, with an enormous appetite for alcohol, fine meals, taxis and rough trade, and an unfortunate tendency to fall asleep in the first act of some of the plays he reviews (Quinn is also a film critic, and I suspect there is personal feeling on his part behind some of Erskine's thoughts).

One of the pleasures of reading pastiche is to see how well the writer manages it. But there can be fun in these exercises. There is the simple pleasure of having a chapter end with the arrival of a character's wife, so that you suddenly realise, as if to the accompaniment of dissonant orchestral chords, that the character concerned has just been doing something that no married person should be doing.

Then there is the more complex pleasure of shifting literary etiquette: here, seeing a guardsman do something with a tankard of scotch that would certainly not have been even hinted at in a novel that was genuinely of the '30s (unless it was published in France, or something).

The book has depth and resonance, both from its own awareness of its place in the scheme of things (it is haunted by Kipling, Trollope and Shakespeare, as well as its own precedents), and from the pervasive atmosphere of seediness, anxiety, hypocrisy and moral queasiness, the smell of Auden's "low, dishonest decade".

It does its job very well (I'd compare it with Sophie Hannah's recent Christie tribute, The Monogram Murders, also faultlessly executed), with the sleaze of Soho being particularly well captured.

Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape)

The Guardian