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ADAM QUILL, Detective-Inspector of Scotland Yard, may not have the reputation of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, however, had only to contend with the likes of Professor James Moriarty. Quill was up against crime, but also matched wits with Vladimir Stroganoff, founding impresario of Ballet Stroganoff.
Stroganoff, his dance troupe of zanies, Detective-Inspector Quill and occasional baddies are from the fertile imaginings of Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, an unlikely pair of mystery writers if ever there was one.
In real life, Englishwoman Caryl Brahms was a critic, novelist and journalist specializing in theater and ballet. S. J. Simon, Vladivostok-born, became one of England’s most highly regarded bridge experts. He was co-developer of Acol, a favored Brtish system of bidding, and very successful in tournament play throughout his life.
It’s said Brahms and Simon concocted their first ballet murder mystery after fantasizing that Arnold Haskell, Britain’s leading ballet critic, was the corpse.
Recalled Brahms, “It was a long, laughing, wrangling conversation with both of us jumping on one another. We would speak lines to each other—we would laugh at our own jokes.”
The first of the Stroganoff series, in 1937, was A Bullet at the Ballet. Ten more comic novels followed, including three more full-length Stroganoff mysteries, Murder à la Stroganoff (its U.S. title), Six Curtains for Natasha (its U.S. title), Envoy on Excursion (Quill as a spy) and a Stroganoff short story in To Hell with Hedda! and other stories (1947).
A Bullet at the Ballet gets off to a prompt start: “Since it is probable that any book flying a bullet in its title is going to produce a corpse sooner or later—here it is.”
In the ballet Petroushka, the title character dies at the end. Only this time, Ballet Stroganoff star Anton Palook “danced energetically and must have been very annoyed when that bullet robbed him of his curtain calls—six under contract.”
Later, “The Flying Squad tourer pulled up outside the Colledium stage door, tactlessly omitting to make that fascinating noise that accompanies police cars on the screen….”
By then, much to Detective-Inspector Quill’s dismay, Stroganoff has already reset the scene of the crime, for the troupe’s next ballet, Ajax.
“Then you moved the body?”
“Mais naturellement,” said Stroganoff. “You cannot have a body in Ajax and anyway the décor, it is different.”
Were this a movie, I’d have Quill played by Stephen Fry, à la his Inspector Thompson in Gosford Park . Stroganoff would be portrayed by Peter Ustinov, rest his soul, http://wp.me/p2ETap-1op.
The book is a grand romp.
No Bed for Bacon is Brahms & Simon’s tribute to the Elizabethan Age, with a dedicatory remark, “Warning to Scholars: This book is fundamentally unsound.”
Will Shakespeare—Shakespur? Shikespore? Shekspar?—is working on his next play, Lov’s Labour Wunne, not to say dithering with the spelling of his surname. The Queen herself might have once visited the title bed. Francis Bacon is scheming for possession; of the bed, not the Queen.
There is a love interest here. Stage-struck Viola Compton disguises herself as a boy-player in Master Will’s troupe. Of course, think Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love (1998). But note this book’s 1941 publication.
Trottie True is Edwardian madcap. A Gaiety Girl, Trottie True, marries Lord Digby Landon, but maybe she should have stayed with balloonist Sid Skinner. As the Duchess of Wellwater, she “whistles through Mayfair like a human cannonball.” A British musical comedy film, its U.S. title The Gay Lady, followed the book’s 1947 publication by two years.
Start with A Bullet at the Ballet, and enjoy them all. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014