When 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.