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A Decent Interval: A Charles Paris Mystery: (A Book Review)
The book we're looking at, very briefly, today, is the mystery novel, A Decent Interval by Simon Brett. The copy I'm using is a slim hardcover volume, published by an entity called Crème de la Crime, copyright 2013.
The book is only 202 pages long. That, in addition to Mr. Brett's efficient, crisp prose style, means that, if you like, you can easily finish the book in one sitting.
As I mentioned before, this is a Charles Paris novel, from the series of that name. Charles Paris is an Englishmen and his stories are, naturally, set in England. Mr. Paris is a perennially struggling actor, in his late fifties. He is a high-functioning alcoholic (though this is never stated explicitly), who is separated from his wife, Frances (actually divorced in all but name), who is a school headmistress (something like what we Yanks would call a 'principal' of a high school).
His separation from Frances came about as a result of his alcoholism and adultery, his constant adultery as it turns out. Charles Paris has one grown daughter, who he loves dearly, but has a funny way of showing it; she is married to a nice enough young man, whom Charles Paris thinks of as an incurable bore.
Actually, Paris loves his technically still-wife, Frances, dearly, though, yet again, there, he has a funny way of showing it; and let us just leave it at that.
We are given to understand that Charles Paris is of a talent level at the higher end of the spectrum. We are given to understand that he is a consummate professional, dedicated to his craft; and that he is fairly physically attractive, even in his late fifties, even with all of his drinking.
The high end talent of Charles Paris is important to note, for people not familiar with this series, because a running theme through all of the books in that series, is the fact that talent alone does not guarantee success, fame, wealth, or even decent recognition in the industry. We are constantly seeing personalities of relatively meager abilities skyrocketing to superstardom, on the basis mercurial trends and gimmicks.
One feels for Charles Paris, is what I am saying. He is an unusual protagonist for a series of mystery novels, but a compelling and sympathetic one, in my opinion.
There is a lot of angst involved. Charles Paris feels it about all of his self-acknowledged inadequacies. But he is also indignant at the state of the industry, especially "these days," which anoints so-called 'reality' television stars with all the fame and adoration they want, while leaving true craftsmen like himself, toiling along thanklessly in obscurity.
There is something Woody Allenesque about the Charles Paris books, as it relates to the matter of art. Those of you familiar with many of the films of Woody Allen, know that Mr. Allen often played a frustrated writer in those movies; and you know that the horrific "state of the industry," and creativity is an ongoing concern Allen's writer characters in many of his films.
Of course, while Allen's authorial characters, in his films, struggle in relative terms, they are certainly more successful in writing than Charles Paris ever was in acting. But by Allen's (his characters') incessant whining, you would never guess that this would be the case. Allen's characters, though troubled, are never anywhere near as flawed as Charles Paris.
Okay, let's get to it.
This novel, A Decent Interval, is a mystery, NOT a crime story. What I mean is, this book is a mystery, in that it is a classical whodunit. It is not a crime novel, because the setting of the story is not suffused with the criminal. The story is not set against a general climate of illicit activity.
The story simply presents a puzzle to be solved. That is where Charles Paris comes in, again. In addition to being a struggling actor, he also takes an interest in the odd murder that happens in and around the theater, from time to time.
Charles Paris is not a licensed, professional private investigator, with that classic love-hate relationship with official law enforcement authorities.
Charles Paris is not a busybody type a la "Jessica Fletcher" in Murder, She Wrote. If you are familiar with that television show, you know that Mrs. Fletcher tends to end up tutoring the official law enforcement authorities in the art of criminal investigation. You see, Mrs. Fletcher is an expert: a former substitute teacher, now bestselling mystery novelist!
Sherlock Holmes often does the job of Scotland Yard for them, as well.
Charles Paris isn't like that. He is not a private investigator: he never takes money for his investigations and, usually, there is no one who actually asks him, directly, to look into suspicious deaths. His natural curiosity and, dare I say it, sense of justice, leads him make inquiries.
Charles Paris has no relationship with the police, and prefers to keep it that way, thank you.
Let's keep going.
I said that A Decent Interval is a mystery, not a "crime" story. That is true.
This is also not a suspense or thriller. The story is not a "suspense" story (Charles Paris novels never are) story because nobody, much less Charles Paris, is called upon to do something within a specific time-window in order to avert disaster. Charles Paris novels by Simon Brett are not structured that way.
This book is not a "thriller" because we are not presented with a series of events that crackle with what I call a momentous immediacy, all leading up to a devastating climax! Again, Charles Paris novels by Simon Brett are not structured that way.
I should say that there is a point in the book whereby the story vaguely---and I do mean vaguely---threatens to become something of a mystery thriller, if you will.
What is a 'mystery thriller'?
What I mean by the term is this: There is a central puzzle, a central whodunit, awaiting resolution. In the course of trying to solve that puzzle, the good guy hero or heroes, find himself or themselves, confronted several other jarring events, which will be revealed to tie in to the central mystery. In fact, you might think of the movie, Seven, with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, as an example of a 'mystery thriller.'
As I said, the novel by Simon Brett, A Decent Interval, is not a mystery thriller; it only very vaguely threatens to become one, at one point in the story. But don't worry, such excitement is quickly put to rest before it even begins.
What in 'Sam Hill' am I talking about?
Well, its nothing very much, believe me. Its just that an actor playing the lead role of Hamlet (a winner of a reality show talent competition) is attacked, nearly killed but only injured; a lead actress (yet another winner of another reality show talent competition) is attacked and accidentally killed: yet she, herself, was never an intended victim; and finally, another trap is set with the hope of ensnaring the right victim this time, but Charles Paris---our hero---unwittingly springs the trap, but escapes with his usual serendipitous luck, as is his wont.
I won't say more because I don't want to spoil the plot of the book for you. Not only that, but you can get a plot synopsis from anywhere.
Believe me, the actual events are even less exciting than I am making them seem. But, mind you, that is not a criticism of Simon Brett's novel. Indeed, I will have you know that I love A Decent Interval, as I love all of Mr. Brett's Charles Paris mystery novels; I'm just trying to be very clear with you, as to what the book is and is not.
I would call A Decent Interval a near-literary mystery novel.
What does that mean?
First of all, let me tell you what I mean when I apply the term 'literary' to any so-called genre literature. To my way of thinking, if you can remove the 'genre' element from a story and, if what is left behind is still a compelling, rich dramatic story, then the genre story is, in my opinion, 'literary.'
So, for me, a mystery novel is 'literary,' if you can remove the 'mysterious' element from the story and find yourself left with an otherwise compelling, interesting, powerful, and dramatic story.
Charles Paris novels by Simon Brett always feature prose that is rich, yet efficient and brisk; and Mr. Brett's explorations of Charles Paris' character are always interesting. Still, ---and this too, is not a criticism---I don't think you can quite remove the 'mysterious' element from A Decent Interval, and keep the story hanging together coherently (there is nothing wrong with being a mystery story, wholly devoted to the puzzle). But again, you could almost remove the criminal element.
If I have not made myself clear on a certain point, let me do so know. Charles Paris is a fun character to hang out with, as he stumbles through his misadventures in the English theater.
If you enjoy the ironic voice in literature, you should enjoy this Charles Paris novel, along with the other books in the series.
What do I mean by the 'ironic voice' in literature?
What I simply mean is that Simon Brett, in his Charles Paris novels, does not put anybody (least of all Charles Paris, himself) on a pedestal. If he ever does, the person does not stay there for long. Mr. Brett will give the characters' pompous self-importance a fair hearing, and then present their comic, sad, tragic, or merely pathetic underbelly.
This technique fits in with Charles Paris' assessment of the downside of the profession he loves. Fame will cut you down, eventually get the better of you. Its a rollercoaster ride, but Charles Paris would like to, just once, experience the dizzying highs.
Okay, that'll do it. Thank you so much for reading.