Brahms And List
I keep a list of the books which are guaranteed to make me smile. As everyone keeps evoking the Second World War at the moment I wondered, how did the British cheer themselves up during wartime? One of the ways was by turning to the sprightly comic novels of Caryl Brahms.
Caryl (nee Doris Abrahams) Brahms and ‘Skid’ (ne Simon Skidelsky) met in a hostel and shared the same ridiculous sense of humour. First they wrote captions for David Low’s political cartoons in the Evening Standard, then they graduated to crime novels. She had been born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Croydon. Her writing partner had been born in Manchuria. She trained as a musician and wrote ballet criticism. He was a genius bridge player, winning tournaments, writing books on card systems and becoming the bridge correspondent of the Observer, when there were such things. They were a very unlikely couple.
‘A Bullet In The Ballet’ (1937) was the result of a delayed meeting and a conversation over a cup of tea. Musicologist Brahms did the ballet bits and Skid wrote the parts that involved detection. A dancer is shot in the head during a production of ‘Petrouschka’, and Detective Inspector Quill, ‘the Scotland Yard Adonis’, is dispatched to uncover the killer, only to find that the corps de ballet is filled with vipers. The novel’s first line is ‘Since it is probable that any book flying a bullet in its title is going to produce a corpse sooner or later – here it is.’
If you can’t spot who the murderer is by the novel’s mid-point you must be holding the book upside down, but this is not to be read for the originality of its plot; the characters are the thing, and the authors’ sense of silly fun, as if they were writing to amuse themselves and by accident amusing others.
The book was followed by a ballet-themed sequel the following year called ‘Casino for Sale’. Both feature the high-living impresario Vladimir Stroganoff, a hilarious creation who deserved his own series. Curiously, my edition of ‘A Bullet In The Ballet’ suggests that I might also enjoy reading ‘A Survey Of Russian Music’, which may be an indication of the thoroughness of Brahms’ research.
‘Envoy On Excursion’ is a European farce with Nazis, somewhat akin to ‘The Lady Vanishes’, and ‘Six Curtains For Stroganova’ concludes the ballet set with the same characters. Farce should never outstay its welcome, and all the books are short but packed tight with merriment.
The duo also wrote excellent historical farces, the best being ‘No Bed For Bacon’, which was very obviously the unacknowledged inspiration for ‘Shakespeare In Love’, and ‘Don’t, Mr Disraeli’, which includes virtually every accepted Victorian joke you can think of, plus cameos from Walt Disney, John Gielgud and the Marx Brothers. The authors also have the audacity to explain that they’ve borrowed liberally from other sources, then proceed to list them all.
There are other delightful volumes and assorted short stories featuring the Brahms and Simon characters, but these are out of print. After Simon’s death, Brahms continued writing and adapting farces with Ned Sherrin.
One of my favourite Brahms books is the above, ‘Lost Chords and Discords’, a very different take on the lives and music of Gilbert & Sullivan, rightly critical, cleverly drawing on their admirers for criticism and their critics for admiration. Her description of the saggy, sour-faced Gilbert is balanced by the immaculate, burnished Sullivan, who ‘might have been varnished all over or smoothly painted, like a toy wooden soldier.’ Her books are worth seeking out in dark times.