Monday, February 13, 2012

Exit Charlie - Alex Atkinson

I tend not to like many books with theatrical backgrounds because they never seem real to me. Having spent a good portion of my life in theaters both as an actor and a stagehand I know them all too well. Even Agatha Christie's stories of stage life don't have much authenticity for me. So many mysteries featuring stage backgrounds are informed of cliché ideas employing a cast of egocentric and vain artistes with mercurial temperaments. The focus always seems to be on the actors, the director and the playwright. But the theater has an entire backstage world of techies running the show for those actors, and a business world keeping an eye on the box office take, plus the bustling front of house staff catering to the needs of the audience. These portions are rarely mentioned in any mystery novels using the theater as a backdrop. Not so in the case of the phenomenally good book Exit Charlie (1955) by Alex Atkinson. The author was a former actor and playwright and knows his world inside out and includes it all in this energetic and imaginative detective novel.

Charlie Manion is playing the lead in The Second Warning, an Edgar Wallace style thriller, and he is onstage for almost the entire show. One night he makes his final exit but doesn't return for the curtain call. When the curtain falls and the audience has filed out of the theater one cast member rushes to Manion's dressing room to see what kept him from joining the cast for the bows. He finds Charlie Manion in the final throes of an agonizing death. "They've poisoned me!" he cries out and he dies only seconds later. It appears that he was entertaining a guest for there are two glasses, a whiskey bottle and a crushed cigarette on the floor. While Manion enjoyed a ritual post performance whiskey shot each night he did not smoke. The police and cast believe that whoever was his guest must've poisoned his whiskey. But it's not as simple as that, my friends.

Inspector Furniss, a shrewd policeman who likes to munch on peppermint candies during his interviews, is in charge of the investigation. He is ably assisted by Detective Sergeant Appleby, an amateur thespian himself who likes to show off his theater knowledge and can't help but repeat a tiresome anecdote about his role as Sir Toby Belch in a community theater production of Twelfth Night.  Atkinson has a lot of fun with Appleby's eagerness to educate Furniss in the world of the theater and Furniss who often loses his patience with the endless definition of theater terms and backstage lore.  "I have been to the theater more than once, Appleby," he sternly says at one point hoping that will silence his partner.

Alex Atkinson (photo by Harry Ivell)
The mystery plot is intricately worked out with all sorts of hidden secrets among the cast and crew, the usual display of volatile emotions, jealousies and pettiness. Furniss even learns that an actress who committed suicide was a former girlfriend of Manion and when her name and photo kept turning up he is sure that she has something to do with Manion's death.  But how was it possible for him to be poisoned when nearly everyone was either on stage acting or engaged in running the show?

Clues and evidence are ample as in so many traditional detective novels and while it may be fairly easy to spot the culprit towards the end, it's Atkinson's lively writing, his sense of humor and his excellent portraits that raise this book out of the realm of cliché backstage thrillers. He doesn't confine his tale to the soap opera lives of the actors and actresses. His theater is an all inclusive world incorporating onstage, backstage and front of house staff. Everyone gets their moment to shine. In fact, one of the assistant stage managers and the woman in the tiny box office provide Furniss with his most vital pieces of evidence.  Even Mrs. Holloway, the piano player who provides intermission music, has her own little solo. If you want to read a book about how a real theater operates and want a superb mystery to boot look no further than Exit Charlie.

I'm crossing off another book on my list of copper mysteries for the first part of my three part 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. Links to the previously reviewed books are listed below.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King
The Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas
The Moon Murders - Nigel Morland
Killer's Wedge - Ed McBain 


  1. Great review--it makes me want to start reading this book right now! I enjoy mysteries set in the theater world (although I have no background in anything remotely theatrical). One of the best contemporary takes on the theater mystery is Caroline Graham's DEATH OF A HOLLOW MAN (I say contemporary, but it was published over 20 years ago).

  2. I used to be something of an actor (haven't been involved in a production for a few years now) and I really enjoy theatrical mysteries that capture the hectic life of the actors and director. But of course you're quite right in pointing out that there is much more to it all that just that.

    You've really made this book sound like a wonderful treat, and you've even stumped the university library this time. I could probably find it via ILL if I searched, but I'd better get through LAURENCE VINING first. :)

  3. Sounds excellent, I'll have to scare up a copy. Thanks as always for the blog and alerting me to books like this one.

  4. This review reminds me of several elements in a theatre setting I found very satisfying in the John Russell Fearn book 'One Remained Seated', which you reviewed also.
    Therefore, I will keep an eye out for this one, John, and do hope it is not hopelessly scarce.

  5. Jim & all other interested parties -

    You should have better luck finding a copy of this book. It has two hardcover editions (in the US Knopf, in the UK Peter Davies); a Penguin paperback; and a US reissue from Garland which is part of Jacques Barzun & Wendell Taylor's "Top 50 Classics of Crime" series.

    I thought in One Remained Seated the murder took place in a movie theater. It was a long time ago I read that. I don't' recall anything about a stage theater company.

  6. Your memory is accurate; the murder in 'One Remained Seated' took place in a movie theatre. The
    investigation involving Maria Black, head mistress of a nearby girls' school, focuses attention on the comings and goings of the individuals resonsible for the theatre's operations including projection, sound and lighting, ushering and ticket sales as well as management, and it was these aspects I recalled.
    Thanks for the publishing details on the Atkinson book.