Everyone knows that actors and acting skills play an important role on the stage, in film and in television but acting finds its way into a lot of other areas too. One of them is detection. At least in crime fiction, both sleuths and murders depend on actors and acting skills and it’s easy to see why. Skilled actors can make people believe just about anything and that can be essential for solving crimes – and for committing them.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, the eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites four sleuths, including Hercule Poirot and detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, to his home for an unusual kind of dinner party. Shaitana also invites four other guests, all of whom he claims are murderers who’ve gotten away with their crimes. During the course of the dinner Shaitana hints at the different murders and subtly suggests that he knows about the crimes. His hints are clearly enough to worry one of the successful murderers because during the bridge game that follows the dinner, Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four possible suspects, so Poirot and the other three sleuths begin to look into the background of each suspect to find out which one killed Shaitana. Poirot discovers who the murderer is but what he really needs is a confession from the murderer. So he engages the services of an actor named Gerald Hemmingway and sets up a scene that forces the murderer’s hand.
You wouldn’t necessarily think that Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks would involve a lot of acting. It’s the story of a convention of the Les Quinze Maîtres, the fifteen greatest chefs in the world. And yet acting does play a role here. Nero Wolfe is invited to address this conference at West Virginia’s Kanawha Resort and despite his legendary dislike of leaving his home and moving transportation, he and Archie Goodwin go to West Virginia. One evening a special taste test is arranged; each chef is to taste a special dish of Sauce Printemps prepared by master chef Phillip Laszio and determine which ingredient is missing from it. In the course of the taste test someone stabs Laszio. At first, master chef Jerome Berin is suspected of the crime but Wolfe doesn’t think he’s guilty. So despite the fact that he didn’t want to get involved in the murder in the first place, he undertakes to clear Berin’s name. Wolfe and Goodwin get part of the evidence they need through the use of acting. They convince master chef Leon Blanc to play the part of a staff member to help some witnesses clarify what they saw on the night of the murder. That evidence, combined with other evidence, helps to point Wolfe and Goodwin to the real killer. And when Wolfe reveals the killer’s identity we also learn that killer made use of acting too to get close enough to Laszio to murder him.
In Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds, hospital nurse Marianne Svärd is killed one night during an unexpected blackout at Löwander Hospital. Shortly after that, another nurse Linda Svensson disappears and her body later discovered hung in the hospital’s attic. Eerily enough it’s the same attic where, fifty years earlier, another nurse Tekla Olsson hung herself. In fact, her ghost is said to still haunt the hospital and there are even people who believe that that ghost is the murderer. DI Irene Huss and her team investigate what’s happening at the hospital and find that there’s nothing paranormal at all about the murders. It turns out that the murder used some clever acting skills to make people relate the murders to the old ghost stories and disguise the real reason for the deaths.
Sometimes sleuths use acting skills even if they aren’t professional actors. For instance in Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children there’s a night-time raid on the home of Dr. Gustavo Pedrolli. His young adopted son Alfredo is taken away and Pedrolli himself is beaten. When Commissario Guido Brunetti finds out, he begins to investigate only to find that things are not as simple as they seem. The raid was conducted by the Carabinieri and their reason is that Pedrolli and his wife may have adopted Alfredo illegally through a baby trafficking ring. Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello look into the Carabinieri’s allegations and find that there does seem to be such a ring that involves Eastern European women who are in Italy illegally. They trace that ring to the Villa Colonna Clinic, which specialises in cases of infertility. Brunetti knows that he won’t get answers by just barging into the clinic under his real identity. So he and his boss’ assistant Elettra Zorzi take a different approach. They pose as a couple who want to have a child but cannot; they even go so far as to have faked medical records sent to the clinic before their visit. When the clinic director tells them there’s nothing that can be done, they make it clear that they’ll do anything to have a child. That well-acted scene puts Brunetti in touch with the person at the clinic who is connected to the traffickers.
Of course, it’s not always safe for actors when they’re involved in murder mysteries. For instance, in Carole Nelson Douglas’ Cat in a Golden Garland, New York ad agency Colby, Janos and Rinaldi becomes interested in Las Vegas public relations freelancer Temple Barr. More specifically the agency believes that her cat Midnight Louie’s could be a very successful ‘spokescat.’ So Barr and Midnight Louie are invited to the agency’s Christmas party. As a part of the festivities, top executive Brent Colby makes plans as he always has to dress as Santa Claus. Without telling anyone though, Colby changes his mind and hires Rudy Lasko to take his place. Lasko is a part-time department-store Santa who is happy to be paid to play this role. Everyone is shocked when Lasko’s killed, especially when it’s discovered that it’s Lasko and not Colby who’s been murdered. There are plenty of people who’d have benefited from Colby’s death but at first there seems no reason why Lasko should be murdered. But as Barr and Midnight Louie look into the case, they find that Lasko might have been the intended victim in the first place.
Of course, there are series that feature actors and the theatre. One example is Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series (which, by the way, I recommend as a solid and sometimes very funny light series). There are also Bev Robitai’s Theatre Mysteries (another series I recommend as a light, funny and positive series). But even in novels that don’t focus on the theatre, film or television and don’t feature an actor as the sleuth, there’s still an important role for skilled actors and acting in crime fiction. What better way to get people to believe what you want them to believe?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Where’s the Orchestra?