ACT OF MURDER BY ALAN WRIGHT Polygon, 246pp, £9.99
WIGAN, 1894. There are two shows in town. In one, a touring company is staging a production of The Silver King, a melodrama about an innocent man accused of murder. At the other, the popular magic lantern show The Phantasmagoria is promising its audience a glimpse of Hell. Before too long, there'll be murders at both.
Alan Wright's novel Act of Murder, winner of this year's 10,000 Dundee International Book Prize, starts at a fast pace, and doesn't let up. The Phantasmagoria may frighten the senses out of Wigan's lower orders, with its scenes from the Last Judgment and Witches' Sabbaths, but its owner realises that here is a new technology that could have darker purposes still: private showings of a more, er, artistic bent, with such slides as "Rose Blossoms" and "The Organ Grinder". Gentlemen patrons only, naturally, and - of course - the utmost discretion assured.
There's a certain brio in having those two productions hit town at the same time. True, there's a necessarily larger cast for the reader to remember, but the theatre company brings with it other tensions, other hypocrisies that complete the picture of a society whose veneer of respectability is about to shatter. The leading actor and his leading lady, for example, are both wondering what to do about his wife's increasingly strident demands for a costly divorce.
The actor-manager and his young protg are both pondering what to do about the love that still dare not - a couple of years ahead of Oscar Wilde's trial - speak its name.
Wright's strength is in his dialogue, which is solidly credible across the social register, from drunken miners to civic worthies to bored metropolitan thespians slumming it in the northern cultural desert. Born and reared in Wigan, where he was a teacher for 35 years, Wright uses dialogue to convey not just a strong sense of place but also of time and class. So much does dialogue, rather than exposition, carry the plot that Act of Murder would translate into a compelling play with only minor surgery.
The background to all these showy theatrical spectaculars is a failed miners' strike. Just as this has left the miners resentful at the soldiers used to break the strike, it has so drained away their wives and daughters' housekeeping money as to make them contemplate taking the train to Bolton to sell their bodies.
So although we are indeed presented with that great Golden Age clich, a murder in a locked room, and a further one of a death on stage, and although there is a satisfying tangle of interconnectedness to be straightened out before the denouement, this bleak context stays in the reader's mind as immovably as coal dust in a miner's lung.A gripping read all the way through to its satisfyingly unpredictable, but deeply ironic, ending, Act of Murder is a worthy winner for a prize which, considering that it's the UK's biggest one for debut novelists, still isn't half as well known as it ought to be.