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??? 😉


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

26 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Props

  1. After reading this blog post I’m not sure how safe “gentle” pastimes like plays are! A great rundown of props for the alphabet meme as usual Margot. Your knowledge is unmatched.

    • Rebecca – Oh, that’s so kind of you *blush* Thanks! And you’re right; there is really no such thing as a ‘safe’ pastime if you’re into crime fiction… 😉

  2. I always love books about theatricals, amateur or professional… I really enjoyed a book from a few years ago called Stage Fright by Christine Poulson, a crime story centring on a production of East Lynne, with a disappearing actress and masked figures in the theatre.

    • Moira Oh, the theatre is such an excellent setting for a crime novel isn’t it? So full of rich character possibilities, to say nothing of the atmosphere. I’d heard that Stage Fright was good – nice to have your ‘vote of confidence’ as well as it sounds interesting.

  3. Nice post, Margot. I have Christopher Fowler’s latest book on my shelf to read. I’m looking forward to it!

  4. I never realized there were so many books with props used in murder. It makes sense though. I remember the Caroline Graham book very well… and they adapted it for Midsomer Murders also. And all these references to theatrical mysteries make me want to reread some Charles Paris mysteries.

    • Tracy – You know, it took me a bit of time too to realise just how many novels there are with props as murder weapons. And the funny thing is that there really are a lot of them. Not crazy though when you think of all that goes on in a theatre production and among the cast members. And I think the Charles Paris novels are always worth re-reading…

  5. Haha! Your mention of Mary, Queen of Sots reminded me of a real-life evening I once spent at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, watching a truly terrible audience-participation play entitled Julius Caesar, Queen of Illyria. No-one was killed that evening, but I’m pretty sure that by the end most of the audience were plotting how to bump off the whole cast and production team… 😉

    • FictionFan – LOL! Oh, just for that alone I’d have liked to see a production that was that bad. Yikes! I can well imagine just from the title what the play was like. Some of those productions are funny, some are so bad they’re good, and some are just…awful. 😉

  6. Always interesting to read your posts and always thought-provoking. Thanks, enjoyed this no end.

  7. And the theater seems like such a safe place! 🙂 Enjoyed this wrap-up of props and crime fic, Margot.

  8. I never thought about props that much, but you’ve shined a new light on them. Your Alphabet posts always prove to be an interesting adventure.

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Thanks – I do like participating in this meme. And it’s interesting how something as seemingly innocent as a prop can prove to be not so innocent at all…

  9. Caroline Graham mentions the theatre a lot in her books and so props come up often. Props can be good clues and good red-herrings.

  10. Here is an older list of mysteries set in the theater. There is a newer writer that does this but I can’t remember her name. Working on it.

  11. I love Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series, and they hardly get mentioned at all nowadays, so I’m glad you are keeping the aspidistra flying!
    I can’t remember off the top of my head if any physical props play a part in the actual murders, but for stories of mystery and mayhem in the Elizabethan theatre, Edward Marston has written a wonderful series (Nicholas Bracewell). He has also written a series set in Restoration London, a century and a half later which also have a theatrical theme running through them, but I haven’t read those (Redmayne & Bale, I believe they are called).

    • Marina Sofia – I couldn’t agree more about the Charles Paris series. I really do like his character and those novels.And what a great look ‘behind the scenes’ (pun intended 😉 ) of the theatre. Thanks too for mentioning Marston’s work. I confess I’m less familiar with those series than I am with Brett’s work. I appreciate the reminder to delve deeper into them.

  12. Props can be just about anything. Even shrunken heads. 🙂

  13. I wanted to try to leave a comment, this way, through e-mail (I find it hard to respond when I go directly to the blog.). Hope this works.

    Anyway, I like this. I like that you make me think. You remind me of things I like in mysteries.

    I’m curious – Have you ever seen a British Mysteries Series called Jonathan Creek? It was on in the 80’s, but I watched it recently, curtsey of Netflicks! 🙂 It is a quirky mystery series, and I LOVED IT.

    Anyway …. I think you made a typo in this post. I may be wrong, i.e., I may not know ALL the different spellings…

    Lady Macbeth. You have it spelled Lady Macabeth. Is that right?

    Later alligator!

    On 7/21/13, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

    • It’s perfectly fine if you respond to posts by email. As you can see, I got your comment just fine. Thanks very much for the kind words, and thanks for reminding me of the Jonathan Creek series. I confess I haven’t seen it, but you’re not the first person who has recommended it to me.

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