Wednesday, February 11, 2015

" Curtain Call" - a clever and well-plotted novel capturing the tensions of mid 1930s London

“Curtain Call” is an ambitious novel set in the mid 1930s and brilliantly evocative of those troubled times. The coming war is alluded to, as is the Great War through which all of the characters had lived. There are echoes of Evelyn Waugh in that the hedonism of the inter-war period while central is not explained, because it does not need to be. Waugh’s readers had all been touched by the War, who had not been? For Anthony Quinn this is less the case though in one of the main characters, the Theatre critic Jimmy Erskine, there are echoes of “Vile Bodies” and “ Brideshead  Revisited”. Erskine is a brilliant, outrageous, dysfunctional Queer (in the argot of the times). He takes risks in an almost Wildean way (Oscar also ripples through the novel) but this is not a “Gay” novel – at least in the modern sense. 

The novel has at its core the adulterous relationship between a portrait artist of renown, Stephen Wyley and a successful actress Nina Land. Wyley had been born in 1900 and so had just missed the War and was seen as “lucky in most things” – he is now, at 35, very sought after by the London glitterati. Land, a few years his junior, is making her way in the London theatre and starring in a West End production that had received good reviews (including from Erskine). She is a “modern girl” though insecure behind her attractive persona. The relationship, initially quite lightly described, soon comes over as important to both parties. We gradually realise that this is love, not just a bit of fun. They go together to an hotel and while there they witness a disturbing scene. A man in a room opposite is seen trying to strangle a young woman. Nina’s observation of this breaks the moment and the woman escapes. We learn that a “Jack the Ripper” type killer is at work in London and it seems that Nina has seen him in that fleeting moment in the hotel.

The characters intertwine cleverly as the novel progresses to a shocking denouement. The woman in the hotel, Madeleine Farewell,  turns out to be a reluctant prostitute run by Roddy a lowlife pimp. The world of the girls in the twilight (“Soho’s restless flotsam”) and their exploitation comes across as very real, and shocking. Madeleine meets Tom who is Erskine’s long-suffering Secretary. There is potential for this to develop into another loving relationship, but Madeleine’s secrecy about her job clouds this – to Tom’s confusion. Meanwhile we have Wyley accidentally and naively caught up with the unpleasant Gerald Carmody – a Fascist who almost out-Mosley’s Mosley. In this part of the story Quinn introduces the real life character William Joyce – to be infamous during the war as the traitorous Lord Haw-Haw. Wyley’s unwitting involvement with Carmody and his blackshirts is, I think, meant to show his vulnerability. He is not an arrogant man, but a naïve one in his relationships and in his trust of people he should be more careful with. There is an element of the artist Charles Ryder from Brideshead in this characterisation. 

The structure of the novel is part thriller, part romance, part comic story. Erskine is a powerful comic creation and rather like Wyley unconscious of risks, through arrogance in his case. There is a key scene towards the end when he attends an Oscar Wilde party dressed as Lady Windermere, complete with fan. The party is reckless at a time when the police were trying to trap homosexuals with agent provocateurs. But devil may care! 

This is a portrait of the time and the abdication crisis, the burning down of the Crystal Palace and the Coronation are all backdrops to the drama. Hypocrisy is rife – not least in the description in the necessarily furtive lives of Erskine and his “queer” friends.  All the characters have secrets, what you see is not necessarily what you will get. The self-centredness of the abdicating King is matched by that of Erskine. And the tendency to put self first is not theirs alone. That said there is genuine kindness and decency around as well and most of the players have redeeming features. Is there a tad too much detail? Perhaps. There is a strange sub-sub-plot with Nina, her mother and her sisters over inheritance which seems tangental to the main plot lines ( Though it does reinforce that underlying theme of hypocrisy and selfishness). 

A test of fiction is whether we care about some or all of the characters. “Curtain Call” passes this test - we certainly do. Add in the high definition snapshot of a moment in time when, as the book’s blurb puts it, society is “dancing towards the abyss” and you have a very complete novel – as well as an exciting page-turner.