Written by Simon Brett — Simon Brett is almost a British institution. All at once, he’s a dramatist, screenwriter and prolific writer of cosy murder mysteries. You may have come across his indomitable widow Mrs Pargeter, his melancholy actor Charles Paris and his depiction of small town life in the fictitious seaside resort of Fethering. The Strangling on the Stage is the latest book in the Fethering series and it combines Brett’s love for the theatre with his usual sharp eye for human foibles.
The mismatched friends and part-time detectives Jude Nichols and Carole Seddon become involved with the amateur dramatic society not far from the fictional village of Fethering, on England’s south coast. Initially, Jude was just planning to lend them her chaise longue, while Carole sniffed haughtily at the pretentious ego-fuelled rants of the would-be thespians. But then star actor and incorrigible ladies’ man Ritchie Good is found hanged on the stage gallows built for the upcoming production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple.
The police are inclined to dismiss this as an accident, or even suicide, but surely that explanation is not plausible for someone of such limitless vanity and self-regard? The two friends cannot resist the sleuthing challenge and there is certainly no shortage of suspects amongst the fellow actors and stagehands. Could the murderer be one of the many women Ritchie had seduced and then callously dropped? Why does the self-effacing prompter Hester Winstone claim that she is responsible for his death? Or is the young actor Olly, who takes over the role, more ambitious than he looks?
The book starts well, with a fun cast of larger-than-life characters, an excellent ear for dialogue and keen observations about female friendships and inflated egos. It is a frothy, humorous look at the absurdities of provincial life, and is enjoyable for the down-to-earth, resolute middle-aged heroine, Jude. It seems like the perfect read for someone who enjoys the more cosy, old-fashioned type of mysteries. However, the second half of the book let it down. The plot starts to feel too contrived and creaky after a while, while the resolution is just silly.
Not a return to form for Simon Brett, then. Turn to his earlier works for a more witty and stylish story. Still, if you have a couple of hours to spare and want a quick, undemanding read, this is the book to take along to the doctor’s waiting room or a ride on the train.
It’s currently available as a hardback; a Kindle edition comes out 1 February.
Creme de la Crime
CFL Rating: 2 Stars