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.


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

22 responses to “There’s No Business Like Show Business*

  1. It is interesting how often the theatre figures in mysteries. I have not read many of that type recently, I have wanted to re-read some of the Charles Paris series… after many years.

    • Tracy – I always think it’s interesting too. It’s not surprising, just because of the terrific context. And I ought to re-read some of the Charles Paris stories myself. Especially since a new Charles Paris novel – A Decent Interval – is due out a little later this year. I am looking forward to that.

  2. I struck out on this one, Margot. I know I’ve read a couple of mysteries that involved actors and stage performances, but I can’t tie them to titles or authors. I like the idea of Simon Brett’s series, though, so will give it a try.

    • Pat – I know what you mean about tying plots to titles or authors. After a while and after you’ve read as much as you have, it’s hard to sort everything out. I do recommend Brett’s Charles Paris series. As I mentioned to Tracy, A Decent Interval is due out a little later this year and I think that’s terrific news.

  3. Great theme Margot – the theatre is a wonderfully dramatic and atmospheric environment and I bet everyone has their favourite mysteries in that setting. I will also say that I think detective novels set in theatre (such as Patrick Quentin’s PUZZLE FOR PLAYERS) or around theatre folk (like Allingham’s DANCERS IN MOURNING) work a lot better than attempts to actually stage mysteries on the stage – I can really only think of a handful of examples of plays that really work well in the genre, especially once you get past the famous ones by Agatha Christie(WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION), Frederick Knott (DIAL M FOR MURDER, WAIT UNTIL DARK, Ira Levin (DEATHTRAP) and Anthony Shaffer (SLEUTH) – but I love the theatre and I wish there were more. I did get to see Stephen Daldry’s Gothic production of Priestley’s AN INSPECTOR CALLS which is more of a metaphysical mystery I suppose, but that was a superb production of the play. Thanks for bringing it all back Margot – some lovely memories …

    • Sergio – I’m glad my post brought back good memories – better than nightmares. 😉 I think the theatre really is a terrific setting for a murder mystery just because of that atmosphere and the interplay of actors and their characters. There are so many possibilities aren’t there?
      You make an interesting argument about the difference between crime fiction set on and around the stage and staged detective stories. There is I think less opportunity to really delve into character and create a solid motive in a staged production than in a novel. But as your examples show, it’s certainly possible. It takes quite a talented playwright and director and of course actors who can communicate all the nuances. I’d like to see more of an interest in a really well-done crime fiction play myself.

  4. I’m glad you mentioned Ngaio Marsh, Margot. A lot of her best mysteries are set among theatrical folk – not surprising, as her “day job” was as producer and director of a distinguished theatre company.

    Let me add two more, if I may.

    First, Edmund Crispin’s first mystery, “The Case of the Gilded Fly,” involves a theatrical repertory company playing in Oxford. Crispin’s “day job” was writing music for the movies, so he was well-acquainted with the artistic foibles of actors – another of his books, “Frequent Hearses,” involves a team of actors and production staff on and around a movie set. Crispin’s familiarity with actors and actresses really comes through in this book.

    Second, one of Robert Bernard’s early books was “Death and the Chaste Apprentice,” which takes place at an arts festival in a London suburb. It is wickedly funny – “The Chaste Apprentice of Bowe” is the name of a hitherto unknown play from the Elizabethan or Restoration period, of whose authorship Barnard observes, “it was generally agreed that two hands were discernible in it, though only half a brain.” Barnard has a wicked sense of humor (as did Crispin), and it is very much on display here. The theatrical background is central to the plot.

    • Les – I honestly don’t see how it would be possible to discuss theatre in crime fiction without discussing Nagio Marsh. It’s really that simple, I think. Thanks very much too for mentioning the Crispin and the Barnard. First, they are absolutely terrific examples of the theatre in crime fiction. Second, you’ve reminded me that I have shamefully neglected spotlighting an Edmund Crispin novel. I must fill in that gap. Very soon.

  5. I love the theatre for murder and mayhem. It’s got a lot of ways to make a novel interesting. First of all, you’re dealing with actors who are trained to act. So they lie well. Then there are costumes. And sets. And fake knives and swords that could be real. What’s not to like?

    • Clarissa – Oh, what a good point about actors’ ability to lie well. And as I read your post, I started to think about three or four other mysteries I’ve read where ‘fake’ props turn out to be all too real. Such a good point!

  6. Margot: In The Skull Beneath the Skin by P.D. James, the Baroness places her characters in a theatre on an island so we have both a theatre mystery and a closed group. I thought her sleuth, Cordelia Gray, was an interesting character.

    • Bill – As ever, thanks for the reminder. I agree that Cordelia Gray really is interesting and like you, I thought the combination of the theatre plus the closed group added to The Skull Beneath the Skin. It’s a good story.

  7. Margot Your post reminded me I’ve Puzzle for Players, A Peter Duluth Mystery, in my TBR. Have you read it?

  8. Now that you have prompted me to think of it there are quite a few mysteries set in and around the theatre…in addition to the ones you and your commenters have already mentioned I am rather partial to the Edward Marston Elizabethan theatre historical mysteries and I just read a book by a new to me Australian author which featured a travelling theatre troupe who were attempting to put on Shakespeare in a skating rink in a small Australian town during the war – a jolly good story too.

    • Bernadette – Edward Marston! Thank you! I knew there was another series I should have mentioned and didn’t. Yes, that is a good one. And thanks for mentioning Good Murder too. That’s one I got interested in after reading your excellent review of it. It sounds like a very good mix of history, crime and humour.

  9. I love a theatre setting for a murder story – it’s second only to an educational establishment in my personal list of favourites! something about the group of very different people, the combination of glamour and squalour, the excitement of first nights…. You may have sent me off to re-read some theatre mysteries!

    • Moira – There is such a mix isn’t there of disparate personalities, stress, excitement and so on. And I hadn’t thought about glamour and squalor but you’ve nailed that one too. Theatre mysteries also transcend era so if they’re done well, they don’t date themselves. No wonder it’s fun to go back and re-read them.

  10. I love the AC ‘Sleeping Murder’ scene – ‘Cover he face mine eyes dazzle….etc’. It’s a great idea well executed re the ‘monkey’s paws’.

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