A Decent Interval: The long overdue return of Charles Paris

Posted by on August 13, 2013

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I’ve had to endure so many summers without a new Charles Paris mystery that I savored this one for weeks. It’s been well over a decade since Simon Brett last published an adventure of this professional actor/ amateur sleuth. In the meantime, the Paris character has gained new cultural cachet through a series of BBC radio adaptations of the earlier novels, with Paris played by Bill Nighy.
The new book’s title, A Decent Interval, would seem to comment on the long wait since the last time Charles Paris appeared in print. Reading it, one suspects it might have been written long before it was published. There are several references to Facebook and tweeting and cell phones and other proclivities of what Charles sees as a much younger generation. But it’s a sort of extreme cluelessness which comes off as years out of date. This is especially true when you consider that many of the earliest users of new personal communications devices, be they pagers or mobile phones or texting devices, were actors who needed to be constantly accessible in case their agents called.
Granted, Charles Paris has a lousy agent, Maurice, who seldom calls. And some quaintness is necessary in these mysteries set in fancy old theaters, in which the most villainous types tend to come from suspicious newfangled media like radio and television. (Simon Brett writes even quainter stuff in his Fethering mysteries, about elderly women sleuths in a British seaside village.) But a running gag about Paris and some of his sexist male drinking companions having to constantly remind themselves not to say “actress” anymore and refer to all members of the profession as “actors” seems beyond dated, practically Paleolithic.
The best lines in A Decent Interval aren’t, as can be said of the earliest Paris adventures, the memorably bad reviews which Paris parenthetically adds to his recollections of his past stage triumphs. Here’s a current underwhelming example:
The chauffeur ushered him into a reception area almost exactly like the hallway set of a television play in which Charles had played a young member of an Edwardian family about to be decimated by the First World War. (“Charles Paris showed about as much backbone as an overboiled piece of macaroni.”–The Spectator.)
No, the wittier asides this time around, in a series that is nearly wholly built of such asides and where the central crimes tend not to happen until a third of the book has transpired, are at the expense of Shakespeare, not Charles Paris. In the play-within-the-book this time, he’s playing Ghost and Gravedigger in an overconceptualized production of Hamlet which stars two American Idol-type TV celebs, and is overseen by a bottom-line bums-on-sears commercial producer. The cast has been filled out with reliable old-school theater types like Paris, which gives Brett the conflict he needs to create both amusing indignation and a suspenseful murder scenario.
There’s muttering of Hamlet without a prince. The set design is a detailed gigantic model of Hamlet’s brain. When the mental strain of trying to solve several crimes at once affects his performance as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, he mangles Shakespeare’s phrase “wit and gifts” as “git and wifts.”
That’s where the joy of a Charles Paris novel lies, in a sheer theatricality. The most fully drawn characters tend to be theaters and plays, not the crime solvers and criminals. I often find myself immediately forgetting whodunit when I’ve finished reading a Charles Paris mystery, but with lasting memories of the stage shows in which the hapless Charles Paris has appeared.

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