Friday 29 December 2017

Forgotten Book - Murder on the Second Floor

Murder on the Second Floor is a book with an interesting history, as well as a very interesting author. It began life as a stage play, produced in London in 1929, written, directed by and starring the charismatic and talented Frank Vosper. When Broadway beckoned, a youthful Laurence Olivier took over in the central role of Hugh Bromilow. While travelling by sea to the US to play opposite him, as Sylvia Armitage, Phyllis Konstam met the tennis player Bunny Austin, whom she later married. Although now herself largely forgotten, she also appeared in four films directed by Hitchcock.

The play was subsequently filmed, in 1932, and the movie was re-made in 1941 under the title Shadows on the Stairs. Vosper turned the story into a novel, as well, so he got very good value out of his idea. Unfortunately, he died in 1937, in the mysterious circumstances which are discussed in some detail in The Golden Age of Murder. There is a good account of the play, and a summary of Vosper's career, in Amnon Kabatchnik's monumental Blood on the Stage.

But is it any good? The New York critics were not impressed by the Olivier version, and the play closed after a short run. For a while, reading the novelisation, I was unimpressed myself. But gradually I began to warm to the story, which really is as much a satire as a crime story. By the time I reached the end, I could see why Murder on the Second Floor did so well in different formats.

The story is set in Bloomsbury, aka Gloomsbury. The Armitages have a couple of mysterious boarders (or "lets") as well as the young author, Hugh. Hugh and young Sylvia fall for each other, but Sylvia isn't impressed with Hugh's writing - and this disapproval is a catalyst for the events that follow. It was, and remains, decent light entertainment. Incidentally, one tiny point: the intro to the novel version that I possess, published the year after Vosper died after falling (somehow) from a liner, manages to get the name of the ship wrong. I believe it was the SS Paris, not the SS Normandie.

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