A murder mystery that takes place in a Brighton theatre, Jamie West’s novel Death on the Pier reframes the crime genre and puts it centre stage.
West recreates Brighton during the 1930’s. The action focuses around the Palace Pier Theatre (no longer in existence), and we find ourselves not at Brighton during the height of summer, but in the off-season. The crowds may have gone, but the Palace is still putting on a show.
At the centre of the book is playwright Bertie Carroll. He has experienced success with a string of whodunits, and he heads to Brighton to check on a revival of one of this plays. He also meets up with an old school friend, Chief Detective Inspector Hugh Chapman, who contacts him unexpectedly. Bertie invites Hugh to the opening night. As the first act comes to a close, the play’s lead, British-actress-turned-Hollywood-star Celia Hamilton, slumps to the ground as she is dramatically ‘shot’ by her co-star. The curtain goes down. A scream is heard from the stage. The prop gun has fired a real bullet, and Hamilton is dead.
West has worked backstage on productions such as The Book of Mormon, Miss Saigon and currently Dear Evan Hansen, and he applies his knowledge of the theatre throughout. He lovingly pieces together the Palace Pier Theatre – so much so you feel you have been there yourself. But West also uses his experience to sketch life on the road. We witness the colliding fortunes of a touring cast: character actors who didn’t quite make the big time; up-and-coming matinee idols eager to get into the film industry. As Bertie and Hugh examine the case, West’s depiction of the unglamorous side of working in the theatre is intricately detailed, right down to the threadbare carpets and greasy breakfasts.
The breakdown of suspects and motives does feel a touch mechanical at times, but the denouement is satisfying enough. More importantly, West has created characters that you want to spend time with: the sexual frisson between Hugh and Bertie adds another layer that separates this novel from the usual crime fiction. West writes with sensitivity on the men’s relationship and the complication of Hugh needing to stay within the law, even if it goes against his deeper impulses. The gentle friendship between them feels right; the potential for further development is already there. This is less Holmes and Watson, but more an equal partnership where each man uses his skill to unravel the why, where and how of Hamilton’s murder.
As a first novel, Death on the Pier gets a lot right. It meets its brief in terms of creating atmosphere: the staginess in how West has organises his scenes and characters feels appropriate. The book also earns its “page-turner” blurb as it zips along – West has a good understanding of how to pace a story. Establishing a series is never easy, but the carefully crafted dynamic between Bertie and Hugh is organic enough to justify space on the already-crowded crime fiction shelves.