Detective inspector Paul Ambrose and his sidekick DS Sam Winters enter a theatre world riven by jealousy, greed and blackmail to investigate a brutal attack on leading lady Marguerite Monroe.
With its labyrinthine corridors and countless doors, the theatre is a suitably oppressive backdrop for Foul Play – a curtain-raiser in a trilogy of DI Ambrose mysteries by PJ Quinn, the mother and daughter writing team of Pauline Kirk and Jo Summers.
The towering Ambrose and the prolific notebook-scribbler Winters throw a by-the-book cordon around the theatre where the Chalk Heath Players were rehearsing Wedding Belle. An inescapable feeling of being trapped pervades this book, whether in relationships or at work, but especially in the early chapters when the cast are held in the theatre for police questioning.
The writing here is functional and restrained with limited characterisation.
Author: PJ Quinn
£8.95, Stairwell Books
Among the cast are two solicitors: Archie Framilode, director of the Players, and Alex Baker-Smythe who epitomise different poles of the profession. Archie is a charismatic local operator who has hired Alex, sauve and handsome, from a big City firm as a kind of protégé; possibly to run the firm when he retires. Alex, who spotted the job advert in the Law Society Gazette, Archie and Marguerite, a clerk at the law courts who has also worked at the Law Society, form the spine of this taut mystery.
Set in the fifties, the challenges Alex and Archie face, whether in shrugging off office politics and insular attitudes to relationships, or in mastering the minutiae of office life, have a resonance today. Another issue is nurturing a happy private life while doing a demanding job, most tellingly evoked by the overworked, exhausted Winters when he returns in the small hours to his young family. This chapter offers some of the best interior monologue and at this point the book really takes off, contrasting sharply with those starkly formulaic early chapters.
It is a shame that Ambrose is not developed as a character to the same extent, though we learn of a deep personal sadness and his tribulations in bringing up a teenage son. He displays avuncular sympathy to the hard-pressed Winters but I would have liked to have learned more about Ambrose’s life outside the office.
The story touches on human foibles, namely misinterpreting behaviour and making assumptions, which become more evident as the mystery heads towards a satisfying climax. A promising Ambrose primer.
Nicholas Goodman is a Gazette sub-editor