This is a book for many people who are interested in the events and atmosphere of 1936. It also deals with theatre, critics and art. It is a thriller in an historical setting, with a murder mystery thrown in. So far, so reasonable.
But I think that this novel does more. It also deals with the bleak choices for lone women who need to support themselves. It also deals with the problems faced by men in different relationships and situations. There are so many dangers in this book beyond the obvious one of a murderer on the loose; to reputations, to careers and relationships. The characters are sympathetic, maddening and vulnerable, and for the most part, realistic. Yet this is not a huge book that takes weeks to read, it is a compact novel which moves at a swift pace.
I read and enjoyed Quinn’s earlier book, Half of the Human Race, which deals variously with suffragettes, cricket and the First World War. While I thought that it was a really good read, I got frustrated by the fact that Quinn had almost included three novels in one. Curtain Call is a far more cohesive book, where the five main characters inhabit a smaller world, where they meet and interact. Thus I think it is a better book, one that can be recommended to more readers than those willing and able to take on a big read as in Quinn’s earlier book.
Nina is one of the main characters in the novel, who witnesses a crime while she is in a hotel with Stephen, a married man. The dilemma of what to do dominates the early part of the novel, while other characters emerge with less than positive motives. While the character of Jimmy is a great creation, I also felt strongly for Tom who struggles with life. There are characters who would exasperate in real life, but who are well drawn. It is difficult to enlarge on the plot, as this does novel does in part depend on suspense. It is not just a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit, but more of a discrimination of characters in situations.
This is not a self consciously literary novel, but nevertheless a very well written book. The paperback edition includes some interesting material for discussion and about the process of writing the novel, and points towards Quinn’s next book which takes one of the characters onwards. I think that the title Curtain Call works better than the alternative The Distinguished Thing as it covers the content well in spirit as well as in fact. It is more than a “poignant” read as described on the back cover; it feels more like a slice of life.