My first book post for December may well be setting a trend for the month; it’s another lovely British Library Crime Classic, and as I hinted in my end of November post, I suspect there might be a number of them making an appearance on the blog before the new year! My love of Golden Age crime should be well known, and so I’m always pleased when a BLCC pops through the door; and they make the perfect palate cleaner when I’m not sure what to read next. Today’s book is another one of their marvellous anthologies and it really is a treat! Entitled “Final Acts”, it collects together a wonderful selection of short stories centred around theatres and it’s definitely one of the most entertaining of their collections I’ve read!

My photo doesn’t do it justice, but it’s a stunner of a cover!!

Edited by Martin Edwards, the book gathers together fourteen stories which are a particularly strong and distinctive selection of mysteries, from more obscure names like  Barry Perowne and Roy Vickers, to the queens of the era like Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Some names have been rescued from neglect by the BLCC releases (Anthony Wynne, Christianna Brand), whilst others definitely deserve to be revisited (Marguerite Steen, Brandon Fleming). Somehow, Golden Age crime and theatres seem to work so well together – creepiness, the slight sinister nature of backstage, seedy characters hanging around, disguises and complex alibis and all manner of devious murders and motives; all of these elements fit brilliantly into the mystery genre and there’s plenty of this on show in “Final Acts”.

I’ve read a number of BLCC anthologies and I have to say that I think this is one of the best, if not *the* best. I usually struggle with not wanting to pick out favourites, although this is collection where I feel you could actually write about every story individually. However I *will* focus on some standouts…

“The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel” by A.E.W. Mason reintroduced me to an author who I hadn’t read since my twenties; Mason was very highly regarded in his time, I believe, and I loved his “The House of the Arrow” back in the day. His regular detective was Hanaud, and on the basis of this story I’m really not sure why he’s fallen out of favour nowadays. Anyway, “Semiramis” is a wonderful story, nudging close to novella length, in which Hanaud investigates a strange affair involving jewel theft, drugs, romance, murder and singing. It’s a heady mix which creates an excellent and atmospheric story, and I must confess I’m feeling drawn to seek out some of those Hanaud novels for a revisit.

Another highlight was “In View of the Audience” by Marguerite Steen, which was quite unforgettable. George Brewster catches a train by the skin of his teeth; but it turns out to be the wrong one… As he curses, and waits for the next stop where he can get a connection, he enters into conversation with his fellow passenger, Henry Morpeth, a strange little man who it turns out has just bought a derelict theatre in the sticks. As Brewster becomes drawn into Morpeth’s story, events take a sinister turn, building to a really dark climax. More I will not say, but it’s a brilliant and suspenseful story, cleverly done and very memorable…

Sayers is, of course, a magnificent writer and she’s one of my all-time favourites – I could read the Wimsey books over and over (in fact, I have…) “Blood Sacrifice” doesn’t feature her main detective, but is a standalone story, and another very dark one. As is aways the case with Sayers, there is a depth to the story as she explores the emotions of John Scales, an author whose play has been a huge success but at the cost of his morals, as it has been toned down and smoothed out to make it acceptable to the masses. Scales is tormented by this, knowing his reputation has been made as a playwright, but not on the work he would like to do; and the blame is put down to actor-manager Garrick Drury who caught Scales in a contract which allowed the changes to be made. However, Scales will find his morals tested when met with an event where he could influence events one way or the other – which choice will he make, and does he *really* have the power to influence things that strongly? A wonderfully clever and thought-provoking story by Sayers as always.

Arriving at the Theatre in the 1950s (Terrace, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“After the Event” by Christianna Brand is another clever one. Backstage rivalries are a wonderful motive, and feature in a number of the stories; and here this element features strongly, with a particular acting family being in effect held to ransome by a married-in member. The alibis hinge on a number of things including timings and make-up, and also the loyalty of the various members of the troupe; and the solution is a very interesting one. Also a delight in this story is her series detective, Inspector Cockrill who sees through everything to get to the truth!

Then there’s “I Can Find My Way Out” by Ngaio Marsh, which was another treat. Featuring her regular detective, Roderick Alleyn, this features a very devious murder, and things are complicated by a young friend of the Alleyns turning up backstage and impersonating not only the great detective, but also someone who might cause concern to the company. Luckily Alleyn is on hand to get to the truth of what is a very clever murder, and this was a really satisfying story.

Well, those are a few of the highlights, but I have to say that I found this collection wonderfully varied and not a dud amongst the stories. As I mentioned, the stage setting (of whatever kind – and there is plenty of variety) works so well for GA crime and the range here was excellent. “Final Acts” was a thoroughly enjoyable read from the opening overture to the final curtain; there was an entertainingly diverse selection of plot and characterisation, some cracking mysteries and a marvellous sense of atmosphere. The theatre settings were wonderfully conjured and realistic, and this is the perfect book to lose yourself in if you want some GA Crime escapism during the darker evenings. Loved it!