Constance Fayle is a down-on-her-luck stage-actress. With the coming of cinema, people have lost interest in watching stage-performances and theatres are closing all over the country:
And in more than one district lately the news had filtered through, the little theatre was being abandoned, transformed into a picture house; that had happened at Ealing and at Notting hill, and probably it would soon happen in other places too. You couldn’t compete with the pictures. They were cheap, comfortable, could be entered at any time, and didn’t involve reserved seats. (29-30).
The only silver lining for Constance is that she still gets the lead role rather than being one of the chorus.
“Like a flock of birds, you ought to be,” the producer had told them – “that’s the reaction you should arouse in your audience – a flock of birds.” Pretty birds, indeed, thought the exhausted, underpaid chorus, joining their hands above their heads, twirling on toes encased in shoes that wouldn’t bear a very close inspection, noticing drearily how tarnished the other girls’ spangles were and wondering if their own were as bad, how rents had been mended in the short pink frills that stood out – like a flower, of course, that was the producer again from their tired bodies. (7)
Then one day even as she performs in a play that hasn’t evoked any interest in the public, she notices a red-haired man in the audience staring intently at her. Hoping that he is some money-bags producer, Constance tries to impress him and is most gratified when he comes to the green-room to meet her. However, her dreams come crashing down when the man (a Major Hillier as we come to know later) is rude and offensive to her; rather than a business proposal for her, he has a (threatening) message for her husband, the slightly shifty Harold Fraser. An embittered Constance conveys the message to her husband who goes white-as-a- sheet and bolts out of the house.
The next day, Major Hillier is found dead in his study by his servants and the police have no clue about who might have killed him. Further, Hillier himself seems to be a rather peculiar character:
Before the war he might have found it difficult to effect an entry into many of the houses where he was now a familiar figure. But no one troubled about parentage in the old formal way; a man was accepted for what he was, had or had accomplished, for himself in short, rather than for any virtue of his forbears; society had become very elastic during the past dozen years. (39)
The police arrest Parsons, Hillier’s man-servant, but once Egerton enters the scene the focus shifts to the absconding Fraser. What follows is an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between the detective and the supposed murderer.
Mystery wise, the book is not great but what saves it are the last couple of pages. As (the now successful) Constance looks back at her life, especially the initial years of marriage when two shy, lonely people had sought comfort in each other, the novel becomes heart-wrenching.
The last few pages restored my faith in Anthony Gilbert. If there is one author whose books need to be widely-available, it is Gilbert.
First Line: For the last time that evening the weary chorus swooped on to the stage.
Title: The Musical Comedy Crime
Author: Anthony Gilbert
Publication Details: London: Collins, 1936 (The Crime Club)
First Published: 1933
Trivia: This book seems to have been pretty popular. First published in September 1933, it had its second impression within a month. By 1936, it was in its fourth impression.
The book might be available in second-hand book shops. I borrowed it from a library.
Submitted for various challenges.
Entry for Friday’s Forgotten Books @ pattinase.