Friday, 23 May 2003

Val Gielgud and Holt Marshall: Death at Broadcasting House (1934)

Edition: Chivers Press, 1992 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1161

Throughout the twentieth century, crime novels with unusual settings or backgrounds have been consistently popular with both authors and readers, offering something a bit different to stimulate the imagination. (Dorothy Sayers wrote some particularly well known examples.) Death at Broadcasting House is in this tradition, being about the murder of an actor during the production of a BBC radio play in the thirties. (That is when this novel first appeared, but this edition is no more specific about the date than that.) The writers both worked for the BBC at the time (and, yes, Val Gielgud was John's brother), and so the background is described from a position of understanding rather than being learned for the purpose of writing the novel.

An actor has a part in a radio play which ends with a death scene played alone in a seventh floor studio of Broadcasting House. Initially, the producer thinks he has performed better than in any rehearsal but then it is discovered that he was killed at the moment of his character's death, so that there are millions of witnesses to the killing (radio plays being performed live in those days). The police are lucky that the performance was recorded at all (it was to be re-transmitted on the "Empire wavelength" that later became the World Service). The question of who the murderer is amounts to a whittling down of the fairly short list of people who might have had the opportunity to kill the actor. The police investigation is constantly being second-guessed by the attempts of some of the suspects to play amateur detective, something which provides amusement (as Inspector Spears repeats yet again that he thought of the most recent suggestion already) and is almost certainly more true to life than the majority of crime novels in this respect.

A lot of the charm of Death at Broadcasting House comes from its period quality. It is full of references to obsolete equipment (the Blattnerphone, for example) and working methods (no one would be likely to broadcast a play live today). Occasionally, it seems like a spoof of itself, containing phrases which would now only be found in a parody - the chapter heading "Topsy does her bit", for example. Sometimes elements jar on the modern reader, as when the narrative demonstrates the seediness of a bar by describing it as "frequented by negroes and tarts", but generally it fascinates. The puzzle is not really difficult, though it is fairly well constructed.

No comments: