1936. In a central London hotel, up-and-coming actress Nina Land has a rendez-vous with society portrait painter Stephen Wyley. It is afternoon. The main purpose of their assignation over, Wyley realises that he has left his cigarettes behind. Nina offers to go to reception to get some. It is worth a brief quotation here to get the flavour of the dialogue and the period:
“I’ll go,” she said, throwing back the covers and springing out. “Save you crippling yourself.”
He tossed the shoes away and gave her a look of rueful adoration. “Darling, you’re a brick.”
“I know,” she said, wriggling into her camisole. “Aren’t you lucky?”
It’s neat, it’s clever and it tells you quite a lot about the respective characters. In short, you know from very early on in this most enjoyable of period thrillers that you are in the hands of an author very much in control of his material. Anthony Quinn can write.
It is also the moment when Nina’s afternoon tryst very quickly takes a more dramatic turn. In the hotel corridor she hears a woman’s voice, pleading, begging. Nina is convinced that the unseen woman is under threat of violence, so she knocks on the door. Seconds later, “the door flew open and a young woman dashed out – face white as chalk, tears, hair all over the place – sobbing, simply terrified. Before I could do anything she was past me and haring down the corridor.” But Nina sees the man who has been threatening her and subsequently realises that she is the sole witness to the identity of the notorious Tie-Pin murderer.
A central thread of Curtain Call is the hunt for what turns out to be a serial killer. But it is only one thread that holds together a cast of memorable characters, all of whom are part of bohemian London society. Dominant among these is theatre critic Jimmy Erskine, pompous, self-important and utterly self-centred. But it is Erskine’s breath-taking arrogance that is most memorable: “He loved the way his prose fell into place… True, with experience had come a certain godlike assurance: it was impossible to avoid the feeling that his critical verdicts were consistently and remarkably right. What use in being a critic otherwise? The problem was in finding different ways of saying the same thing over and over again.”
It is a tribute to Quinn’s skill that he manages to weave his characters into a convincing and entertaining plotline with a light touch. There is a knowing and self-aware quality about the writing that enhances it – this is essentially a playful thriller about a serial killer, if that doesn’t sound too completely ridiculous.
Apart from the killer himself, the most sinister background to the book is Oswald Mosely and the rise of the fascist party. Stephen Wyley is caught up in controversy when he is duped into attending a “charity function” organised by the MP Gerald Carmody which turns out to be nothing more than a thinly disguised fundraiser for the Blackshirts. There are reercussions.
Curtain Call is steeped in period detail and engaging characters. Towards the end of the book, Quinn has Erskine write in a review: “What is good writing? What, to refine the question, sets good writing apart from the merely competent?” It is a rhetorical question that Curtain Call answers with aplomb.
A longer version of this review appeared in The Star (Malaysia) www.star2.com/culture/books.