Sicken and so die

My iPod brought me the manifold pleasures of the Simon Brett murder mystery novel, Sicken and so die. The title is a line from Shakespeare’s Twefth Night, and the plot swirls around the foibles of a touring production of that play.

Like so many mystery stories, Sicken and so die is really about the characters involved, with the mystery itself being almost superfluous to the story. The protagonist is Charles Paris, a hapless, underemployed stage actor with a slight drinking problem. He is delighted to find that he was won a proper part in a proper production of a proper play, but a series of apparently accidental cases of food poisoning among the cast and crew threaten his newfound self-esteem as well as what he considers an invalid interpretation of the great writer’s work.

Not sure if he is seeing a series of actual crimes, Paris begins paying better attention. Yet as his evidence mounts, he’s unsure just who the intended victim is (and he fears that perhaps it is himself). He identifies likely perpetrators and likely motives, but subsequent developments wash away each of these in turn. All the while his tries to manage his discomfort as a traditional actor in a play being interpreted by a director who wants to explore the “sexual ambiguity” of the characters. He also laments his own too-cozy relationship with the bottle and his uncozy relationship with his wife, from whom he has been separated — though not divorced — for nearly 30 years.

The resolution of the mystery was a bit unsatisfying to me because the motivation is pretty much out of the blue. Very little ground work is laid for this, though the poisoner is present from the very beginning of the story. The motive seems tacked on and too easy. Nearly all of the effort the protagonist expends to understand the crimes has no pertinence to the true resolution.

Yet as a craftsman’s effort to create a series of sustained red herrings, Brett’s story is absolutely the best. Charles Paris is portrayed as a affable and comic protagonist, yet he is also shown as discerning and dogged. His various theories are rock-solid based on the evidence he has at the time. Brett also creates a clever construction to allow this amateur sleuth to pursue the crime without the help or interference of the police until the very end.

Sicken and so die is an older novel by Simon Brett. It is one of a series involving the character Charles Paris. Brett, who is the current president of the Detection Club, has written two other mystery series. The latest includes titles like The Body on the Beach, Death on the Downs, and The Stabbing at the Stables. Simon Brett is an author I intend to return to.

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