The Phantom of the Opera is There*

operasDo you enjoy the opera? Operas run the gamut from light and comic to very dark and tragic. And there are all sorts of forms of opera. When you think about it, there can be at least as much drama behind the scenes of an opera as there is on stage. So, it’s no wonder that opera features in crime fiction. It’s said, for instance, that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler (she features in A Scandal in Bohemia) is a former opera singer. And there are lots of other examples, too.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Swan Song, we are introduced to renowned opera singer Paula Nazarkoff. She’s much in demand, but makes time to accept an invitation from wealthy Lady Rustonbury to take the lead in an opera production to be staged at her country home. The diva sets one condition, to which Lady Rustonbury agrees, and plans are made. On the night of the production, famous baritone Roscari, who was to take the male lead, is taken ill. Fortunately, Edouard Bréton lives nearby, and is persuaded to take Roscari’s place. The production goes ahead, and the audience is transfixed. At the pivotal point, though, Bréton is murdered. The truth about this murder lies in the victim’s past. You’re absolutely right, fans of Lord Edgware Dies.

In Rex Stout’s novella, The Gun With Wings, Nero Wolfe gets a visit from Margaret ‘Peg’ Mion and Fred Weppler. They explain to Wolfe that they’re in love and want to marry, but they can’t. That’s because there’s still suspicion surrounding the death of Peg’s former husband, famous opera singer Alberto Mion. The official account is that he committed suicide, and on the surface, it looks that way. He was found in his soundproof studio, with a fatal gunshot wound, and the gun lying next to his body. But Peg insists that he would never have killed himself. She tells Wolfe that she and her lover can’t really feel comfortable marrying until they know the truth. Wolfe takes the case and soon learns that there are other suspects. For instance, baritone singer Gifford James had a grudge against the victim – had even injured him in a quarrel. And there’s Clara, James’ daughter, whom Mion had seduced. There are other possibilities, too. There’s also, of course, the chance that one or both of Wolfe’s clients murdered the victim. It’s a sort of ‘impossible, but not really’ mystery, but Wolfe gets the answers.

Gladys Mitchell’s Death at the Opera (AKA Death at the Wet) finds her sleuth, Mrs. Bradley, investigating a murder at the Hillmaston School. Maths mistress Calma Ferris is shy and quiet, but has still managed to upset several people at the school. For example, she’s alienated the games mistress, the art master, and the English mistress, among other problems. On the other hand, she’s offered to underwrite the school’s upcoming production of The Mikado. And, in fact, she is selected to take the role of Katisha. She doesn’t turn up for the performance, and is later found backstage, drowned in a sink full of water. The school’s Headmaster asks Mrs. Bradley to look into the matter, and she agrees. As any fan of Gladys Mitchell can imagine, this is far from a straightforward case…

Ngaio Marsh’s Photo Finish features renowned coloratura soprano Isabella Sommita. She’s being stalked by a photographer named ‘Strix’ who’s been taking unflattering ‘photos of her and selling them to newspapers. In order to escape this, Isabella accepts an invitation from her lover, Sir Montague Reece, to stay at Waihoe Lodge, his home in southern New Zealand. Also invited are Sir Roderick Alleyn and his wife, Agatha Troy, who’s been commissioned to paint a portrait of the singer. Isabella appears in an opera written especially for her, and, shortly afterwards, is found stabbed. Alleyn investigates, and finds that there are several possibilities. For one thing, ‘Strix’ has made his way to the lodge. Then there’s the victim’s new lover, who wrote the opera. And there’s Reece. In the end, Alleyn finds out the truth, and it’s not what one might have expected.

In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Opera, Georgetown School of Law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith, and his wife, Annabel Reed-Smith, get involved in an upcoming production of Puccini’s Tosca. The opera will be staged at the Kennedy Center’s Washington National Opera, and Smith is to serve as an ‘extra’ (his wife is on the National Opera Board). Taking part in this production will be a very promising Toronto soprano, Charise Lee. One day, she doesn’t show up for rehearsal, and a search is made. She’s found stabbed in the chest, and the Board asks Smith to help look into the case. He works with former cop-turned-PI Raymond Pawkins to find out who killed Lee and why.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first of her series featuring Venice police detective Commissario Guido Brunetti. In that novel, world-renowned conductor Helmut Wellauer is poisoned backstage with cyanide during a performance of La Traviata at the Teatro La Fenice. Brunetti is called to the scene, and begins investigating. He soon finds more than one motive for murder. For one thing, Wellaeur was well known (and disliked) for his homophobia. It’s also said that he had Nazi sympathies. And then there are the personal reasons that several people might have for murder. It’s not an easy case. Fans of this series will know, too, that Flavia Petrelli, whom we meet in this novel, makes a return in Falling in Love, in which she comes to Venice to take the lead role in Tosca. Unfortunately, she’s acquired a determined stalker. When her friend, Federico ‘Freddy’ D’Istria is attacked, Brunetti learns that this stalker is extremely dangerous; he’ll have to work quickly to find out who he is.

See what I mean? Opera can be exciting, even magnificent. But safe? I’m not so sure of that…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe’s The Phantom of the Opera. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gladys Mitchell, Margaret Truman, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

32 responses to “The Phantom of the Opera is There*

  1. As I recall Irene Adler was one of the few villains, and the only female, able to get the better of Holmes.

  2. No examples to add tonight, since I can only think of one and you’ve already mentioned it – Donna Leon’s Falling in Love. Having enjoyed it very much, needless to say I intended to go back and read the earlier book, but it still hasn’r happened…

    • Oh, I know how that is, FictionFan. I don’t have a quarter of the time I wish I did to read. At some point, I do hope you’ll get the chance to go back in the Leon series. I think Brunetti evolves very nicely as a character, and I do like the balance Leon has between his family life and the actual cases he works. I have to admit, too, I’ve quite a soft spot for the series in general. Perhaps it’s Signorina Elettra… or that delicious food…

  3. A very interesting post, Margot. I feel like reading all the books you’ve mentioned! 🙂

  4. Margot: V.I. Warshawski in the mysteries of Sara Paretsky loves opera and often thinks of her mother and her musical talent.

  5. kathy d

    I think V.I. Warshawski also sings a bit, having learned that from her Italian opera singing mother.
    Glad you mentioned those two Donna Leon books with Guido Brunetti. There is a third book featuring the opera singer, Flavia Petrelli, and her lover: Aqua Alta.

    • Right you are, Kathy, about Warshawski. She does, indeed, love opera. And you’re right about Aqua Alta/Death in High Water, too. I like the Flavia Petrelli character, so I’m glad you mentioned that one.

  6. I’m don’t really know much about opera so I don’t have much to add here today – I think your conclusion is a sound one, best to stay away from the opera 😉

  7. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett features an opera singer taken hostage. It is a favorite of mine. Always hoped it would be made into a movie.

  8. Tim

    Margot, I’m glad you mentioned Donna Leon’s novel — one of my favorites — and I appreciate your inclusion of so many other interesting titles. I remain baffled that you have at your fingertips so much information about so many authors and books. How do you do it? C’mon, share the secret!

    • Death at La Fenice is a fine novel, isn’t it, Tim? And it does give the reader a sense of the opera life. I’m glad you enjoyed it as well. And as to books, authors and so on? Not much else rattling around in my brain, so plenty of room for crime fiction…

  9. One of my favorite novels is Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song, where Edwin Shorthouse, the baritone scheduled to sing the leading role of Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger is murdered – it’s an impossible crime situation; for that matter, Shorthouse was an absolutely impossible person; as the blurb on my edition points out about Shorthouse, “He had set the stage for his own murder by making enemies with every aria he sang.” And Shorthouse’s brother, in fact, when notified, sends a telegram back to the authorities, reading: “Delighted. Hoping for this for months. Suicide eh query. Don’t bother me now.” Yes, typical Crispin, very funny and brilliantly plotted.

    • Oh, Les, that’s a great example. And, coming from Crispin, it’s not surprising that there’s a great mix of wit, plot and ‘impossible’ sort of crime. That’s just the sort of thing he did exceptionally well. Thanks for mentioning this one.

  10. kathy d

    Flavia Petrelli is one of my all-time favorite fictional names.
    I come from an opera-singing and -loving family. Two of the four of us could genuinely sing: my late mother and my sister. So I grew up listening to it, and while it’s not my music of choice, I have heard and seen many operas. I greatly respect opera and other classical music singers though. It is an amazing skill and accomplishment to sing that beautifully.
    And thanks for the reminder on Bel Canto. In my attempt to read some non-mysteries this year, that book is on my list — if only I can stay away from crime!

    • Flavia Petrelli is a great character, isn’t she, Kathy? And I do like her name, a lot. I think it’s wonderful that you grew up with music, and understanding opera. There’s some real richness there. And I was glad, too, for the reminder of Bel Canto.

  11. Fascinating theme, Margot. I think a crime in an opera can be very convincing and there are so many ways too, like a bomb hidden under the grand piano or in the conductor’s baton ready to go off in the end. Now that’s closer to a terror attack!

    • It is, indeed, Prashant! And the opera setting really is an interesting one. There are all sorts of egos, clash of personalities, and so on. And the drama onstage can add to the whole context. I agree that the opera can definitely work well as a crime-fictional context..

  12. Pingback: Writing Links 2/20/17 – Where Genres Collide

  13. LOL Nothing is safe in crime fictionland, and you are the master of finding tiny details to focus on.

  14. I’m a massive opera fan in real life, and attend regularly, and I wish there were more crime books featuring opera, to combine two of my favourite things! I was going to mention Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song, but Les got there before me. I once read a crime story featuring the castrato singer Farinelli, and a modern historian reasearching his life, but I can’t remember the title or author, and can’t track it down.

    • Hmm….now you’ve intrigued me, Moira! The novel isn’t ringing a bell at all (sorry!). If I think of anything, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’m glad you mentioned Swan Song; Crispin was such a talented writer, wasn’t he? And it’s funny that there aren’t more crime novels set in the opera context. In my opinion, it’s really made to order for a mystery. And if a person can combine two interests, well, what’s not to like?

  15. I noticed the title of this blog post comes from the musical, “Phantom for the Opera, a musical that I love, which is spellbinding and hauntingly beautiful

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