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)|
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