Category Archives: Christopher Fowler

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

Step, Kick, Kick, Leap, Kick, Touch*

DancersWhen you were small, what did you want to be when you grew up? For a lot of people the answer to that question is, ‘a dancer.’ When you see them onstage, dancers make it look easy. They look elegant, they sometimes wear fabulous costumes and it seems that they live an exciting life. So it’s no wonder so many children think it’d be wonderful to be a dancer. Of course if you’ve ever studied dancing then you know that it’s not at all easy to dance. It’s a challenging life in which you have to devote years of hard work to prepare and in which you have to prepare intensively for every performance. And yet there’s still a lot of mystique about dancers. Little wonder that they show up in crime fiction.

For example, one of the important characters in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train is Mme. Mirelle, a dancer whose performances have captured everyone’s fancy. Mirelle has a great deal of talent and glamour, but that doesn’t mean she’s at all perfect. When the story begins, she’s having an affair with Derek Kettering, who can, if I may put it this way, afford to keep her in the luxury she feels she deserves. But that’s only because Kettering is married to wealthy Ruth Van Aldin. When Ruth threatens divorce, Mirelle makes it clear that she was ‘not born to be poor’ and that she will leave Kettering too. Then, Ruth is murdered during a trip from London to Nice on the Blue Train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and gets involved in the investigation. As he slowly puts together what happened during the trip, he learns that Ruth had with her a very valuable ruby that has since been stolen, so she could have been killed for the gem. On the other hand, it turns out that both Kettering and his mistress were on the same train, so one of them could also be guilty. There are other possibilities too as Poirot soon learns…

In Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is on a hiking holiday near Wilvercombe. She stops to take a rest near a beach which looks comfortable and peaceful. When she wakes up, the tide is out and she sees a dead man’s body. She goes for help but by the time she returns, the tide has come in again and there is no evidence as to who the man is or who killed him. Soon, though, the victim is identified as Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer who worked at the Hotel Resplendent. Once it’s known who the dead man was, the police begin to look for people he might have known who would have had a motive to murder him. Lord Peter Wimsey joins Harriet and together they find out that there are several possibilities. There’s some evidence that Alexis might have been mixed up in Russian politics and that this might be a politically-motivated killing. Alexis’ personal life also comes in for some scrutiny and there are some possibilities there too. In the end an interesting cipher leads Harriet and Lord Peter to the truth.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House is really the story of two mysteries. One told in flashback form is the first case that Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) worked. In that flashback it’s 1940 and the Palace Theatre is planning a production of Orpheus. Dancer Tanya Capistrania is to have a solo part in the production, so she spends a great deal of time at the theatre rehearsing. One afternoon she’s just finished when she is killed and her feet removed. That’s just the sort of unusual crime that the PCU was set up to investigate, so Bryant and May begin their work. Then, Charles Senechal, who was to have another role in the production, is killed by a heavy piece of scenery. Then there’s another death, and the disappearance of one of the other dancers. It’s clear now that someone wants to ruin the production and Bryant and May have to find out who it is before there are more disasters.

In Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee has been asked to find Delmar Kinetewa, who disappeared from his residential school. He tracks the boy to a Tano ceremonial event that involves sacred dancing. One of the dancers is Kinetewa’s uncle Francis Sayesva, who has an important part in the ritual. The dance finishes and the crowd watching it begins to disperse. That’s when Sayesva is found dead in an alley. When Chee discovers the relationship between Sayesva and Kinetewa, he is sure that the murder is related to the boy’s disappearance. As it turns out, it’s also related to the murder Eric Dorsey, a shop teacher at the school the boy attended. What’s interesting about this story is that it’s actually something Sayesva does during his part of the dance that leads to his death.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, her second novel featuring Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne. Thorne is working on an exposé that she hopes will reveal the shady dealings of crooked property developer Denny Graham. She’s got witnesses lined up and she’s ready to put the piece together when her boss Tim Morrow asks her to work on something else. It’s the 30th anniversary of the protests against the 1981 Springboks’ tour of New Zealand, and Morrow wants her to do a piece on the events of that year. At the time of The Tour, apartheid was still in full force in South Africa and many New Zealanders thought that letting the Springboks play in their country would condone apartheid. On the other hand, rugby is extremely important in New Zealand, so a lot of rugby fans wanted the tour to go on. The police were tasked with protecting the guests, maintaining order and still allowing people to peacefully protest. As anyone who knows about The Tour can tell you, things went from tense to devastating. But at first Thorne is reluctant to do the story, as she is afraid she’ll lose the faith of the people who are willing to talk to her about Denny Graham. What’s more, she feels that the story’s been done already – she doesn’t have much new to add. Morrow insists though and Thorne gets started. Then she finds an angle on The Tour that no-one’s done. During the protests, two people dressed as lambs would come to the games to entertain the crowd. They’d dance, make fun and generally try to liven things up. Then, all of a sudden, they stopped appearing at the protests and games. Thorne wants to follow up and find out what happened to The Lambs. One of them turns out to be a professional dancer who was murdered during The Tour. As Thorne looks into that murder and into what happened to The Lambs, she uncovers some long-held secrets that someone is willing to do an awful lot to keep hidden.

Dancers look graceful, have a lot of talent and seem to have lives that a lot of the rest of us might envy. But they work incredibly hard to get to the proverbial top of the tree and not a lot of their lives is really all that glamourous Still, they spellbind us in real life and in crime fiction…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlish and Edward Kleban’s I Hope I Get It.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Dorothy Sayers, Paddy Richardson, Tony Hillerman

I See the Place Lives*

Old MainAny crime fiction fan can tell you that a good, atmospheric setting can add a lot to a novel. And a well-written post from Annette Thomson has got me thinking of the way that old buildings can be rich with history and character. Annette’s blog, by the way, is an excellent writing blog and Annette is a talented poet and writer. Check it out. Old buildings like the one Annette describes have their own stories to tell, and when they’re woven into a crime novel, this can add layers of atmosphere to a story.

There’s a building like that in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral. When wealthy family patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family gathers for his funeral and the reading of the will. At this gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone is quick to discount what she says and Cora herself asks everyone to forget she’s said anything. But privately, everyone wonders whether she might have been right. After all, Richard Abernethie had a fortune to leave and a family full of relations who are eager for their shares of it. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day it seems more and more likely that she was right. Family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. As part of his search for answers, Poirot visits Enderby Hall in the guise of a representative of a foundation that wants to buy the old house. During his visit, he hears some important conversations and remarks, and gets some vital clues as to what really happened to both Richard Abernethie and Cora Lansquenet. The house itself has a rich history and we see that mostly through the eyes of the family butler Lanscombe, who’s been there for decades. As he goes about his duties we get a sense of the way an old building like this one can have memories.

There’s a very atmospheric, history-laden building featured in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first in his Gideon Fell series. Tad Rampole has just completed his university studies and has decided to travel a bit. On the advice of his mentor, he seeks out Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives in Chatterham. On his way to visit Fell, Rampole meets and becomes smitten with Dorothy Starberth. When he meets Fell, Rampole hears the story of the Starberth family. Beginning with Anthony Starberth, two generations of Starberths were governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. The prison then fell into disuse and hasn’t housed any convicts for a hundred years. And yet the Starberth family still maintains a prison-related tradition. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday each Starberth heir spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions in a note left in the safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin to follow the ritual and he duly prepares for his stay. Sometime during the night Martin Starberth dies from what looks like a fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. But it’s soon clear that he was murdered. As Fell, Rampole and Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold investigate, we get a real sense of the rich and eerie history of the prison building. The old building adds much to the story in terms of atmosphere.

So does the Palace Theatre in Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House.  When Arthur Bryant of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) decides to write his memoirs, he makes a shocking discovery about the first case the unit solved. He’s following up on this finding when a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices and takes Bryant with it. Bryant’s police partner John May decides to find out who set the bomb. To do that, he’ll have to revisit the 1940 case that Bryant was reviewing. Through flashbacks we learn that in that case, the PCU investigates the murder of dancer Tanya Capistrania, who was part of the cast of Orpheus, which is scheduled to open at the Palace Theatre. As the team looks into what happened to the victim, preparations continue for the production, but they are marred by another murder, followed by a disappearance. It turns out that there was one question about that case that was not resolved. Bryant found out the answer to that question and when May does too, we find out how that 1940 case is connected to the modern-day blast. Throughout this novel, the Palace Theatre provides a rich, atmospheric and history-laden setting for much of what happens. Just the building itself adds much to the story.

We also see that sense of atmosphere in Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders. Retired Florida circuit court judge Sylvia Thorn reluctantly agrees to accompany her mother Kristina Grisseljon’s travel club the Florida Flippers on a sightseeing and gambling tour of Laughlin, Nevada. Everyone settles in and all begins well enough. But shortly afterwards the body of a man no-one seems to know is found in the bathtub of the hotel room that two of the club members are sharing. Then one of the tour group members disappears. She is later found dead in the abandoned Lone Cactus gold mine. With help from her brother Willie and from the other members of the Florida Flippers, Sylvia finds out what the connection between the deaths is, and how they relate to some nasty secrets that someone has been hiding. One part of the story takes place in Oatman, Nevada, a ghost town near the mine. There are a few very effective scenes there, especially in the Oatman Hotel, which is full of history and character. As a matter of fact, there’s talk that a ghost haunts the hotel. The ghost town setting and the old mine really add atmosphere to this novel. Oh, and so do the burros.

And then there’s the Löwander Hospital, which features strongly in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds. This private hospital has been in the Löwander family for a few generations and is now directed by Sverker Löwander. One night there’s a blackout at the hospital during which a nurse Marianne Svärd is killed. Another nurse Linda Svensson disappears and is later found dead. Eerily enough, her body is discovered in the same place where fifty years earlier, another nurse Thekla Olsson hung herself. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team are called in to investigate the nurses’ murders and another death that occurs. Since the three deaths all seem to be connected to the hospital in some way, the team spends its share of time there. The place is full of history and stories and that atmosphere adds to the novel.

There’s only room in this one post for a few examples of the kind of rich atmosphere and history that old buildings can add to a story (I know, I know, fans of Johan Theorin’s Öland novels). They can either provide an interesting contrast to a light story, or add a real layer of eeriness and mystery to a darker one. Which old buildings do you wish could tell you their stories? If you’re a writer, do you use old places as an inspiration?

Thanks, Annette, for the post that inspired me. And thanks, Elizabeth Spann Craig, for another post with a ‘photo of a great atmospheric Southern Gothic building. That inspired me too.

ps. The ‘photo is of Old Main, the heart of the campus of Knox College, Galesburg IL.  It is a building full of history and all sorts of stories. Among other things, the building is the site of one of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858. Oh, and the winsome model on the steps is my daughter when she was a few months shy of her seventh birthday.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mount Eerie’s The Place Lives.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Helene Tursten, Johan Theorin, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Stoltey

There’s No Business Like Show Business*

The TheatreI’ve mentioned it before on this blog and I’ll say so again: there’s something about the theatre. Whether you like musical theatre, traditional plays or other kinds of productions, live theatre can be mesmerising. And theatre settings make terrific contexts for crime fiction. First, the buildings themselves are often full of history and secrets. And even new theatre buildings have all sorts of places to connive, to hide bodies and so on. And when you consider the mix of personalities, the egos involved, the stress of preparing for a show and all of the (pardon the pun) drama, you’ve got some very effective ingredients for a crime fiction novel.

Ngaio Marsh fans will know that she had a theatre background and often used that background in her novels. Just as one example (there are many!), in Opening Night (AKA Night at the Vulcan), Martyn Tarn moves from her home in New Zealand to try to make a name for herself in London theatre. She gets a chance to work at the Vulcan Theatre when famous actress Helena Hamilton needs a fill-in dresser. As she’s being shown round the theatre, Martyn hears an old Vulcan legend of a man who was killed in one of the dressing rooms. Not being the superstitious type, she doesn’t think much of the story. She settles into life at the Vulcan and it’s not long before she proves herself. In fact, she’s talented enough to be named Helena Hamilton’s understudy. Then Helena’s husband Clark Bennington dies by gas poisoning in what looks like a case of suicide. But his death eerily resembles the legend Martyn heard when she first came to the Vulcan. When Bennington’s death is shown to be murder, Inspector Roderick Alleyn (quite a lover of the theatre) investigates. Like many of Marsh’s other novels, this one shows us theatre life, theatre legends and old stories, and the kinds of people who get involved in theatre.

Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series has the theatre scene as its main focus. Paris is an actor who’s struggled a bit. He’s not lacking in talent, but he doesn’t have a very skilled agent. What’s worse, he also doesn’t have the best of judgement, he drinks much more than he should, and that’s part of why he’s separated from his wife. So his personal life isn’t exactly a source of happiness for him either. And yet, Paris loves the theatre and acting, and we see that throughout the series. In What Bloody Man is That?, Paris’ agent has managed to get him a ‘play as cast’ role in the Pintero Theatre, Warminster’s production of The Scottish Play. The final casting choices are made, rehearsals begin and Paris is soon busy with the production. Then one day shortly before opening night, rehearsals are even more of a nightmare than they usually are and everyone copes with the stress by heading towards the theatre’s bar. Paris joins them and drinks much more than he should. He lurches back to his dressing room and falls asleep there. Waking up at three in the morning, he finds himself locked in the theatre. He also finds that he’s not alone. Noted actor Warnock Belvedere has died of what turns out to be poison and Paris discovers his body. Thinking that he’ll be suspected of the murder, Paris decides to find out for himself who killed Belvedere. He’s got a lot of suspects to choose from too; Belvedere might have been a talented actor but he was also obnoxious, misogynistic and supremely arrogant. In the end, Paris figures out who killed Belvedere and as he does so, we get a good look at life ‘behind the curtain.’

Bev Robitai’s Theatre Mysteries series features Auckland’s Regent Theatre and its manager Jessica Jones Matherson. In Murder in the Second Row, the company is planning a production of Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death (Hmm…wonder why that might have got my attention? ;-) ). Like most productions, this one has its share of stresses and challenges. One of them is the outsized ego of Simone Duchaine, who’s slated to take the role of Mrs. Boynton. She’s a diva who’s accustomed to being pampered, so it’s hard to work with her. And then there’s Tamara Fitzpatrick, who’s taking the role of Mrs. Boynton’s daughter-in-law Natalie. Tamara has succeeded in upsetting just about everyone and in hitting on just about all of the men in the cast. So when her body is discovered in the back row of one of the stalls, DSS Jack Matherson has quite a list of suspects. He’s also got a long list of suspects in Body on the Stage, in which the theatre plans a production called Ladies Night. Dennis Dempster is out of shape and out of sorts after his divorce. So his sister persuades him to do something to get him out of the house. He joins the crew of the Regent and soon finds himself involved in a murder case when Vincenzo Barino, who’s been helping to train the dancers, is killed. In both of these stories there’s an effective blend of character interplay, theatre life and of course, the Regent itself. Bev, if you’re reading this, I’m looking forward to the next Theatre Mystery.

Deborah Nicholson’s Kate Carpenter series features Calgary’s Foothill Stage Network and Carpenter, its house manager. This series begins with House Report, in which the body of Peter Reynolds is discovered in one of the building’s men’s washrooms. Reynolds was the ex-husband of one of the employees who works in the building where the Foothills Stage Network is housed. So there are soon several suspects in the case. Nicholson gets interested in the case in part because Reynolds’ body was found ‘on her watch’ and in part because of his connection to her theatre group. Then, her boyfriend Norman ‘Cam ‘ Caminski becomes a suspect, and Nicholson is more determined than ever to find out who the real killer is. This series gives readers an authentic look at ‘theatre people,’ life backstage and the work that goes into putting on a show.

In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) re-opens his first investigation with his partner Arthur Bryant. At the same time as May is re-opening the case in the present day, we follow the original 1940 investigation. At that time, the Palace Theatre is planning a production of Orpheus. Everything’s moving along until solo dancer Tanya Capistrania is murdered. Bryant and May are just beginning to look into that death when Charles Senechal, who is to play Jupiter in the production, is killed in what looks like a tragic accident with scenery. Then there’s another death. And a disappearance. Bit by bit, Bryant and May put the pieces together and after a ‘wrong turn’ or two, they find out who is behind the theatre disasters. But one piece of the case is not resolved and has consequences many years later. Those consequences are what prompt May to take another look at the case.

There are lots of other mysteries too that have theatre scenes (I’m thinking of Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder and Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit) even if the whole story isn’t set ‘on stage.’  It’s easy to see why the theatre figures so much in crime fiction. The buildings are often terrific settings for murders, the character mix allows for lots of different possibilities, and there are plenty of possible motives. I’ve only had room for a few examples here, so I’m quite sure you’ll be able to add lots more. Which ones have you enjoyed?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Irving Berlin song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Bev Robitai, Christopher Fowler, Deborah Nicholson, Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett