On With the Show*

Amateur PerformancesLots 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.


Filed under Caroline Graham, Christine Poulson, Gail Bowen, K.B. Owen, P.D. James, Stephen Booth

24 responses to “On With the Show*

  1. After a dry run of suggestions I have one to add to this post! Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths has a pantomime (very Christmassy) as well as group of local children putting on their own show for the neighbours to watch and both these events are integral to the plot as we meet various characters, fictional and real.

  2. Death of an Expert Witness sounds really, really good.

  3. Sometimes I really have to search the memory banks for an example to add but coincidentally I just finished Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind last night, and a major part of the plot concerns a man who falls to his death – or was he pushed – down a flight of stairs during rehearsals for an amateur performance of a play. The police uncover all kinds of jealousies and secrets amongst the cast…

    • Oh, that’s a fantastic example, FictionFan! Just the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. And I’ve had Snowblind on my radar, too; may have to actually add that to the TBR. I’ll be keen to read your review of it when you get to is.

  4. Margot: It is cooling off in Saskatchewan, down to -15 C this evening, and Brunswick, the elementary school at the end of our block is holding its Christmas concert. Vehicles are parked all the way up the block. I have fond memories of our sons at those concerts. Going many years back I was M.C. of the Christmas concert at the one room country school where I started school. I was pretty excited as the school had kids from Grade 1 – 8 and I was in Grade 2.

    • Oh, I hope the concert goes really well, Bill. And I’m sure that you had some great times as M.C. of the concert; I’ll bet you were good at it. And I’m sure you enjoyed seeing your sons have the same experience. Your description is exactly the kind of local event I had in mind with this post, so thanks for sharing it. It sounds like a terrific evening.

  5. Col

    I’ve sat through my fair sure of school plays and concerts over the years. Some good, some err enthusiastic shall we say. Not bad enough to drive me to murder though!

  6. Simon Brett’s Charles Paris and Fethering series both have a lot of details about theatre and dramatics, both professional and amateur, and I love Nicola Upson’s recreation of Josephine Tey as a playwright and amateur investigator – who, of course, moves in theatrical circles. Hers might be more professional than amateur, though, so perhaps not quite what you had in mind.
    Given my recent experience of the rivalries of ‘theatre mums’ I could well imagine a little murder set in their midst…

    • I’m sure there are a lot of such rivalries – and worse – Marina Sofia. There’s sometimes so much ego involved that it has catastrophic results. And I’m so glad you mentioned Simon Brett’s work. I think he writes so well about about the theatre and its denizens. He has a great sense of wit, too, that I just love. You’ve reminded me, too, of the Nicola Upson series, which I must catch up on soon. It’s always interesting to see what authors do with a real (in this case, historical) person as the sleuth, and it’s a good reminder that Tey was a playwright as well as a novelist.

  7. These are some of my *favorite* setups for mysteries. And you’ve added some books to my TBR list. 🙂

    • Aren’t they great contexts, Elizabeth? One thing I really like about them is that they allow the author to explore all kinds of interactions and levels of suspense. Home, the performance setting, the whole thing. And if you do get to some of these novels, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  8. Thank you for mentioning Stage Fright, Margot. I had such a lot of fun planning a theatrical production, writing some of the play, designing the costumes even . . .
    Ngaio Marsh is very good at theatrical settings, both amateur and professional.

    • It’s a pleasure to mention your work, Christine. I really liked the way you developed the different plot threads and character layers. When Melissa goes missing, you leave the reader with some really interesting sets of possibilities. And I’ll bet it was fun to explore the theatre context. I’ve not done that yet, but it always seems like fun; perhaps I shall sometime. And you’re right about Ngaio Marsh. She did some great theatrical novels.

  9. P.D. James is an author I have been meaning to read for a long time. Thanks for the reminder, Margot. Of course, I need to check out some of the other writers too.

    • I think P.D. James was such a talented writer, Prashant. And she was certainly influential. If you do get the chance to read her work, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  10. Edmund Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding features a school Shakespeare production and is very funny about a co-production between a girls’ school and a boys’ school…

  11. My husband and I both were involved in an amateur theater when we first met. He acted and did some tech stuff, I was always behind the scenes. Definitely a place for rivalries and gossip, although in real life nothing criminal happened. But I can imagine how it could.

    • Ooh, than you’ve got some interesting experience, Tracy! I’ve never really done that sort of thing, except in school plays and so on. Even with that, though, I saw how those rivalries and so on could have some nasty consequences…

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