Top Ten Books About Actors
By: Elly Griffiths
What would you be if you weren’t a writer? I’m often asked this question and I always reply, rather smugly, that I’ve always wanted to write and completed my first book (still sadly unpublished) when I was eleven. But the truth is that I did have another ambition, never fulfilled and rarely acknowledged. I once wanted to be an actor. Perhaps I was influenced by my grandfather, a music hall comedian and the inspiration for my series of theatrical crime novels set in the 1950s and 60s, The Brighton Mysteries. Perhaps I just liked to show off. But, although I didn’t make it onto the boards, I am endlessly fascinated by the stage. Here (in no particular order) is my top ten of books about actors and acting.
- Cinderella goes to the Morgue by Nancy Spain
I pity anyone who hasn’t encountered Miriam Birdseye, a Vaudeville star, who solves crimes in the company of an ex-ballet dancer called Natasha DuVivien. All Nancy Spain’s books are brilliant but this one edges it, partly for the sheer ghoulishness of the pantomime and partly for the fact that Part Two is entitled ‘Enter Miriam, Disguised as a Principal Boy’.
- The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie
Christie often features actors in her books and, generally speaking, they don’t come out as badly as doctors. Marina Gregg’s profession, beauty and charisma are all integral parts of an extremely clever plot. It’s a moving and nuanced portrait from a writer not often praised for her character studies.
- Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh
For me, this is the ultimate theatrical murder mystery: an assorted band of actors, all seething with resentments and jealousies, preparing for the first night of a new play. The theatre itself, the Vulcan, is actually a suspect in the crime. The cast gather on stage for the verdict delivered by Inspector Alleyn who makes a late, and dramatic, entrance.
- Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown
A beloved book from my childhood, written when the author herself was only fifteen. The story of a group of children who turn an empty church hall into a theatre is an enduringly magical one. I devoured every cast list, song lyric and stage direction. The fact that I didn’t become a famous actress is nobody’s fault but my own.
- The Charles Paris books by Simon Brett
It’s impossible to pick a favourite from this beguiling series. Charles Paris is a reliably unsuccessful actor and his bad reviews pepper the pages. ‘‘Charles Paris was in the play too, though he made so little impression that it was easy to overlook the fact.’ He would have minded less if he hadn’t been playing Hamlet.’ Charles is a pretty good sleuth though and solves crimes on stage and screen, usually manging to get drunk and fall in love along the way.
- Martyr by Rory Clements
This is the first in a historical crime series about John Shakespeare, William’s fictional actor brother. Clements is brilliant at describing the turbulent and blood-stained reign of Elizabeth the First, where an actor turned spy, or ‘intelligencer’, can move unnoticed between different factions.
- The Scarlet Wench by Marni Graff
American author Marni Graff is excellent at capturing quintessentially British scenes, as in this crime novel set during a production of Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit.
- The Appeal by Janice Hallett
Janice Hallett’s first novel was an instant bestseller. Consisting almost entirely of emails, it explores that most deadly of entities, an amateur dramatic society. The murderer hides between the lines. Original, funny and very clever.
- The Good Companions by JB Priestly
This story of a touring concert party is a unique portrait of 1920s England. It’s very much of its time but the disparate band of singers and dancers (who could forget the Dinky Dos?) still have the power to charm.
- Twice Brightly by Harry Secombe
Famous in Britain for being part of a comedy radio programme, The Goon Show, Secombe here produces a beautifully written account of a week in the life of a music hall entertainer. Larry Gower falls in love (twice), tames a lion, both fails and succeeds on stage and ends the book a wiser – and funnier – man.
Elly Griffiths 13/6/22