In many small towns (and actually, some not-very-small towns!), pageants are a way to bring people together, to provide entertainment and to show off local (and sometimes not-so-local) talent. It can all be a lot of fun and it does bring in business. But if you think about it, pageants can also bring trouble. There’s conflict and jealousy among participants and of course, there’s the fact that all sorts of people are brought together. Yes, the pageant is a terrific context for a murder mystery isn’t it?
It’s really little wonder there are several examples of this sort of context in the genre. I only have space in this blog for a few examples. I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps I’ve left.
In Victor Whitechurch’s Murder at the Pageant, Sir Henry Lynwood and his guests at Frimley Manor hold a costume pageant in aid of a local hospital. Their plan is to re-enact Queen Anne’s 1705 visit to the manor. The pageant itself goes well, and those involved return later to the manor house, where they enjoy a festive dinner. Later that night, one of the tenants on the property Jasper Hurst is killed. Just before he dies, two people are seen taking him away in the sedan chair that was used in the pageant. Captain Roger Bristow, who wrote the pageant and has arranged the event, works with the police to find out who killed Hurst and why. As it turns out, Hurst’s death is connected with the theft of a necklace belonging to the pageant’s ‘leading lady.’
Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel begins when Johnny Wise finds out that his girlfriend Perpetua Kirk has been unfaithful to him with Earl Anderson. What’s more, Wise didn’t discover this on his own; he was told by the cruel and malicious Isabel Drew. Brokenhearted over the loss of his love, Wise commits suicide. Seven years later, a medieval pageant is planned for Elysian Hall, in London. It’s to be converted into a model medieval village, where the event is going to take place. Isabel Drew is to play the lead role in the pageant. Against this backdrop, she, Anderson and Kirk have been getting threatening notes in which they are warned they’ll be killed. The murderer makes good that threat during the pageant when Isabel is strangled in public view and thrown from the tower constructed for the event. Inspector Charlesworth (whom fans will remember from Death in High Heels) and Inspector Cockrill (he of Green For Danger fame) work together to find out who committed the crime. Along with the pageant setting, this is one of those Golden-Age ‘impossible but not impossible’ crimes.
H.R.F Keating is perhaps best known for his mysteries featuring Inspector Ganesh Ghote. But he also wrote a standalone called Is Skin Deep, Is Fatal. In that novel, night-club owner Fay Curtis dies, apparently of suicide. Shortly before her death, she sent a note to pageant promoter Teddy Pariss, who is putting together a Miss Valentine beauty pageant. During rehearsals, Pariss is stabbed to death. Among other things, the note suggests to Superintendent Ironside that the two deaths might be connected. If so, then perhaps Fay Curtis’ death was not suicide. Ironside works with PC Peter Lassiter and DC Jack Spratt to find out who’s behind the deaths. It turns out that there are plenty of suspects too. As you might guess, the pageant has brought together some very competitive suspects. There’s also the fact that several of the people involved are keeping their own secrets…
David Roberts’ Sweet Sorrow is the last in his historical series featuring journalist Verity Browne and Lord Edward Corinth. At this point in the series (It’s 1939), the two have married, and have set up house at The Old Vicarage, in the village of Rodwell, Sussex. They’re hoping to have a peaceful summer, but that’s not at all what happens. Byron Gates, a London-based poet-turned detective novelist has moved with his daughter Ada and step-daughter Jean to Rodwell to escape imminent bombing in the big city. Gates has discovered that Virginia Woolf and some of her group are living in the area and he wants to join that circle. His children put on a pageant for the locals, based on the history of King Charles I and his beheading. Shortly after the pageant, Gates is found dead, beheaded just like King Charles. Cornish is pressed into service to help investigate, and it’s not long before more than one possibility is raised. Was Gates murdered because of suspected traitorous political loyalties? Was he killed for a personal reason? Cornish and Browne work together to find out the truth in this case.
And then there’s Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory Smoked Homicide. In that novel, we meet Tristan Pembroke, a malicious and self-important beauty pageant coach. She has no qualms about ruining the chances of anyone who gets in the way of the pageant contestants she mentors. And she’s managed to alienate just about everyone she meets with her rude and arrogant manner. One night, she hosts a benefit art auction. By the time the evening’s over, Tristan’s been murdered. Restaurant owner Lulu Taylor discovers the body and starts to ask questions. When it turns out that her own daughter-in-law Sara is a suspect, she’s even more determined to find out who the killer really is. Besides the mystery itself, we also get a look in this novel at how much pressure is involved in beauty pageants, even those intended for younger girls.
In Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street, the small town of Calendar is getting ready for its annual Founders Day celebration. There’ll be music, shows, food, and more. Maggie Wakeling, assistant and PR representative for Mayor Artemus Ackerman, has a lot of planning to do to get ready. Then, there’s a fire on Sabbath Street. It soon comes out that this was a possible case of arson. Fire Marshal George Copeland is investigating when there’s another fire. And another. Now it looks as though an arsonist is at work, and Wakeling and Copeland work together to find out who that person is. Along with the obvious pressure to stop the fires, there’s additional stress because of the upcoming festivities. Founders Day represents an important PR opportunity for Calendar, and if it’s ruined, that could have real consequences for local businesses.
And that’s the thing about pageants and other such events. They’re often stressful and for those involved, the stakes are very high. It’s no wonder at all that we see them pop up in crime fiction as often as we do. These are just a few examples. Over to you.
Many thaks to Moira at Clothes in Books for the inspiration for this post. Do yourself a big favour and go visit her blog. Stay awhile; you’ll learn a lot about fashion, popular culture, and how it all impacts us. And you’ll read some terrific book reviews.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s A Parade in Town.