Lots of places don’t have professional acting or musical groups. So they turn to amateurs for entertainment. There’s a long tradition of church plays, village concerts and amateur drama societies. And if you’re a parent, I’ll bet you’ve attended school productions where your child had a part. Perhaps you’ve been on stage yourself.
Amateur entertainment gives people a chance to see plays and hear music they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. And for those interested in a career in performing, directing, and so on, these productions offer an excellent chance to learn the skills. Even for those who simply have a good time performing, these productions offer the chance to be creative.
There are references to these local performances throughout crime fiction. That’s not surprising, either, when you consider what an effective context they are for a murder mystery. There are the inevitable conflicts, the gathering of disparate people for rehearsals and performances, and a lot more. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunity they provide for all sorts of clues, encounters, and the like.
In Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man, for instance, Inspector Tom Barnaby attends Causton Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Amadeus. Most of the cast and crew, including Barnaby’s wife Joyce, are volunteers. On opening night, Esslyn Carmichael, who has the role of Salieri, picks up what he thinks is a blunt prop knife for the pivotal attempted-suicide scene. The knife turns out to be all too real, though, and Carmichael is killed in what looks like a real suicide. But there are enough questions about that that Barnaby and his assistant Sergeant Gavin Troy start to investigate more deeply. And they find that more than one person (including several of the locals) had a motive for murder.
P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness tells the story of the murder of Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, a member of the senior staff at Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. When he is murdered at the lab one evening, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and DI John Massingham investigate. The evidence suggests strongly that Lorrimer was killed by someone he knew, and probably by a work colleague, since there was no evidence of a break-in. Part of the detectives’ task is, of course, to find out what everyone concerned was doing at the time of the break-in. Several interviewees use a village concert at Chevisham as their alibi, and it’s interesting to see how James ties that performance in with some of the characters’ lives. For instance, there are several violinists among the lab staff members; and one character claims that he was playing one half of a hobby-horse in a morris-dancer performance. With all of these connections, Dalgliesh and Massingham have to look into doings at the village hall, too…
There’s an interesting scene set at a village pantomime in Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin. DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry are investigating the murders of two young women whose remains have been found at Pity Wood Farm in England’s Peak District. In one sub-plot of this novel, Cooper has a relationship with SOCO professional Liz Petty; but for the moment, they don’t want it known all over. So while they don’t really hide their romance, they also try to keep it as discreet as they can. One night they arrange to meet at Edendale’s Royal Theatre for the annual Christmas pantomime, since some of Liz’ friends will be performing in it. The production is a (very politically incorrect) version of Aladdin, and Booth uses this date to show the panto tradition.
Of course, school productions are among the most common sorts of amateur performances, from very young children reciting a line or two, to university acting groups. We see this in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s The Nesting Dolls, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack attend a concert one evening at their daughter Taylor’s high school. Afterwards, as everyone’s leaving, a woman approaches Taylor’s friend Isobel and hands her a baby. A note with the baby explains that the mother, Abby Michaels, wants to give him up and wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody. It’s a complicated situation, made all the more so when Abby is later found murdered in her car…
In Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright, literature scholar Cassandra James gets involved in a deadly stage production. She is head of the English Department for St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, and a new mother; so her life is quite busy enough. But when director Kevin Kingsleigh asks for her help with a new production he’s directing, she agrees. He and his wife, actress Melissa Meadows, will be doing a stage version of the Victorian novel East Lynne, and they want Cassandra to adapt the script. Rehearsals get underway, and opening night gets closer. Then, Melissa calls, claiming that someone is stalking her. Cassandra goes to the house and does her best to allay Melissa’s fears. But the next day, when Melissa doesn’t show up for rehearsal, it’s quite clear that something is very wrong. She seems to have completely disappeared, even leaving her infant daughter Agnes behind. As time goes by and she doesn’t return or contact anyone, the police begin to believe she’s been murdered. And one of their suspects is Cassandra. Partly to clear her name, and partly because she’s really worried about her friend, Cassandra starts asking questions, too.
And then there’s K.B. Owen’s Dangerous and Unseemly, the first of her historical mysteries featuring Concordia Wells. Concordia teaches at Hartford Women’s College in the last years of the 19th Century, a time when young ladies are not expected to have a career once they marry. Certainly they’re not expected to take an interest in crime, let alone investigate it. In this novel, Concordia agrees to help with the school’s production of The Scottish Play, but ends up doing most of the direction. The main plot thread in this novel is the murder of Bursar Ruth Lyman, and Concordia’s search for the truth about the murderer. But readers also get the chance to go ‘behind the scenes’ as the students put their production together.
Village concerts, plays and pantos, and school-related productions, are all interesting in that they involve ‘regular’ people who also perform. The people on stage could be accountants, lab assistants, aspiring chemists or just about anything else. This lets the author pull in characters’ personal lives as well as the personas they have onstage. And that can make for an absorbing story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business.