Curtain Call, Or the Distinguished Thing

Written by Anthony Quinn
Review by Douglas Kemp

London 1936, and the UK is in the midst of concerns about a seemingly approaching war with Germany, allied to the threats of violence from black-shirted fascists on the streets, as well as the King’s infatuation with Wallis Simpson. In addition, there is even a serial killer of call girls on the loose, the so-called Tiepin Killer, who uses the eponymous item as part of his murderous activity.

Society portraitist, Stephen Wyley, and actress Nina Land, enjoy their first adulterous liaison (Wyley is already married) in the Imperial Hotel on Russell Square one late summer afternoon. Nina hears the desperate pleas of a woman in an adjacent room and, stumbling across an attempted murder, inadvertently saves Madeleine Farewell’s life. They later meet by accident and discuss the horrifying incident. Madeleine, a somewhat unlikely escort, has a good friend in Tom Tunner, who is a long-suffering secretary to James Erskine, an acerbic and gay theatre critic – who has, in the past, upset Nina Land and who wants his portrait painted by Wyley. Erskine then decides to buy a new car, and the vendor is Madeleine’s pimp, Roddy Anstil. Thus are the myriad connections in the narrative made – a series of credible coincidences to immerse and entrap the characters in the sticky mess of existence.

This is Quinn’s fourth novel and all have been historical. I have read three of them, and the novels seem to improve markedly with time. This is excellent fiction, well-paced and engagingly observed. The plot and narrative drive the reader on, and I did care very much about the main characters and was keen to see how the imbroglios they found themselves facing and, in part created, worked out.