The latest archaeological find from Poisoned Pen’s British Library of Crime Classics is a 1934 theatrical whodunit by the pseudonymous playwright and TV producer (1910-83) that’s definitely worth a second look, if not necessarily a full-scale resurrection.
Ivor Watcyns’s book for Douglas B. Douglas’ production of Blue Music calls for eternal juvenile Brandon Baker to get shot in Act 2, Scene 1, and that’s exactly what happens on opening night in a West End theater. The twist is that Baker really does get shot, onstage in front of hundreds of spectators, and really does die. When J. Hilary Foster, who plays the rebel leader who shot Baker’s character, is found obligingly hanged in his dressing room, the coroner’s court promptly closes the case. But Inspector Wilson, of Scotland Yard, is no more satisfied than his son, reporter Derek Wilson. Breaking every law, written and unwritten, concerning the confidentiality of evidence in an ongoing case, the pair banter back and forth ferociously, discussing alternative scenarios (could someone have switched the harmless gun Foster was supposed to discharge with a more lethal firearm? Could someone else have fired a shot from offstage at exactly the same time?) with gay abandon. At length their inquiries take them to the village of Craile, where parties to one secret affair and another secret marriage have gone to roost, before Wilson Senior makes an arrest that sets the stage for an epilogue strongly reminiscent of Trent’s Last Case 20 years earlier.
Full marks to Melville for his Pagliacci-like premise, which predates Michael Innes’ better-known use of onstage homicide in Hamlet, Revenge! by three years, and for a confident, waspish wit perfectly suited to his theatrical milieu—even if the working out of the puzzle manages to be both overingenious and humdrum.