Category Archives: Christopher Fowler

Take Out the Papers and the Trash*

clutterMost of us have been taught (well, I have, anyway) that it’s important to be tidy and keep things where they belong. And there is logic to that. If your things are tidy and in their proper places, you’re less likely to lose them. And for a lot of people, there is something reassuring, even restful, about an uncluttered room.

But the reality of keeping things tidy isn’t always fun. And sometimes it’s not logical if you think about it. After all, why put something away if you know you’re going to be using it again very soon? So there are plenty of people, both real and fictional, who don’t exactly keep their things neat and uncluttered. And that can add an interesting layer of character depth in a novel.

For instance, consider Mr. Clancy, the detective story novelist we meet in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). He’s on a flight from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Unfortunately for Mr. Clancy, he’s been doing research on similar kinds of poisons, so Chief Inspector Japp takes a particular interest in him. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find out who killed the victim and why. Since the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, Poirot pays Mr. Clancy a visit:
 

‘The room…was in a state of chaos. There were papers strewn about, cardboard files, bananas, bottles of beer, open books, sofa cushions, a trombone, miscellaneous china, etchings, and a bewildering assortment of fountain pens.’
 

Those familiar with Poirot’s own habit of neatness can probably imagine his reaction…

In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, we meet Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who gets involved in a murder case when one of her clients Dr. Felix McClure is murdered. At first, his former scout Ted Brooks is suspected of the killing, since McClure had found out he was dealing drugs on campus, and was about to reveal it. But then Brooks disappears and is later found dead. So now Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have two murders to investigate. Ellie Smith is definitely a ‘person of interest’ as the saying goes, so Morse interviews her. He also finds himself attracted to her, and the feeling is mutual. Each is keenly aware that she’s a suspect in a murder case that he’s investigating, and that makes things awkward. Here’s a bit of what Dexter has to say about Ellie’s rooms:
 

‘The young woman turned back the grubby top-sheet on the narrow bed, kicked a pair of knickers out of sight behind the shabby settee, poured out two glasses of red wine…and was sitting on the bed, swallowing the last mouthful of a Mars bar, when the first knock sounded softly on the door.’
 

There’s a lot to like about Ellie as a character, but tidiness is not one of her personality traits.

In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, PC Nick Ingram investigates when the body of Kate Sumner is found on the beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset. At the same time, her almost-three-year-old daughter Hannah is found wandering around in the nearby town of Poole, and WPC Sandra Griffiths works to find out where the child’s family is and why she’s wandering around all alone. Ingram and Griffiths work with DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to put the pieces of the puzzle together. They narrow down the list of suspects to three people: the victim’s husband William Sumner; schoolteacher Tony Bridges; and Bridges’ roommate Stephen Harding. At one point the police visit the home that Bridges and Harding share:
 

‘The house gave the impression of multiple occupancy with a couple of bicycles leaning against the wall at the end of the corridor, and assorted clothes lying in heaps about the furniture and floor. Dozens of empty lager cans had been tossed into an old beer crate in a corner – left over…from a long-dead party – and overflowing ashtrays reeked into the atmosphere.’
 

The untidiness isn’t the reason for the murder, but it’s an interesting look at these two characters.

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel introduces readers to artist Sally Love. She is a former frined of Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. So when the news comes that some of Love’s work will be exhibited at the Mendel Gallery, Kilbourn decides to see the show and perhaps even renew her friendship with the artist if that’s possible. At one point, Kilbourn visits the house/studio where Love is living:
 

‘There were canvases stacked against the wall and a trestle table with brushes and boxes of pencils and rags and lengths of wood and steel that looked like rulers but were unmarked. In the corner farthest from the window were a hot plate, a couple of open suitcases and a sleeping bag.’
 

Kilbourn gets involved in a murder investigation when the gallery’s owner is murdered and Sally becomes a suspect.

Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) series featuring Arthur Bryant and John May begins with Full Dark House. In that novel, the PCU is devastated when a bomb blast goes off, destroying its office. Shortly before the blast, Bryant was working on his memoirs, including a discussion of the PCU’s first case. May suspects that the blast may have something to do with that first case, so he decides to take another look at it. In the process, he reminisces about his first meeting with Bryant in 1940. At the time, he was new on the job, just transferred to the PCU. Bryant had already been working there. May’s first impression of Bryant’s office is one of chaos, and Bryant himself is a bit eccentric:
 

Peculiar Crimes Unit, isn’t it frightful?’ I think their perception of the word ‘peculiar’ and mine differ somewhat. I’ve got some bumph here you can read through.’ He rooted around among his papers, sending several overstuffed folders to the floor, but failed to locate anything specific.’
 

Bryant may not be an orderly, tidy, conventional thinker. But as fans of this series know, he’s brilliant and he and May make a good team.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust. An excavation at the Westmann Islands reveals a set of bodies in the basement of one of the houses. The bodies were buried there during a devastating volcano eruption in 1973 and hadn’t been disturbed since then. At the time of the eruption, Markús Magnússon was living in that house. He was only a teenager, but it is possible he might know something about the murders. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir agrees to represent him, and tries to find anything that might exonerate him. At first Markús says his childhood sweetheart Alda Thorgeirsdóttir can corroborate his story that he knew nothing about the killings. But soon after the bodies are discovered, she herself dies. The police call her death a suicide, but whether or not it is, this means that Thóra will have look into the case more closely to find out what really happened on the day of the eruption. She and her secretary Bella travel to the Westmann Islands to talk to people who were there at the time. One of them is Kjartan Helgason, the harbourmaster for the island where the explosion occurred. Thóra and Bella visit him at his office to see what he recalls from that day:
 

‘It seemed to Thóra from the piles and scraps of paper covering the room that the man’s accomplishments were scarcely exemplary, despite his view of the sea. ‘I live by the sea, too, and I know the feeling,’ she said, lifting a strange-looking device from the nearest chair. ‘Can I put this somewhere else?’ she asked, looking around to find a secure place…’
‘Just throw it on the floor,’ replied Kjarten as he took his own seat.’
 

Kjarten may know a great deal about the eruption, and Thóra wants to learn as much as she can. But his surroundings certainly don’t bode very well for her search for the truth.

Untidiness doesn’t always reflect a cluttered mind. And lots of very interesting characters don’t exactly dust every day. And sometimes that clutter can tell a lot about a person, whether real or fictional. Which ‘cluttery characters’ have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Yakety Yak.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Colin Dexter, Gail Bowen, Minette Walters, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

There Were Incidents and Accidents*

So-Called AccidentsSome deaths are quite obviously murders. In those cases, at least in crime fiction, the killer doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was murder. Rather, the murderer may work hard at an alibi, or may work hard to prove there was no motive. But really, it’s much easier to disguise the murder as an accident if it’s possible. And sometimes, that makes it awfully difficult to prove that a death was murder.

Examples of murders made to look like accidents run all through crime fiction, possibly because it’s really credible that someone would want to cover up a murder that way. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of examples – many more than I could list in one post. But here are a few.

Agatha Christie uses the so-called accident in several of her stories. To take just one example, in Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The enigmatic Mr. Shaitana gathers four sleuths (including Poirot) and four people that he hints have gotten away with murder. After the meal, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the evening, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were in the room at the time – the very four people Shaitana more or less accused of murder. Now the four sleuths are faced with the task of figuring out which of these equally-plausible suspects is guilty. One of them is Anne Meredith. At one point, she’d served as companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning by hat paint. Apparently, she confused the hat paint with her medicine, a very plausible accident. Or was it?

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), a young boy Isaiah Christiansen tragically dies after a fall from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had befriended fellow Greenlander Smilla Jasperson, and she is upset at his death. She’s drawn to the scene of the accident, and when she gets there, she sees signs in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. She begins to ask questions and soon discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. She persists though, and her search for answers takes her back to her homeland, where she finds the connection between Isaiah’s death and some secrets hidden in Greenland.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). The novel actually tells two stories, one of which is a recounting of the PCU’s first case. In 1940, the Palace Theatre is set to do a production of Orpheus. Then one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania dies in what some say is a freak accident. The police are investigating that death when Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed by a piece of scenery. Again it’s regarded as a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Still, it’s beginning to look very much as though someone is determined to stop the production. When another death occurs, and then a disappearance, Bryant and May and their team come under intense pressure to solve the case before there are any more tragedies.

Louise Penny’s Still Life is our introduction to the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of its residents Jane Neal is killed during the Thanksgiving holiday in what looks like a hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to the scene, and he soon finds that this death was actually a murder. The question though is who would have had a motive. The victim was a beloved former teacher whom everyone seemed to respect. Gamache and the team get to know the town, though, and some of its history. And it’s in the past that they find the motive and therefore, the killer.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone thinks he’s found a great new way to make money. He’s a marine biologist (well, in name at least) who’s hired by agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut’s company has been accused of pouring toxic waste into Florida’s Everglades, and Hammernut needs proof that his company doesn’t pollute. Perrone offers that in the form of a way he’s developed to fake the results of water testing so the water looks clean. The two begin to do business and all goes well enough at first. Then, Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, and threatens to report it. Now he needs to get rid of her, so he tells her they’re going on an anniversary cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the trip, he pushes Joey overboard, thinking that’s the end of his problems. At first everyone, including the police, thinks it’s a terrible accident and there’s much sympathy for Perrone. What he doesn’t know though is that Joey didn’t drown, and she’s made her own plans for revenge…

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man. In the late 18th-Century Lady Drusilla Davenish lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. The family is excited about Lucie’s upcoming wedding to Giles Saxborough. Everything changes though, when Giles’ father (and Lady Drusilla’s godfather) Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a tragic riding accident. But things don’t quite add up for Lady Drusilla. Her godfather was an expert horseman. It’s highly unlikely that he’d have died in that way. So she starts to ask questions. Not long afterwards, Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed in what’s put down as a horrible yachting accident. But Lady Drusilla is convinced that it’s more than that. And there’s more than one possible explanation. It might be connected to a smuggling operation she’s recently discovered. Or it might be someone with a vendetta against the Saxborough family. Or it might be something else…

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report suggests it might have been suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t think so. It could also have very well been an accident. Whatever the cause, Delbeck wants to know the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney takes the case and travels to Pattaya. As a part of her investigations, she decides to learn more about at New Life, going undercover as a volunteer. As she gets closer to the truth about Maryanne’s life and death, she finds out that some people do not want their secrets revealed…

At least in fiction, murders designed to look like accidents can serve a lot of purposes. They can give murderers effective ways to hide their crimes. They can also give the author a way to build suspense and interest. And they can allow the author the chance to lead the reader up the proverbial garden path. After all, sometimes an accident is just an accident. There are so many other examples of this plot point in crime fiction – many more than I could name. So…what gaps have I left?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Fowler, Dawn Harris, Louise Penny, Peter Høeg

You Lift Up My Spirits*

SDaliIt’s said that everyone has a talent. And there’s nothing quite like a job where one gets to use one’s natural ability. But there are some people who are truly gifted at something. It may be music, dancing, sport, acting, art or something else. Whatever it is, those are the people with a ‘once in a lifetime’ gift. They can’t always explain exactly how they do what they do, but their skill is extraordinary. They’re out there in real life of course, and we certainly see them in crime fiction. Their gifts make them very special and sometimes, very vulnerable.

Agatha Christie mentions this kind of rare gift in a few of her stories. One, for instance, is Appointment With Death. In that novel, the Boynton family is taking a holiday in the Middle East, including a sightseeing trip to Petra. While they’re at Petra, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. That’s logical, given her age and bad health. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied, and he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and begins the investigation. It turns out that Carbury’s suspicions were all too correct: Mrs. Boynton died of digitalis poisoning. She was, as Poirot puts it, a ‘mental sadist’ who kept her family cowed, so there is no lack of suspects. In the end, Poirot finds out who really poisoned Mrs. Boynton and why. One of Mrs. Boynton’s children is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny,’ who is already mentally and emotionally fragile. But, she turns out to have a rare gift for the stage. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that when that gift is discovered, we see what a great actress Ginny is. I know, I know, fans of Henrietta Savernake in The Hollow… 

Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory introduces us to the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies has a rare gift for the violin, and is now world-class. He’s expressed himself musically since he was a child, and can’t imagine life without his music. Then one frightening day, he finds that he can’t play a note. He immediately seeks psychological help to find out what’s blocking his playing. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night by what seems at first to be an accidental hit-and-run incident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers find, there’s nothing at all accidental about it. The deeper they look into the case, the more they learn about how dysfunctional the Davies family is. They also learn about the tragic death by drowning of Gideon’s younger sister twenty years earlier. It turns out, as you can imagine, that that incident is related both to Eugenie Davies’ death and to her son’s struggle with his music.

In James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce, we meet gifted musician Tee Bobby Hulin. Here’s what Burke says about his talent:

 

‘…Tee Bobby possessed another, more serious gift, one he seemed totally undeserving of, as though the finger of God had pointed at him arbitrarily one day and bestowed on him a musical talent that was like none since the sad, lyrical beauty in the recordings of Guitar Slim.’

 

Hulin may be extraordinarily gifted, but that doesn’t prevent him being suspected in two vicious rape/murder cases. New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux doesn’t care much for Hulin as a person, but that doesn’t mean he thinks the man’s guilty of horrible crimes. And there are other suspects in these crimes. Robicheaux finds that in order to discover who the killer in this novel is, he will have to face some demons from his own past.

In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, we learn of the first case investigated by Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). In that case, the Palace Theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus was sabotaged by several tragedies. One was the murder of gifted dancer Tanya Capistrania, who was to have had a solo part. In fact, she was leaving a rehearsal session when she was killed. She was so talented that one possible motive for her death was professional jealousy. The PCU found out who was responsible for the tragedies, including this murder, but there was one major thing left undone. Now, years later, it comes back to haunt John May when a bomb explodes in the PCU offices.  As May works to find out the truth about that bombing, he finds out that it’s directly related to that long-ago case.

The main protagonist in Gail Bowen’s series is political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. The series follows her home life as much as it does the mysteries she investigates, so over the course of the novels, readers get to know her family. One member is her adopted daughter Taylor. Taylor is a truly gifted artist, who is trying to come to terms with some difficult issues in her life. At the same time, she is learning what it means to have her kind of talent. In The Gifted, we learn that two of Taylor’s pieces of art will be included in a benefit art auction. Her parents are deeply concerned about how this might affect Taylor. She is, after all, only fourteen, and they want her to have as safe and ‘normal’ (whatever that means) a childhood as possible. On the other hand, Taylor’s talent is undeniable, and she is passionate about her art. To deny her the opportunity to evolve as an artist would be like removing a limb. So despite some misgivings, Taylor’s permitted to contribute to the auction. One of her pieces has unintended and tragic consequences, and throughout the novel, we see how much a part of Taylor’s life her art really is.

And that’s the thing about people who have rare talents. Those gifts are integral and essential. Perhaps those with special gifts can’t explain exactly how they do what they do. But they couldn’t imagine not using them. Which gifted characters have made an impression on you?

 

On Another Note…

grammys-paul-mccartney-gi

This post is dedicated to one of the world’s truly gifted musical artists Paul McCartney. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!

 

ps  The ‘photo above is by Salvador Dalí, who also had rare and special talent.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Follow Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Venom

Cottonmouth-largeHow very exciting! The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has arrived at our twenty-second stop! It’s been a terrific journey thus far, and a lot of the credit goes to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Thanks as ever, Kerrie! Today’s stop is at fascinating Valley View Reserve, where you can see all kinds of the most interesting sorts of animals. Everyone is charging up cameras and changing into comfortable shoes, so this is a good time for me to offer my contribution for this stop: venom.

Now, any herpetologist will tell you that snakes get very bad press. And it’s true that there are a lot of snakes that are perfectly harmless, and some that are even  beneficial. But snake venom can be extremely dangerous – even deadly. So the wise person treats snakes very cautiously. Just a quick look at crime fiction should convince you…

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She believes her life may be in danger, and tells Holmes an eerie story of the death of her sister Julia. Julia had been hearing strange noises in the middle of the night. Other odd things happened too, and Julia became frightened. Then, just before she died, she said some very cryptic things that Helen hasn’t been able to figure out. Now Helen is hearing the same weird noises at night, and wants Holmes to investigate. Holmes and Watson travel to the Stoner home Stoke Moran, and settle in for the night. It’s not long before Helen’s life really is in danger and the sleuths will have to act quickly if she’s to be saved. And what’s the weapon? What killed Helen Stoner? Snake venom.

In Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance, we meet Maria Maffei, whose brother Carlos has disappeared. Everyone thinks he’s gone back to Italy, but Maria doesn’t believe that. So she visits Nero Wolfe to ask him to investigate. Not long afterwards, her worst fears are realised when Carlos is found murdered. Evidence that he had in his possession suggests that his death is connected to the sudden death of Peter Barstow, president of Holland University. Barstow apparently died of a stroke while out on a golf course but it’s not long before Wolfe establishes that he was killed by a specially-designed golf club. Maffei had made the golf club, not realising that it would be used for a murder. When he found out and threatened to tell what he knew, he was killed. It turns out that the golf club used in the murder was rigged to deliver an injection of snake venom, and that’s what actually killed Barstow. Now Wolfe and Archie Goodwin have to find out what the connection is between Maffei and Barstow, and who would have wanted the victim dead.

Agatha Christie’s  Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) is the story of a fateful flight from Paris to London. On that flight is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who does business under the name of Madame Giselle. During the flight, she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Chief Inspector Japp looks among them to find out who would have a motive. Since Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, he helps Japp and between the two of them, they find out the truth. It turns out that the murder weapon was venom from the boomslang snake. Not something you’d normally expect to find on a flight from Paris to London, but in this case, the murderer finds a way.

London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) is accustomed to some strange crimes, and the crimes we see in Christopher Fowler’s Seventy-Seven Clocks are no exception. First, an unusual man dressed in Edwardian-style clothes damages a valuable painting while on a visit to the National Gallery. Then, attorney Maximillian Jacob is in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel, reading a newspaper, when he falls asleep. A few hours later one of the staff tries to wake him, only to find that he’s been fatally wounded. Forensic reports show that he’s been bitten by a snake, and the venom has killed him. There are other strange occurrences too and murders, and it’s up to Arthur Bryant and John May to find out what connects those murders with the incident at the National Gallery.

And then there’s S.J. Bolton’s Awakening. In that novel, wildlife veterinarian Clara Benning finds herself mixed up in a bizarre series of events in the small village where she lives. She works at The Little Order of St. Francis, a wildlife hospital, and has a special interest in and expertise with snakes. That knowledge proves vital when one of Benning’s neighbours finds an adder in her baby’s crib. Then, John Alington, another neighbour, dies of what seems like the bite of another adder. But it’s not so simple as that. Allington’s blood is found to have much more venom in it that would be expected from one snake bite. So Benning begins to suspect that he’s been murdered. ACC Matt Hoare is officially in charge of the case, but he knows that Benning is an expert with snakes. So he relies on her as they investigate.

You see? Snakes are fascinating, but they are probably best admired from a distance. Now then, time for a tour of the reserve. Shall we start with the Reptile Building?  ;-)

 

ps.  This is one of the few ‘photos on my blog that I haven’t taken. This is a picture of a cottonmouth snake – not a fella you want to get too close to…  Thanks, Philadelphia Zoo!!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Fowler, Rex Stout, S.J. Bolton

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Props

PropsThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is moving along steadily on our perilous journey through the alphabet. Thanks as ever to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for handling all of the details of the trip so well. Everyone’s excited because we’ve arrived at Pborough, where there is a lovely old theatre. We’ll be seeing one of their productions later, so we’re all looking forward to that. Right now everyone else is having a look around our hotel, so I’ll take a moment to share my contribution for this week:  props.

Most theatre productions use props of one kind or another and that’s all to the good. Props can make a production that much more realistic. But on the other hand they can also be very dangerous. Just a quick look at crime fiction should suffice to show what I mean.

Ngaio Marsh had a theatre background and many of her novels reflect that interest. They also reflect her knowledge of how much damage a prop can do. In Enter a Murderer for example, Scotland Yard Inspector Roderick Alleyn is attending the Unicorn Theatre’s production of The Rat and the Beaver. During the play, one of the actors Arthur Surbonadier is shot with a prop gun that’s been tampered with and left loaded. Since he’s ‘on the scene,’ Alleyn begins the investigation right away. The most likely suspect is fellow actor Felix Gardner, who’d gotten the lead role that Surbonadier thought was his. The two had had a serious quarrel and Surbonadier actually threatened Gardner. But as Alleyn soon learned, there is plenty of intrigue in this production and more than one person had a reason to want Arthur Surbonadier dead.

In James Yaffe’s Mom Doth Murder Sleep, murder strikes the Mesa Grande, Colorado’s amateur theatre group. The acting troupe has planned a production of The Scottish Play, and casting, rehearsals and so on have gone ahead. One of the cast members is Roger Meyer, who works with the local Public Defender’s office. On opening night, former Hollywood actor/producer Martin Osborn, who has the lead in the play, is stabbed onstage. It isn’t long before Sally Michaels, who is playing Lady Macbeth, is arrested for the crime. She had good reason to kill, too, since Osborn had recently ended a relationship he was having with her. There’s other evidence too against her. When Meyer’s boss Dave tells his mother about the case though, Mom’s not so sure that Sally really is guilty. So Dave looks more deeply into the acting troupe and its history and finds that more than one person had a good reason to want to kill Martin Osborn.

Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby has to look into a case of murder with a prop in Death of a Hollow Man. The Causton Amateur Dramatic Society has chosen to do Amadeus. Barnaby’s wife Joyce has been given a minor role and his future son-in-law Nicholas Bradley has the role of Mozart. So Barnaby attends the opening-night production. All’s going well enough until the dramatic scene during which Antonio Salieri tries to commit suicide. Esslyn Carmichael, who’s playing Salieri, picks up what he thinks is a blunted prop knife only to find out too late that the knife was all too real. Now, Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy look into the relationships among the cast members and into Carmichael’s history to try to find out who wanted to kill him. As it turns out, more than one person had both the opportunity and the motive.

Simon Brett’s series featuring actor Charles Paris includes quite a lot of on-stage mayhem. Paris isn’t exactly a household word, and his agent is not particularly competent. So Paris spends his share of time in small roles for small-town productions. In between those roles, he does what he can to ‘fill in the gaps.’ In So Much Blood for instance, Paris gets the opportunity to fill in at the Edinburgh Festival with a one-man show of Thomas Hood’s work. Another play has fallen through, and this is a chance for Paris to get some exposure and some work. His agent warns him not to take the job, but Paris accepts anyway. While he’s there, he attends the performance of a play called Mary, Queen of Sots, a satire being put on by the Derby University Dramatic Society. During the performance, one of the actors Willy Mariello, is stabbed with what’s supposed to be a prop knife. At first it’s thought that his death is a tragic accident. But Paris doesn’t think so and he can’t resist trying to find out what really happened.

There’s also Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, in which John May and Arthur Bryant of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) investigate several murders and a disappearance at the Palace Theatre. The theatre is planning a production of Orpheus, and rehearsals have begun. Then, one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania is killed and her feet removed. May and Bryant are looking into this case when there’s another tragedy. Charles Senechal, who has the role of Jupiter, is called by a piece of scenery in what looks like a terrible accident. Then there’s another death, and a disappearance. Now it looks very much as though someone is trying to stop the production, and the PCU works to find out who it is.

Of course, sometimes props can save lives. Just ask Kate Carpenter, whom we first meet in Deborah Nicholson’s House Report. Carpenter is House Manager for Calgary’s Foothills Stage Network (FSN). One night, during FSN’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, the body of Peter Reynolds is found in the men’s washroom. One possible suspect is Reynolds’ ex-wife Gladys, who works as an usher at the theatre. Gladys asks Carpenter to help clear her name, and against her better judgement, Carpenter agrees to at least ask some questions. Soon, the evidence begins to point to Carpenter’s lover Norman ‘Cam’ Caminksi, so Carpenter becomes even more vested in finding out the truth. The closer she gets to the real killer, the more danger she finds for herself. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that at one point, she’s in very grave danger indeed, but  she’s saved by the judicious use of a piece of property. In the end, Carpenter and her assistant Graham find out who the killer is and what the motive was.

As you can see, props are an important part of crime-fictional murders. Looks like it’s almost time to see the play. Would you like to go backstage before it begins??? ;-)

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Filed under Caroline Graham, Christopher Fowler, Deborah Nicholson, James Yaffe, Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett