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.


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

30 responses to “Step, Kick, Kick, Leap, Kick, Touch*

  1. Everything is not-so-beautiful at the ballet, Margot, in “Death in the Fifth Position,” by Edgar Box (Gore Vidal) – a murder in a Russian ballet company visiting New York, as one of the company’s ballerinas falls 30 feet to her death onstage during opening night. The 1952 mystery managed to wrap in some anti-Communist demonstrators and a lot of fascinating characters along with a surprisingly well-plotted mystery. Vidal later claimed to have written it in eight days!

    • Les – Eight days?! And I thought Chanukah was an 8-day miracle. 😉 In all seriousness, thank you for mentioning this book. I knew Gore Vidal had done some crime fiction writing but hadn’t known about this one. It certainly sounds like an excellent read.

  2. Margot: Dominika Egorova, in Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, becomes a spy after another ballet dancer deliberately injures her. Those dancers can be dangerous.

  3. Thank goodness I gave up ballet and ventured into ‘safer’ activities. I’d best warn my grand-daughter to take up something less likely to attract homicidal maniacs.

    • Jane – Dancing can be dangerous, at least fictionally. I didn’t know you’d done ballet – that’s fabulous. I wanted to – very much – but it just didn’t happen. Perhaps it’s just as well..

      • Thanks, as soon as I wrote it, it looked wrong. Like less and fewer…..
        I did ballet, tap and Hawaiian, don’t fall over, when younger. Mum used to pray the Dying Swan would hurry up an die apparently and said that Billy Smart’s Circus was missing an elephant! Actually I really loved it and wasn’t bad but got too tall. A family friend was a dancer and actress and she gave me lots of books on the theatre and movie stars and I think that is when the rot set in and I got the ‘entertainment’ bug. I was convinced that one day I would be Margot Fontaine or Anna Pavlova, Ginger Rogers or Doris Day. Entertainment’s loss I think. 🙂

        • Jane – I think so too! I love it that you’ve done different kinds of dancing. And how funny what your Mum said! Thanks for sharing. And now you’ve reminded me of some of those wonderful old films where there’s such expert dancing..

  4. Least likely? Less likely? Brain gone blank.

    • You were right the first time, Jane, as far as I can see.

      • I adore the old B&W movies and especially those with Ginger and Fred, Busby Berkley and so on. Such wonderful songs, dance routines and sometimes the story lines were not bad either.

        • Jane – They are awfully frothy, aren’t they? Great fun.

        • Yes, considering I am not a romantic, I love the dancing. 42nd street with Ruby Keeler, Top Hat, Calamity Jane, Oklahoma, Kiss me Kate….don’t get me started. Oh and I adore Howard Keel………lol. Still, someone wrote the screenplays/scripts and in the case of Kiss me Kate, Shakespeare wrote The Taming of The Shrew.

        • Jane – Oh, those are all great productions aren’t they? No wonder they’ve survived as long as they have.

  5. col

    Digressing as usual, Carl Hiaasen’s Striptease might involve a form of dancing a little less attractive as a career choice.

    • Col – Striptease dancing may not be exactly the career choice a parent might wish for a child, but it takes work and practice too. You’ve reminded me (for which thanks) of Leigh Redhead’s series about Simone Kirsch, a PI who’s a former striptease dancer. And then there’s Donna Malane’s Surrender which has that angle too. Not that tangential at all…

  6. Christie’s Body in the Library has those professional dancers working at the hotel at the seaside resort. I remember being intrigued by that lost world – in the course of the investigation lots of day to day details of their working lives came up. Josie had to act as ‘hostess’ and organize the bridge foursomes, as well as doing exhibition dances AND dancing with the clientele. Meanwhile her partner was claiming to be the come-down-in-the-world scion of a posh family, reduced to dancing for a living…. I found the whole thing fascinating, and wondered where the professional dancers were when we went to the seaside!

    • Moira – Oh, you are so right about The Body in the Library! That’s an excellent example of that kind of professional dancing. And I find it interesting that for people like Ruby, that was a professional ambition. Not something you see now – or at least not at the hotels I go to when I travel. But then, I don’t think people travel in the same way in which they used to travel. That’s a post-worthy thought in itself, so thanks for the inspiration!

  7. kathy d.

    Interesting themes come up continually that I haven’t seen in mysteries. Maybe because my youthful reading was written by men? Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t have touched this issue, nor Nero Wolfe (Heaven forbid! He would never have thought of women dancers.), nor Perry Mason.
    I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer. I wanted to be a modern dancer, like my wonderful aunt who nearly joined Martha Graham’s troupe, but chose teaching instead. In my wildest dreams, I want to be a jazz dancer and a gymnast. Hah!
    However, I just got more titles for my TBR list (sigh).

    • Kathy – Right now I don’t want to think about my own TBR pile *sigh* – it’s out of control. It’s interesting isn’t it how some authors just simply don’t write about certain topics – in this case dancers.
      I love it that your aunt wanted to be in Martha Graham’s troupe; she must’ve been very talented. I’ll bet she had an exciting life! And don’t tell anyone will you but I did gymnastics as a kid. Oh, not competitively – I wasn’t that good. But I enjoyed it.

  8. kathy d.

    Gymnastics (groan). I wasn’t good at it. Fantastic that you did that. Secretly, I wished to be an Olga Korbut or frankly, just be able to do a cartwheel or stand on my head.
    My aunt was a dancer and chose to teach dancing. She worked for the WPA on Broadway in the 1930s. She was extremely physically fit until her last day at nearly 90. She walked every day up and down terrible stairs and walked around her neighborhood. She could still touch the floor with her hands, and she had the best posture ever.

  9. kathy d.

    My aunt had lots of friends who were musicians, actors, playwrights, other writers. She taught at Pratt U., then became the chairperson of the Phys Ed department but kept up an active social life all the time.

  10. When I was young I wanted to be a ballerina, thanks to the stars who made it look so easy. Once I discovered the grueling work involved, the pain, and the disappointment, I was cured of that goal. Novels about dancers still fascinate me. I think it’s time to reread The Mystery of the Blue Train.

    • Pat – It really is very, very hard to excel as a dancer, even if one’s got a natural talent for it. It takes years of hard work, a deep commitment and lots of practice. But as you say, the real stars make it look easy and glamourous. And there are some very interesting characters in The Mystery of Blue Train. Mme. Mirelle may not exactly be a kind, loving person, but she is talented and beautiful – hard not to notice her.

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