RogerBW's Blog

Cast in Order of Disappearance, Simon Brett 12 November 2016

1975 detective fiction; first of Brett's novels of Charles Paris, ageing actor. A friend and occasional lover of Charles's has been dumped by her current sugar daddy, and she asks him to return some compromising photographs. But getting in touch is going to be something of a challenge.

Charles Paris is a minor name and gets reasonable amounts of work, but he's clearly never going to hit the big time. When he's not working, he spends his time in increasingly gloomy drinking and fornication. As in the later Withnail and I, this is supposed to make him such a sympathetic character that the author need expend no further effort on the task.

For years life had jogged on from hangover to hangover, with the odd affair between drinks, and nothing had affected him much.

The tawdry world of bedsits, ex-wives and blackmail is effectively painted, and the whole thing is thoroughly downbeat and cynical: nobody in any of this is a good person, except perhaps for some of the minor characters who are on stage for too short a time to have their sins revealed.

Against the timelessness of the major action, Brett superimposes the real events of 1973-1974: the petrol crisis, the Three-Day Week, and the general election. It's an unusual step for a detective story, which are usually left to float vaguely within their eras; petrol shortages are a minor plot point, but otherwise the current events are more depressing background detail.

Paris makes an unlikely amateur sleuth, though he just about rises to the task, in between sleeping with most of the female characters and getting very drunk. He even has something of a talent for disguise:

He was wearing the démodé pinstriped suit he'd got from a junk-shop for a production of Arturo Ui ('grossly overplayed'—Glasgow Herald) and the tie he'd worn as Harry in Marching Song ('adequate if uninspiring'—Oxford Mail). He walked with the limp he'd used in Richard III ('nicely understated'—Yorkshire Post). He wasn't sure whether to speak in the accent he'd used in Look Back in Anger ('a splendid Blimp'—Worcester Gazette) or the one for When We are Married ('made a meal of the part'—Croydon Advertiser).

But things progress slowly, with Paris unconvinced that anything is genuinely wrong until people start getting threatened with bodily harm, and even then he goes away to work on a film for a few weeks. The book's quite short, but has long passages with not much happening. There's a clearly designated Villain from the start, the victim's son whom everyone despises even before they've met him; the main thing in question is exactly what he did and why, since if he did kill his father he made his inheritance situation significantly worse, and the eventual explanations did not convince. (X would not work without Y; but if Y is done, X isn't necessary, and significantly increases the risk.) It's a bit of a mess, which is clearly meant to be carried on Paris' roguish charm, but somehow never quite comes together. And the splendid title has nothing to do with the story.

Overall, this has its moments, but I doubt I'll seek out more in the series without a recommendation. I read this for Past Offences' 1975 month. Followed by So Much Blood.

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  1. Posted by Phil Masters at 11:15am on 12 November 2016

    I've not read any of the Paris books, but I've heard some of the radio adaptations, with Bill Nighy cast (typecast?) in the lead. Those may, by the sound of it, tone down some of Paris's more annoying features while kicking the plot along (because of limited time), but of course they also benefit from Nighy's louche, world-weary charisma. I'm not sure that I could read the books without hearing Nighy's voice now.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:19am on 12 November 2016

    He does sound like an ideal actor for the job, and I've certainly seen him drum up sympathy for characters who don't otherwise earn it – I'll have to try one of those adaptations some time.

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