Tuesday, October 14, 2014

After Laughter Comes Tears: Situation Tragedy (1981), by Simon Brett

Simon Brett
Simon Brett recently restarted his Charles Paris mystery series, after over fifteen years of dormancy. That's quite a lapse of time!  The series already had been slowing down over the course of the 1990s. Between 1975 and 1989 there were thirteen Paris mysteries, but during the 1990s just four.

Finally in 2000 Brett shifted over to the village cozy "Fethering" series (fifteen in fourteen years!).  But in the last two years there have been published two new Charles Paris mysteries, so I thought I would take take a peep at Paris again, first looking at one of the older novels, Situation Tragedy (1981).

I see Simon Brett as bringing up the rear guard of the first generation of post-Golden Age British crime writers (those born roughly from 1910 to 1945, who first started publishing mystery fiction in the period that extended from the waning days of World War 2 up to the mid-1970s).

This group includes Julian Symons (1912-1994), Michael Gilbert (1912-2006), Edmund Crispin (1921-1978), HRF Keating (1927-2011), Colin Watson (1920-1983), Patricia Moyes (1923-2000), PD James (1920), Ruth Rendell (1930), Catherine Aird (1930), Joyce Porter (1924-1990), Margaret Yorke (1924-2012), Peter Lovesey (1936), Reginald Hill (1936-2012), Robert Barnard (1936-2013) and Simon Brett (1945). Brett is the "baby" of this group, the sole writer under 70, the only one who would have no personal memory of the Second World War.

All these authors grew up when Agatha Christie was very much alive, striding over the world of British mystery like a cozy Colossus (first edition Christie mystery novels were published from 1920 to 1976). Some of these authors, like Julian Symons, very consciously tried to lay out a new course for British mystery, while others, like Patricia Moyes, largely worked within the tradition; still others occupied more of a middle ground.

What Simon Brett helped bring to the genre with the Paris series that was more original was his emphasis on humor and satire.  Though this in itself was not new--there was plenty of humor and satire in Golden Age British mystery and what followed--Brett's Paris novels seem to me to place more emphasis on these qualities relative to actual clueing and detection.  I think readers of Brett's Paris mysteries probably are more interested in what satirical wrinkle he will come up with next, rather than the mystery puzzles per se.

For the Charles Paris mysteries Brett was able to draw effectively on his career in British radio and television, as his protagonist is a small-time actor, as preoccupied with drinking and bedding as he is with detecting.

In Situation Tragedy, the "bit" is that Paris has gotten a part on a British sitcom spin-off series, "The Strutters." Soon people involved with the show are dropping like ninepins, murdered in various memorable ways. It's rather like something out of Seventies Vincent Price horror film.

This allows Brett ample scope for satire aimed at the people in the television business, from the producer (hopeful notes from him are interspersed throughout the text, looking increasingly oblivious as the body count rises), to scriptwriters (there is an almost-too-twee-to-be-believed married scripter couple that Charles rightly finds maddening), to the production crew (i.e., what Brett calls "the men in lumberjack checked shirts whose only function seemed to be to wear lumberjack checked shirts"--labor unions are a great object of satire in this novel).

As far as social detail goes, there is quite a bit of interest in this novel. It shows its age a bit when Brett refers to a character visiting a "home for spastics"; and there is a quite positively portrayed, though stereotypically flamboyant, gay character ("his every movement had the desired effect of advertising his proud overt gayness"). "Like many others in television," Brett observes of another character, "he had been recently divorced"; and when I read this, I wondered how many today would ever have been married in the first place.

Charles' detection is fitful, but there is an interesting plot at the heart of the book that eventually implicates a long-forgotten detective novel series from the 1930s.  Reference is made to Freeman Wills Crofts and E. R. Punshon--how often do you ever see that in a modern British mystery?

The resolution, implausible but inevitable, has, as the title indicates, the elements of tragedy; yet Brett does not play this note as hard as he might have. With the last page the the mask of comedy again looks back at us.

Incidentally, Brett's portrayal of avid detective fiction collectors is not a pretty one.  But then it is hard to sympathize with the sort of collector who doesn't have any interest in actually reading the stuff!


  1. This looks lots of fun, and I must see if I can find a copy . . . although I've generally been a bit disappointed by the Charles Paris series (they're by no means bad, but they're just not usually for me).

    What Simon Brett brought to the genre with the Paris series that was more original was his emphasis on humor and satire.

    I'd have said it was Colin Watson who brought this to the genre some while before Brett got going. After his hesitant start to the Flaxborough series, they quickly became great English comic/social-satirical novels that happened to have Golden Age mysteries as their template.

    1. Oh, I agree about Watson, definitely! I wasn't trying to make some sort of exclusive case for Brett. Look at Joyce Porter too for that matter. And, like I said, there was humor in the Golden Age. Look at Leo Bruce's mysteries--highly satirical! Also Innes, the Coles, Crispin, etc.

    2. There, changed to "helped bring" to try to avoid any suggestion of sole agency by Brett. By the way, I've always been impressed that many of the Joyce Porter books manage, amid the broad humor, to offer scrupulously clued mystery as well. She wrote not only some of the funniest post-GA detective novels, but also some of the most cleverly plotted.

  2. I do like Brett, both in light (Paris) and Noir (SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM) modes - his AFTER HENRY sitcom was a delight and if his plots are not especially dense they always seem to work for me. I do find the Paris books a bit hard to distinguish but always enjoy them - and am glad he is back again.

  3. Nice overview and review Curt - I used to read the Charles Paris and fell (from the date) that I must have read this one, but have no recollection of it. I preferred the Paris books to his later series.

    1. For me, the Fethering series is a wee too much modern cozy! I like the Paris books for the view of the British entertainment world, but always hope to find one with a more memorable plot. Some do, some don't,

  4. Wow so much to comment on on this post (sorry), but first off your list of the post golden age writers- i know you said it includes those names, but i cannot think of anyone as a glaring omission and think its a great round up,. So pleased to see it includes writers i've championed for years (hill,lovesey, and particularly the under-rated patricia moyes) as well as ones i've got into through recommendations from this blog (barnard). in fact i think margaret yorke is the only one of them i've never read. Am I missing out? Always thought she'd be too psychology driven to do a nice puzzle.

    Which brings me to simon brett. I discovered the charles paris books through a book programme back in the eighties hosted by P D James (which committed the unpardonable sin of being completely revealing about the plot of roger ackroyd in an edition put on to celebrate the christie centenary- that set points of view off !) in which the late drama critic sheridan morley said he had started reading them.morley said he hated detective fiction generally but he
    liked the paris books as he got so into the backstage gossip you could stop worrying about the mystery.

    BBC Radio 4 are currently dramatising some of the earlier Paris mysteries with Bill Nighy, updating them for the present day, but they havent done Situation Tragedy yet, probably because the sitcom in it is too of its day. It is standard ITV sitcom fare circa 1976, a pair called Vince Powell and Harry Driver wrote loads of these in the 1970s, and recognised every cliche in it.

    One other thing i've always wanted to say about another of the Charles Paris mysteries. I believe that the character of Christopher Milton in Star Trap is based on Carry On actor Kenneth Williams, but have never got it confirmed, just got that impression when reading the novel. Certainly Simon Brett would have known him as he used to produce a radio panel game called Just A Minute, in which Williams was a regular panellist.

    Sorry if this is too Anglocentric, but thats what Wikipedia is for, hey?

    1. I'm glad you liked the list. I was distressed to see how many have passed away, however, in the last decade! I have a fondness for all these writers, who I started taking up in the 1990s, when I was moving beyond the Crime Queens.

      Margaret Yorke's earliest novels actually are, as I recollect, detective novels. She then switched over the psychological suspense.

      Thanks for all the Brit entertainment info, I was certain I was missing out on quite a bit of inside stuff when I was reading Situation Tragedy. Still plenty of funny bits though, even for this Yank!

  5. Ordering Star Trap now! Brett's straight novel, The Penultimate Chance saloon, is brilliant. (A well-known TV presenter retires, and finds a lucrative career on the after-dinner speaking circuit, but then his wife leaves him and he looks for love in all the wrong places.)

    I can remember some pretty gruesome details in the Fethering series, and some grim venues (hotels on the M25). What is it that makes it COZY? (So damning.) Could it be the two middle-aged ladies at its centre?

    Has anyone ever done an uncozy female detective? Miss Silver, Mrs Bradley?

    1. Oh, dear, now we've opened up the cozy can of worms again! I suppose with Fethering I was thinking more of the village setting, but I admit I don't have a lot of experience with this series.

      I don't consider Mrs. Bradley cozy at all! Miss Silver, yes, but that doesn't mean I don't find some of her books interesting. I thought the most recent Miss Silver I blogged here was quite good. Cozy doesn't necessarily mean Care Bears! ;)