Since the early 1960s, British novelist Gwendoline Butler has been popular on both sides of the Atlantic as a practitioner of two genres, mystery and romance. Creator of the Inspector John Coffin mysteries, she won the Crime Writers Association's Silver Dagger award for "Sarsen Place," a sophisticated "gothic" that neatly combines mystery and romance, then continued to blend the two genres in "The Vesey Inheritance" (1975), "Meadowsweet" (1977) and "The Red Staircase" (1979). Now, in "Albion Walk," Butler departs from the world of crime to embrace the world of theater, achieving a promising success.
Even at a glance, this glamorous novel seems to have everything -- a quality that proves to be one of its defects. Told in the first person, it is the story of Alice May's slow but sure rise from her youth as a poor British art student at Vienna's Werkstatte -- where she was "dumped," as she puts it, by her well-meaning but irresponsible actress mother -- to her flourishing middle age as a grande dame of the British theater, the strong-willed owner and manager of the famous Albion Theatre in London's Albion Walk.
Growing up fast in the early years of this century, Alice is separated from Frederic, her Austrian lover, by the ravages of World War I and inherits the lease to the decrepit Albion, when her father, the nobly born Col. Randolph Charlecote, is killed in action in France. During the next three decades, Alice fights to make and keep her theater a success, hobnobbing along the way with the likes of Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, surviving the Great Depression and the Blitz, and engaging in love affairs with three very different men -- the simple, pathetic Frederic; Francis Hollman, a brash, unscrupulous movie tycoon who covets Alice's theater for himself; and Matthew Charlecote, Alice's cousin, who may or may not also be her illegitimate half-brother. As if these ingredients were not enough to thicken the plot, Butler also includes a trial, in which Josie, Alice's irrepressible mother, attempts to establish that she and Randolph Charlecote were legally married (thus entitling Alice to Causley, the Charlecote family's estate), and a mystery subplot, involving the corpse of one of the Charlecotes' servants found entombed beneath the theater.
Though these dramatic contretemps make for a fast-moving story, the pace often becomes frenetic as Butler tries to force the multifarious twists and turns of her plot into too few pages. Admittedly, this reader was never bored, but she was often breathless. A bit more expansiveness here and there would have varied the tempo, making the novel's truly dramatic scenes -- there are several -- all the more telling by contrast.
To some extent this problem of pacing is mitigated by the delightful cameo appearances of the real theatrical folk who people "Albion Walk." In one such scene, novice manager Alice May visits novice playwright Noel Coward in his rooms on Ebury Street. She wants the production rights to his first West End play, "I'll Leave It to You," and he wants very much to impress her. To this end, Noel stages one of his characteristically theatrical moments: Alice finds the 20-year-old playwright having breakfast in bed, "leaning up against a red satin headboard and smoking an Abdulla in long, careful breaths." Determined not to be daunted, Alice proves more than a match for him. After dropping a box of expensive chocolates on his bedspread, Butler's heroine gets down to business:
" 'Well, you asked me about what I was thinking, and I told you.' I ate a cream myself. 'Josie thinks I shouldn't take you on. Says you'll be too much for me. Of course, you arranged for me to find you en sce ne this morning. In bed. Breakfasting, red satin and all.' I looked round the room and at Noel sitting in state. 'I know a stage setting when I see one. Therefore, if I am worth impressing, I think you are quite keen for me to have the play. So let's do business, shall we? And no bandying words.'
"Our hands went together into the chocolate box, and met over a violet cream.
"He got to the violet creams first, and took two, which he somehow managed to eat while still smoking."
Of course, in the end, "I'll Leave It to You" is produced not by Alice May but by Lady Wyndham of the New Theatre (throughout, Butler remains scrupulously accurate to the facts of theatrical history), but in the meantime she has embellished her plot with a clever and witty scene, one that captures her Alice as effectively as the great Coward.
Finally, then, it is Butler's humor and intelligence that rescue "Albion Walk" from the perils of its overstuffed plot and keep the reader reading. Stylish, opulent and entertaining, "Albion Walk" should win many new fans for Gwendoline Butler, both those who love a "good read" and those addicted to theater.