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by Barbara Paul
Bantam, June 1987
248 pages
ISBN: 0553264133

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Barbara Paul's THE FOURTH WALL is an unusual mystery story; well worth reading; and a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of first person narrative. Although the book is about average size, and the story does not cover an unusually long period of time, it almost seems as if it's the mystery as epic. This is because the story covers a lot of events and details, and the author laces her story with her views on many things not necessarily germane to the plot, although not interfering with it. This is the strength of first person usage by a skilled writer that it can be used for more than to bring immediacy to the action (as in Hammett and Chandler), but can tell a story of epic proportions as well.

As the title implies, the story takes place mainly in the theater. The protagonist, Abigail James, is an accomplished playwright, and the story starts with her attending and helping on one of her plays on Broadway. Important characters include the director, the leading lady, the leading man, a second male actor, understudies, the producer, a stage manager, and some others. Someone is trying to ruin the play.

The first noticed incident is when the leading lady's finds her pet cat's head cut off. Later she puts on cold cream intended for someone else, only to find it mixed with carbolic acid, which scars one side of her face beyond recognition, blinds her in one eye, and maims her hand. She will never be a leading lady again, and an understudy must take over her part. This is just a sample of what is to come.

Incident succeeds incident, not only concerning the people at the NY play, but even on the west coast. People are murdered, vandalism is committed on an unbelievably large scale, mutilism occurs, and no one can figure out why. The police are unable to solve the case, and in fact the case goes through three different officers in charge. There is a motive behind everything, of course, and eventually the surviving characters hit upon it. It goes back to the past, to a group where not only were many of the people in the NY play involved, but others as well. The guilty person is one of them, someone trusted, someone almost beyond suspicion.

The plot is more intellectual than that of the average mystery. It is full of suspense and surprise. It also, as a by-product, shows the reader much of the immense inner workings of putting on a Broadway production. Too, the ending is not conventional, but it's no less satisfying for that.

However, as mentioned above, first person narration can have a drawback, too, and that in a mystery of this scope is particularly noticeable. One danger of writing in first person in general is that it lends itself to more telling than showing. Where the story is one of immense proportions, it shows itself in the question, how can so much story be told in such a relatively short book? And the answer is that much of the "presence" of the material is left out. We see the theater described; we understand aspects of the play; we are witnesses to the emotions and observable feelings of the characters; we know the whole story; but we are not held breathless as if we were actually there in the story, as happens in many mysteries where the "ambience," the "color," the occasional minute descriptions that appeal to our senses to grab us and bring us into the picture, aren't quite there. The fourth wall, which is invisible in a really superb play, is not so invisible in this story.

So it's a demerit, but it shouldn't be overstressed. There is so much good in this book that I can highly recommend it. It's like an 18-wheeler with one tire flat -- the other 17 can still carry it. It's well worth reading.

Reviewer's comments: This book is out of print. It was originally published in 1979 and the Bantam reprint dates from 1987. Check your public library for a copy.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, July 2002

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