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Sunday 15 August 2021

The Golden Age: Caryl Brahms (1901-1982) S J Simon (1904-1948)

 by Carol Westron

Caryl Brahms was born Doris Caroline Abrahams. Her parents were members of a Sephardic Jewish family, who had come to live in Britain in her grandparents time. Brahms was passionate about music and ballet and, when she left school, she attended the Royal Academy of Music. She left without graduating because she was totally dissatisfied with her performance as a pianist. In his biography of Brahms, Ned Sherrin, wrote that she told him she did not care to listen to the noise she made when playing the piano.

It was while she was at the Academy that Brahms wrote light verse for the student magazine. The Evening Standard started to publish some of her verses and she adopted the pen name Caryl Brahms. There were two reasons for using this pseudonym. One was that it was less obviously female than her own forenames and the journalistic world in the 1920s was still predominantly male. The other, equally strong reason, was her desire that her parents should not hear of her activities as they had a very different and 'more domestic' future planned for her.

It seems likely that Brahms' parents would have been even less impressed by her next journalistic employment. In 1926 The Evening Standard started to publish a series of satirical cartoons drawn by the artist David Low and featuring a small dog called Musso, (originally the dog's name was Mussolini, but this was altered after complaints from the Italian Embassy.) Brahms was engaged to write the stories for the cartoons. Towards the end of the 1920s Brahms was finding it difficult to keep up with the demand for captions for the Musso cartoons and asked a friend to collaborate with her. This was Seca Jascha Skidelsky, popularly known as Skid, who adopted the more easily accessible pen name of S.J. Simon.

Between 1930 and 1932, Brahms published three volumes of poems for children, which were well received. The Times compared her poems to those of A.A. Milne but added some stylistic criticisms and the observation that she is 'too facetious.' Little did that reviewer know what was to come. At this time, Brahms was also working as a critic, specialising in the ballet and theatre. In 1936 she published Footnotes to the Ballet, which contained contributions by many well known figures of the time. This book was very well received and Brahms seemed destined for a career in serious non-fiction.

It was at this point, while Brahms was deputising for Arnold Haskell as dance critic of The Daily Telegraph, that she suddenly proposed to Simon that they should write a murder mystery set in the world of ballet, with Haskell as the victim. At first Simon thought that she was joking. He should have known better. In 1937 A Bullet in the Ballet was published.

A Bullet in the Ballet features the long-suffering and conscientious detective, Inspector Adam Quill, who acts as a perfect foil to one of the most vibrant and ridiculous characters in Golden Age Crime Fiction, Vladimir Stroganoff. Brahms later said of Stroganoff: 'Suddenly he was there. I used to have the impression that he wrote us, rather than that we wrote him.' (interview with Janet Watts in The Guardian, 1975.)  

Stroganoff has one aim in life, to keep his ballet company from sinking under the weight of debt and the machinations of his rival, Lord Buttonhooke, who continual tries to steal his best dancers from him. When his leading dancer, Anton Palook, is shot at the end of Petroushka, Stroganoff 'was definitely furious. For the past two years he had jerked his company safely if hysterically through Australia, Harbin, the Gold Coast and Chicago, and here, on the opening night of his London season they had gone and bumped off his leading dancer. It was not that he felt any particular affection for Palook, in fact privately he was inclined to think Palook had been asking for it for years – but good Petrouschkas were scarce.'

When it came to writing the book, the murder Brahms had planned for Haskell failed to ring true, although that did not mean critics were to escape unscathed in her future crime writing career. They changed the ballet to Petrouschka and invented a new victim. As Brahms later recalled, 'Skid took over the detection and love scenes and I did the ballet bits. Together we wrote the narrative.' She recalled that the work 'progressed happily, punctuated by Woodbine cigarettes and frequent cups of tea, and shrieks of wild laughter.' (Interview with Janet Watts in The Guardian, 1975.)

A Bullet in the Ballet is a gloriously anarchic crime comedy, that pokes fun both at the conventions of the ballet world and the conventions of the crime novel. It is an outrageous book, with numerous relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual, which cause no embarrassment to anybody but the unfortunate police detailed to investigate the murder, especially Quill's subordinate. Quill went 'back to the theatre to find a purple-faced Sergeant Banner clamouring for the arrest of a young exquisite who had amiably mistaken the Sergeant's shy approach for a suggestion of quite a different character.' In the 21st Century it is hard to realise how outspoken A Bullet in the Ballet was until one remembers that, at this time, male homosexuality was still punishable by imprisonment. A Bullet in the Ballet was well received. At least one critic compared the humorous language to the best work of Wodehouse. In 1938 they published a sequel, Casino for Sale (US title Murder a la Strogonoff), in which Brahms fulfilled her ambition to kill off a ballet critic.

Stroganoff has moved his ballet company to the Riviera and, with the profits from his notorious London season, has bought a casino, unaware that his old rival, Lord Buttonhooke, owns a much larger and more prosperous casino nearby. However the main source of concern to Stroganoff is Citrolo, the ballet critic, whose vitriolic reviews threaten to destroy Stroganoff's ballet company.

Adam Quill has received an inheritance and retired from the police force to run his own detective agency. When Stroganoff invites Quill to visit him, Quill accepts but, the day after he arrives, he is summoned to Stroganoff's office to view a scene that 'might have been taken directly from a sleuth's nightmare. There was the body, lolling against the armchair, its features horribly contorted. Beside it lay a revolver, an empty bottle of iodine marked 'poison', and a glass of milk – untouched. There was a bullet hole. It was not in the corpse. It was, in fact, as Quill was to note later, on the wall opposite. There was a noose dangling from the ceiling. There was an armchair, overturned as though for luck, a half-smoked cigar on the mantlepiece and some promising-looking ash on the carpet. The safe was open. The bureau had obviously been ransacked. On the desk lay the prospectus of an appetizing gold mine.  A plump little man in a soiled blue uniform was sitting at the desk studying what was obviously a clue-riddled letter. It read: “All is discovered, so – poof – I kill myself. Pavlo Citrolo.”' Stroganoff is arrested and Quill has to discover the real murderer and rescue Stroganoff from the results of his own folly.

Stroganoff is devoted to the ballet and to keeping his company afloat. He is totally blinkered and the outside world is only relevant when it impinges on his obsession. In A Bullet in the Ballet he explains to Quill that his dancers will always perform, whatever else is happening: 'In Bled there are riots- but my company it perform every night. Some town in Mexico they kill the president in the entr’acte, but the Ballet Stroganoff it ignore, and we give the last act to new president.' Despite his habit of ignoring the failures of his erratic performers, Stroganoff does know about the ballet and cares for it passionately, as when he first sees Pavlova perform and observes: 'The soul of that one will never die.'

Brahms and Simon have a unique comic style. Both A Bullet in the Ballet and Casino for Sale have short footnotes at the bottom of several pages. These are often running jokes, which make the reader feel included and draw them in.

In 1939, while Britain was in the midst of the 'phoney war', the duo's third and final crime novel, Envoy on Excursion, was produced. In this book Quill takes the central role, when, as a Special Envoy for the British Government he is called upon to investigate the murder of a representative of the principality of Insomnia, who is in London to negotiate a treaty between his country and Britain. Insomnia lies between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and is rich in deposits of Gardenium, which could revolutionise arms manufacture. Envoy on Excursion draws on the writings of John Buchan and the Hitchcock films Secret Agent and The Lady Vanishes. The authors have great fun in gently mocking the action heroes, as when Quill finds himself tied to a bomb. 'Alone in the dark Quill listened to the grisly ticking of the alarm-clock. He felt horrible. It seemed to him that he must be looking exactly like the hero on the jacket of a ten-cent pulp. Only these heroes always got themselves rescued. … Nothing for it but to die. He hoped he would die like an Englishman. With calm. Well it had been a good life. Scotland Yard. The Stroganoff Ballet. And the girl behind the tobacco kiosk. It was a pity perhaps that he had never solved a case, but it was too late to bother about that now. … The pounding of blood in Quill's ears sounded exactly like distant footsteps. God it was footsteps! They were coming closer. “Help!” yelled Quill, forgetting to die like an Englishman. “Help!”'

Envoy on Excursion did not enjoy the success of its predecessors. Possibly because Stroganoff, who was the undisputed comic star of A Bullet in the Ballet and Casino For Sale, has such a small part in this third book; or maybe because that time, at the start of World War Two, was not the point when many readers enjoyed a story of comedy espionage involving Nazi Germany.

The three Brahms and Simon crime novels are all different: A Bullet in the Ballet is a classic (although quirky) whodunnit, which raises the stakes by producing another body as soon as the action pauses. Casino for Sale (published in the USA as Murder a la Stroganoff) is a locked room mystery, with every imaginable crime fiction cliché thrown in, like a juggler entertaining with a vast array of unlikely juggling objects. Both novels have victims who are so unlikeable that even the softest-hearted reader cannot mourn their demise. Envoy on Excursion is a comedy thriller, which owes a great deal to the cinema, in which Quill, a most unlikely action hero, finds that the fate of Britain at stake and it is up to him to save his country.

After the comparative failure of Envoy on Excursion, Brahms and Simon rethought their strategy and in 1940 produced the first of what they described as their 'backstairs histories.' Don't Mr Disraeli is a highly unreliable retelling of Victorian history. In 1941 they produced the book that is best remembered today, No Bed for Bacon, in which an enterprising young lady escapes from Queen Elizabeth's court and disguises herself as a boy in order to act in Shakespeare's plays. (Tom Stoppard used this as his central plot for the 1999 screenplay Shakespeare in Love.) The authors warned scholars that the book was 'fundamentally unsound,' a claim disputed by Ernest Brennecke in his 1950 article in Shakespeare Quarterly: 'It is one of the soundest of recent jobs. The more the reader knows about Shakespeare and his England, the more chuckles and laughs he will get out of the book. It is erudite, informed and imaginative.'

More outrageous comedies followed. The man that Brahms loved died in the war and she never married but, despite personal loss, Brahms and Simon were determined to keep Britain laughing during the dark days of the Blitz and the hard times following World War Two. In 1944 Brahms published a study of the dancer and choreographer Robert Helpmann, which was very well received. In 1948 Brahms and Simon were working on another collaboration, You Were There,' when Simon died. Brahms completed the novel alone.

Brahms continued her work as a critic and, in the next six years, produced a non-fiction guide to the ballet for beginners and a romantic novel that was not well received. She had thought that she would never take another collaborator but, in 1956, Ned Sherrin approached her to ask for permission to adapt No Bed for Bacon as a stage musical. Her initial reaction was negative but, having spoken to him, she agreed to collaborate with him on the project. It was the start of a new collaboration that lasted for twenty-eight years, during which time they produced books, radio and television scripts, plays and musicals. Sherrin became a television producer in the 1960s and he and Brahms collaborated in writing the topical opening number for the weekly, satirical show, That Was The Week That Was.

Brahms continued to write as a critic and columnist, mainly for The Evening Standard. She transferred her critical interest from ballet to the theatre and her private passion became show-jumping. She wrote non-fiction books on various subjects, which did not receive the success of her early work or her collaborative efforts. In 1964 she wrote the first of her two books of memoirs, The Rest of the Evening's My Own. A second autobiographical book was unfinished at her death in 1982, aged eighty-one, and was completed and published by Ned Sherrin under the title, Too Dirty for the Windmill (1986.)

S.J. Simon’s real name was Seca Jascha Skidelsky and he was popularly known as Skid. He was born in Manchuria, but his Russian-Jewish family moved to England when he was a child and he was educated at Tonbridge School and the University of London. In the 1920s Simon was studying forestry and staying in the same London lodging house as Caryl Brahms, and she asked him to help with writing captions for a daily series of satirical cartoons in the Evening Standard.

Starting with A Bullet in the Ballet, Brahms and Simon collaborated on eleven comic novels, the last of which Brahms completed after Simon's death. In the first two novels featuring Vladimir Stroganoff and his Ballet, Brahms used her knowledge of ballet and the ballet world, which blended smoothly with Simon's intimate knowledge of the White Russian ex-patriot community.

Simon was also a celebrated bridge player, who won many awards and gold cups for his play. He was co-developer (with Jack Marx) of the Acol bidding system and the author of three books on bridge (two of which were published posthumously) and was also the bridge correspondent for The Observer, the London Evening News and Punch. His wife, Carmel Withers, was also a bridge champion.

Simon died in 1948, very suddenly, at the age of forty-four. This memory, written soon after his death by his bridge playing friend Jack Marx sums up not only Simon the man but the quality of the humour in his writing: 'There is one word that I shall always associate with Skid and that is the plain English word ‘fun.’ He brought more fun into my life than anybody I have ever known. Everything you did with Skid was fun, everything connected with him was fun. And though he might poke fun at others and rather fancied himself as a ‘debunker,’ it was never malicious fun, it was never loaded with the sting of personal rancor.' (Part of an obituary in The English Bridge Union 1948.)

Carol Westron  is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.

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