Do 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.