One of the purposes behind creating this column was to provide ideas about ways in which we could entertain ourselves and remain in touch with the joys of theatre during what is looking like an increasingly long period of abstinence.
There has been a vast amount of literature based in and around theatres, considerably helped by the fact that so many in the industry are literate. Although there are probably not quite as many novels on theatrical themes as one might imagine, one writer has done his best to redress that balance.
To date, Simon Brett has written 20 novels featuring Charles Paris, a jobbing actor who has the misfortune to find himself surrounded by murders at every turn. The first Cast, in Order of Disappearance was published in 1973 and, to date, the most recent is A Deadly Habit which appeared 45 years later.
This reviewer is happy to admit that, to date, he has only read a small sample, although there is more to Charles Paris than meets the eye, since he has also proved a popular radio draw. In the early days, Francis Matthews starred as the actor cum sleuth, before the reins were handed over to Bill Nighy, who can still be heard on Radio 4 today. Both were perfectly cast for the role of a louche but lucid, varsity-educated performer whose ability to get into scrapes is second to none.
Charles Paris is quite a character. Describing his attitudes as old-fashioned understates the case. He drinks like a fish, sleeps with every attractive actress or backstage worker that he can find but still manages to draw great sympathy from Frances, a long-suffering ex-wife who deserves better.
In career terms, he is perfect for an author looking to explore different areas of the theatrical industry, which the crime novelist seems to understand and convey in satisfying depth. Much of Paris’s time is spent working in the provinces, although, given the minimal efforts of his believably likeable but inefficient agent, Maurice, resting is also a common state.
Over the years, he has been miraculous becoming a latter-day Peter Pan. In 1973, Charles Paris was 47 but by 2018, he had advanced no further than his late 50s—another remarkable success for Doctor Theatre?
One advantage that Simon Brett has identified in choosing an actor as his surrogate is that Paris finds himself in numerous settings. He somehow manages to fall over murders in the provinces, on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in the West End, to choose a random selection.
Although these are racy crime novels, Simon Brett is a good, stylish writer who set scenes and, to a degree, develops characters skilfully, at the same time as putting together plots that keep the pages turning, even if they can occasionally become convoluted or require a little contrivance on his part to reach a satisfactory conclusion.
In any event, they provide a very pleasant, if occasionally bloody, diversion from the gloom of contemporary life, witty, gripping and a great reminder of what we are all missing from stage life and, one must hope, soon going to be enjoying again.
For those that like whodunnits with a theatrical setting, Ngaio Marsh, who may well have been an inspiration for Brett, is also well worth trying. Her second novel, Enter a Murderer, centres on nefarious activities in a West End theatre. It was written as far back as 1935 but has much in common with the Paris books, although the protagonist Inspector Alleyne is a real copper rather than an actor playing that role.