A Reconstructed Corpse

Actor Charles Paris has been the protagonist in more than a dozen Simon Brett mysteries since 1975, when he made his debut in CAST, IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE, and during this long theatrical career, he usually has been out of work and has garnered mainly unfavorable or tepid reviews. His personal life is no better: Separated from his wife since 1961, he leads a penurious, largely solitary, existence. He is more successful, however, as an amateur sleuth.

In this novel, Paris gets a job impersonating a missing property developer on a true crime program, not for his acting ability but because he resembles Martin Earnshaw. The program’s ratings soar as tantalizing clues surface regarding Earnshaw’s whereabouts, reaching a peak when body parts turn up, and Chloe Earnshaw identifies them as her husband’s. Paris’ weekly walk-on role enables him to observe the participants: production people, cooperating police, a private detective vying to beat the police to a solution, and an apparently bereaved widow. The actor befriends Detective Sergeant Greg Marchmont, but while monitoring the case, comes across him and the private investigator in suspicious circumstances. Just as it appears that they must be responsible for Earnshaw’s disappearance and death, Marchmont commits suicide, and Paris discovers the head of someone other than Martin Earnshaw in a pressure cooker.

These ghoulish goings-on are tempered by Brett’s typically sardonic humor, expressed in Paris’ iconoclastic one-liners and the author’s satiric treatment of self-serving television personalities. Nevertheless, the Earnshaw case remains central, with Paris a clear-headed navigator through the confusion, although his senses sometimes are dulled by prodigious amounts of Bell’s whisky. At the end, his judgment about the case prevails when the man he accuses of murder exacts the ultimate penalty upon himself, ironically denying the authorities their proper role.