Category Archives: Donna Leon

Make Me Beautiful*

Cosmetic surgery has advanced a great deal over the years, as has its relative, reconstructive surgery. There are new techniques and materials, and new options. It’s no longer the exclusive property of the very rich and Hollywood stars, either.

I got to thinking about the whole topic when I read an interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books. By the way, if you’re not already following that excellent blog, I recommend it highly. It’s a treasure trove of fine book reviews and discussions of clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

Moira was discussing Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footmen, but that’s not the only example of a crime novel where cosmetic surgery plays a role. It’s not hard to see why, either. There are all sorts of possibilities for the author. And, whatever you feel about cosmetic surgery, it’s increasingly popular.

In P.D. James’ The Private Patient, we are introduced to journalist Rhoda Gradwyn. She checks into Cheverell Manor, an exclusive private clinic for patients undergoing cosmetic surgery. Her plan is to have a facial scar removed, but that’s not what happens. During her stay at the clinic, Gradwyn is strangled. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate, and there are several possibilities. Certainly, the victim’s surgeon had opportunities to kill her. But, so did several nurses, attendants, and even visitors, among others. Dalgliesh and his team have to go back into Gradwyn’s past to see who would want to murder her.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Hussy, Lochdubh PC Hamish Macbeth investigates the murder of Maggie Baird. Although she hasn’t been a commercial sex worker, she’s certainly traded sex for expensive things, posh places to live, and so on. Now, although she’s still attractive, she’s middle-aged, and, at least in her view, has lost her looks. So, she goes away for several months and undergoes cosmetic surgery. When she returns, with her looks restored, she invites four former lovers to visit, and announces that she’s going to get married. Instead, she dies, ostensibly of a heart attack suffered during a car fire. Macbeth soon learns that there are several people who could have wanted the victim dead. For one thing, her four suiters have all come down in the world, as the saying goes. Any one of them could have killed her for her money. Then there’s her niece, who’s just been cut out of her will. There are other possibilities, too. The story certainly shows the wisdom of the saying, ‘Looks aren’t everything.’

One plot thread of Donna Leon’s About Face concerns a businessman, Maurizio Cataldo. Conte Orazio Falier is considering doing business with Cataldo, but he wants to be sure of the man before he actually signs anything. So, he asks his son-in-law, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to ‘vet’ Cataldo, and see if there’s anything Falier should know. Brunetti agrees to do so. In the process of getting to know Cataldo’s life better, Brunetti also gets to know his wife, Franca Marinello. One of the things we learn about her is that she’s had cosmetic surgery. That surgery isn’t the reason for Falier’s caution. But it plays a role in the novel, and in some of the tragic events that happen.

Carl Hiaasen’s Skin Tight features former police officer Mick Stranahan (yes, fans, he later appears in Skinny Dip).  He learns that an unknown man has been asking where lives. He isn’t sure who the man might be, but it doesn’t take long for them to meet up. In fact, the man breaks into Stranahan’s home. In the course of defending himself, Stranahan kills the home invader, goring him with the stuffed head of a marlin (it is Hiassen…). Then he dumps the body, which is later discovered by a couple of tourists. In the meantime, Stranahan decides to find out who’s trying to kill him. His attacker had no ID and there was no way to connect him with any particular one of Stranahan’s enemies, so it won’t be an easy task. It’s made even harder by the fact that Stranahan’s got plenty of enemies. There’s the sleazy injury lawyer, the annoying TV journalist, the hit man, and an inept plastic surgeon named Rudy Graveline. They’re all good candidates, and Stranahan will have to work through all of them to find out who the killer is.

Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow is the first of her novels to feature Melbourne PI Simone Kirsch. She’s got a background as a stripper, and has now gotten her PI license. When the body of Francesco ‘Frank’ Parisi is discovered in a local bay, Simone’s best friend, Chloe, becomes a suspect. Parisi was the owner of a table-dancing strip club called the Red Room, where Chloe works. She was among several people who had a very good reason to kill the victim, and she’s worried about what to do. Matters get worse when Parisi’s underworld brother, Sal, gets involved. He wants Simone to find out who killed his brother, and he takes Chloe as ‘insurance.’ Since the only way to free Chloe is to find the killer, Simone gets started right away. She goes undercover as a new table dancer at the Red Room, and begins to get to know the people in the dead man’s life. And it’s not long before she discovers that some very dangerous people had very good murder motives. While cosmetic surgery isn’t the reason for the murder in this case, it does have a part in the story. And on a side note, it’s interesting to see how the table dancers use wigs, makeup, and costuming to play their roles.

And then there’s Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day For Mercy, which features her sleuth, Stella Hardesty. By day, she owns Hardesty Sewing Machine Repair & Sales. But she has a ‘side business,’ too. She pays ‘friendly visits’ to those who’ve committed domestic abuse, and she has very effective ways of reminding them of how to behave, let’s just say. In this novel, Hardesty learns that her step-nephew, Chip, is in serious trouble because of gambling debts. In fact, his life’s been threatened. So, she drives from her home in small-town Missouri to Wisconsin to visit him. When she gets there, she finds Chip and his girlfriend, Natalya, trying to get rid of a dead man’s body. The man turns out to be Natalya’s abusive husband, and it looks very much as though Chip might be responsible. He and Natalya claim that they’re innocent, though, and found the body on their porch. So, if they aren’t the killers, Hardesty is going to have to find out who is. One very good possibility is a medical student named Doug, who has a sideline performing illegal (and not particularly professional) Botox injections. As it turns out, he had dealings with the victim, and a good reason to want him dead. But he’s not the only likely candidate.

Whatever your opinion of cosmetic surgery, there’s no doubt it’s popular. And it really does have a place in crime fiction, Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Engine Room’s A Perfect Lie.

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Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Leigh Redhead, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Sophie Littlefield

I Went Down to the Demonstration*

Lots of us want to see change in the world, or at least in our part of it. Many of us vote for what we want. Others get involved in some sort of activism, whether it’s protesting, a letter campaign, or something else. Still other people are even more deeply involved in activism.

Activists can make quite a difference in the real world, and they can be very interesting fictional characters. They’re often passionate, and the author can use such characters as protagonists or antagonists, depending on where the story is going. And there’s often suspense when there’s a conflict between activists and those against whom they protest.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we are introduced to Harold Raikes. He wants major societal changes, and protests people and institutions he feels hold back progress. One of his targets, if you will, is powerful banker Alistair Blunt. Blunt has conservative views about government and finance, and believes in careful, prudent steps and slow decision-making. To Raikes, he represents all that is wrong with the current British system of things. One day, Blunt finally gives in to the pain of a toothache and goes to see his dentist, Henry Morley. When Morley is shot in his surgery, the police and the Home Office believe that this was really an attempt on Blunt (after all, he’s certainly made plenty of enemies). And Raikes comes in for his share of suspicion, since he was in the building at the time of Morley’s murder. Hercule Poior was also a patient of the victim’s, so he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed Morley.

In Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope, we are introduced to Riel Delorme, a Regina-based Métis activist. Delorme has his own issues to deal with, but he is committed to bettering the lives of the people who live in Regina’s North Central district. When a development company proposes a project in North Central, Riel is one of the leaders of the opposition to it. He believes the project will disenfranchise the people who live in that area, and will force them out of their homes. So, when one of the development company’s employees is murdered, Delorme is a very likely suspect. Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve gets involved in the case for two reasons. First, her husband is the attorney who represents the development company. Second, her daughter, Mieka, is romantically involved with Delorme. In this case, the investigation strikes quite close to home.

Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage features activists from several groups who converge on the town of Kingsmarkham when a new road is announced. The road will run through Framhurst Great Wood, and plenty of people are strongly opposed to it. That includes Inspector Reg Wexford’s wife, Dora. Wexford is hoping that the protests and activism won’t get out of control, but that’s not to be. First, a group of hostages – including Dora – is taken. Then, there’s a murder. The stakes get very high as Wexford and his team have to solve the murder and try to get the hostages free without a bloodbath.

Eco-activist Samuel Spender finds out just how dangerous activism can be in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move.  A development company has put up new suburban housing in a community called Valley Forest Estates. Spender and his group are very much against the development, and have been proverbial thorns in the company’s side. One day, Spender goes to the company’s sales office, and has a loud argument with one of the executives. Witnessing that argument is science-fiction writer Zack Walker, who moved his family to the community for greater safety and security. When Walker finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek later that day, he learns just how unsafe and unsecure a suburb can be…

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts introduces his sleuth, PI Jack Irish. Irish is also a sometime-lawyer. One day, one of his former clients, Danny McKillop calls, asking to meet him as soon as possible. Irish doesn’t get around to it right away, and by the time he does, McKillop is dead. As it is, Irish felt guilty about McKillop’s case; he didn’t do a good job of defending his client against a hit-and-run murder charge. Now he feels even more guilty. So he starts to look into the case. McKillop had originally been convicted of killing Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson. But, the more deeply Irish looks into the case, the more he suspects that his former client was framed, and that Jeppeson was killed by someone who wanted to shut her up.

In Donna Leon’s Through a Glass Darkly, we meet Venice activist Marco Ribetti. He and his group are convinced that the local glass-blowing factories are major polluters, and very dangerous for the environment. So, one day, Ribetti and his group stage a protest in front of a factory owned by his own father-in-law, Giovanni de Cal. Ribetti is arrested and jailed. Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello is a friend of Ribetti’s, so Ribetti asks him for help. Vianello agrees and asks his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, for support. Together, the two arrange for Ribetti’s release. Not long afterwards, Giorgio Tassini, who works as night watchman at de Cal’s factory, dies in what looks like a terrible accident. But, when Brunetti learns that Tassini, too, was convinced the factories pollute the environment, he begins to wonder whether it was an accident.

And then there’s legendary environmental activist Jay Duggan, whom we meet in Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. He’s been working with the Los Angeles-based Millbrook Foundation. That group has been monitoring a company called Vestco, which claims to have created a seed coating that will increase world food production by a substantial factor. Millbrook doubts both the company’s claims and the safety of the seed coating, but hasn’t been able to prevent its release. Now, with nine days to go, the foundation has decided not to fight the release any longer. Duggan decides to leave the foundation and return to his native New Zealand, and invites two colleagues to join him for a visit before they return to work. All three leave on their flight, with no idea that a Vestco employee has just been murdered. When they land in Auckland, they learn about the death. They also learn that they’ve been framed for it, and have become international fugitives. Now, they have to find out who the killer really is, and avoid the police if they can. There’s also the matter of stopping the release of the seed coating, which is imminent.

Activism is an important part of what makes our society look at itself and, hopefully, reflect and improve. And activists are involved in a number of different causes. They are important in real life, and they make interesting fictional characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey Robert, Linwood Barclay, Peter Temple, Ruth Rendell

It’s Only an Illusion*

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, a series of mysterious deaths is associated with the excavation of an important ancient tomb. More than one person believes that those deaths happened because there’s a curse on anyone who disturbs the tomb. Hercule Poirot looks into the matter, and finds a very prosaic explanation for the deaths. He himself doesn’t believe in spiritualism or ancient curses. But he does say this:
 

‘Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race.’
 

And he has a point. Millions of people believe in the supernatural, or at least want very badly to believe. And that makes them vulnerable to charlatans and cheats.

There are plenty of people out there, though, who make it their business to call out those charlatans. One of those was Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss, whose 143rd birthday would have been today, as this is posted. Houdini was a skilled magician who knew all of the ‘tricks of the trade’ for getting people to believe they saw whatever he wanted them to believe they saw. But he knew it was all illusion – all deception. And he was determined that others wouldn’t prey on the vulnerable.

He’s not the only one, either, at least not in crime fiction. In Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, for instance, we are introduced to Svetozar Vok. He’s a well-known and successful stage magician, who’s taken to unmasking fake mediums and spiritualists. So, he’s very interested in the proceedings when Frank and Irene Ogden, together with Frank’s business partner Luke Latham, decide to hold a séance. Their purpose is to contact Irene’s first husband, French émigré Grimaud Désanat. Irene is a medium, so it’s decided to hold the séance at the Ogden home, and invite several other people, including Vok. The séance is held, and is truly eerie. But shortly afterwards, Vok exposes Irene as a fake. Even so, there are things about the event that can’t be explained. Later that night, Irene is found dead. Does the death have a supernatural explanation? If not, then who among the group is the murderer?

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). A devotee of scientific research, he has dedicated himself to debunking spiritual charlatans and others who claim paranormal power. One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when an extraordinary event occurs. As witnesses later tell the police, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. Believes claim that she did so as a punishment for Jha’s infidelity and for his leading others away from worship. And, in fact, the death leads to a resurgence of interest in matters religious. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri isn’t sure this death is what it seems. He has spiritual beliefs of his own, but he doesn’t really believe in paranormal explanations for murder. Since Jha was once a client of his, Puri takes an interest in the case and begins asking questions. And he soon learns that more than one person had a good reason for wanting Jha dead.

There’s also Alan Russell’s The Fat Innkeeper. Am Coulfield is house detective at San Diego’s very upmarket Hotel California. He has enough on his hands when the hotel is bought by a Japanese firm. But then, disaster strikes. The hotel has been playing host to a Union of Near Death Experiences Retreat, and several New Age mentalists are present. Also staying at the hotel is Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who’s made a career out of unmasking fraudulent mentalists. And he’s targeted some of the people who are at the retreat. So, when Kingsbury is poisoned, there are plenty of suspects for Coulfield to consider.

Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief sees Venice’s Commissario Guido Brunetti serve as a sort of debunker. His second-in-command, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello comes to him with a family problem. It seems that Vianello’s aunt, Zia Anita, has been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man named Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing. But Vianello is concerned that Gorini is cheating her. So, he asks Brunetti to look into the matter. Brunetti agrees and starts doing a little research into Gorini. He finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before over matters of possible fraud. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now, it seems he’s back, once more taking money for what seem to be fake cures. And Brunetti will need to find a way to stop Gorini before more people are bilked.  

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto. He’s a magician who lives and works in the 1950’s UK. He may not be known all over the world, but he knows what he’s doing onstage. And those skills were important during WWII, when Mephisto was one of the Magic Men, a special-operations group that used their stage tricks to fool the enemy. Now that the war’s over, Mephisto is ‘on the circuit’ with circus performers, fortune tellers and the like. He works with a fellow former Magic Man, DI Edgar Stephens, and his expertise turns out to be very useful. Mephisto may not be specifically committed to unmasking charlatans. But he certainly knows that murders don’t happen by magic, and he helps to unwrap the layers of fakery, and get to the truth.

And that’s exactly what Houdini did. He’s no longer with us, but his brilliance on stage, and his commitment to keeping people from being hoodwinked, will be remembered. He’s also inspired generations of illusionists since his time.

 
 
 

The ‘photo is of two of those illusionists, Penn Jillette and his magic partner, Raymond Teller. Both are outstanding, world-class illusionists. And both are committed, as Houdini was, to uncovering fraud and charlatanism. In fact, in their shows, Jillette, the ‘voice of the duo,’ often tells members of the audience that the pair is going to use trickery to confuse them. He then reminds the audience that it’s all sleight-of-hand and other illusion. But it still works. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I’m sure Houdini would have been proud to be your colleague.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Uriah Heep’s Illusion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Russell, Donna Leon, Elly Griffiths, Hake Talbot, Tarquin Hall

So Welcome to Our Family Tree*

Most of us have what you might call ordinary families. No particularly long history, great wealth, or titles. But some families have pedigrees. On the surface, it may seem as though a pedigree is a good thing to have, especially if it comes with money. But that’s not always the case. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

There are several examples of such pedigrees in Agatha Christie’s work (right, fans of The Hollow?). One family like that is the Chevenix-Gore family, whom we meet in Dead Man’s Mirror. Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is inordinately proud of his family lineage. In fact, he’s working on a book about the Chevenix-Gore history. That pride is what makes it so difficult for him when he comes to believe that one of his own family members may be cheating him. He writes to Hercule Poirot asking him to look into the matter, and Poirot decides to accede. By the time Poirot arrives at the family home, though, Sir Gervase is dead. On the surface, it looks as though he’s shot himself. But small pieces of evidence suggest that he might have been murdered. And it turns out that there are several suspects, too.

Several of Raymond Chandler’s stories feature pedigreed, or at least very wealthy, families. One of them is the Sternwood family of The Big Sleep. General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help solve an embarrassing problem. It seems that a book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen. Marlowe’s task will be to find Geiger and get him to leave the family alone. When Marlowe tracks down Geiger, he discovers that the man’s been murdered – and Carmen is in the room. She’s either too drugged or too dazed to say what’s happened, though, and Marlowe’s instinct is to get her out of the way and keep suspicion from her. He does just that, thinking that he’s now done with the family. That doesn’t prove to be the case, though. When the Sternwoods’ chauffer is found dead of an apparent suicide (that’s later identified as a murder), Marlowe ends up being drawn into the investigation, and right back into the Sternwoods’ drama.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook features the Starberth family. The Starbeths have lived in the area for many generations. And, for two of them, the Starberth men served as governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. The prison’s been abandoned, but the Starberths are still associated with it. On his twenty-fifth birthday, each male Starberth spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his stay, he has to open the safe in the room, and follow the directions written on a piece of paper that’s stored there. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth; and, although he’s reluctant to follow the ritual, he sees no good way out. On the night of his stay at the prison, Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But there are clues that this was murder. Dr. Gideon Fell (for whom this is a first appearance) makes sense of the clues, and discovers who’s responsible for Martin Starberth’s death.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet, so he can write. He settles into a guest house owned by the town’s undisputed social leaders, John F. Wright, and his wife, Hermione ‘Hermy.’ The family’s been integrally woven into the town’s life for generations, and that becomes part of the problem in this story. It was embarrassing enough for them when their youngest daughter, Nora, was jilted by her fiancé, Jim Haight, three years earlier. But now Haight has returned. What’s worse, he and Nora resume their relationship. In fact, they marry. Then, suspicions arise that Jim may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Matters come to a head on New Year’s Eve, when Jim’s sister, Rosemary, is poisoned by a cocktail that was meant for Nora. Now, Jim’s arrested for murder, and the whole town assumes he’s guilty. Queen isn’t so sure, though, and he works with Nora’s sister, Pat, to find out who really killed Rosemary Haight.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Wish You Were Here, we are introduced to Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen. In this novel, she’s the postmistress of the small town of Crozet, Virginia. Her job puts her in contact with all of the local residents, since just about everyone comes to the post office on a regular basis. That’s part of how she comes to know so much about what’s going on in town. But there’s another factor, too. Harry is, on her mother’s side, a Minor, which makes her a member of one of the oldest families around. She’s one of the First Families of Virginia (FFV), and that gives her status, even though she’s neither wealthy nor politically powerful. In that culture, being from such a family gives one cachet. In Harry’s case, it gives her an ‘in’ that plenty of other people don’t have. So, she’s able to find out a lot of things as she solves mysteries.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey has a similar ‘in.’ He’s a member of a very old, titled family; in fact, his brother is the Duke of Denver, and his mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver. Wimsey’s pedigree is sterling enough that he can move in the highest social circles, and sometimes does. He doesn’t judge people by their wealth or family names, but he certainly has both.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. He himself isn’t from a ‘pedigreed’ background. But his wife, Paola Falier is. Her parents are Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. They have impeccable social credentials, and are quite well-connected. This gives Brunetti a very valuable resource in his investigations, as his trails often lead to high places.

As you can see rich family histories, and pedigrees, can give a person status in some places. For some sleuths, it’s quite helpful. But that doesn’t necessarily make life any easier for them. That sort of background can come with a price…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s (Our) Family Tree.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Raymond Chandler, Rita Mae Brown

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 novells, 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. 

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