Sunday, February 13, 2011

Crime on stage

Peter Lovesey's next Peter Diamond novel, Stagestruck, is set in and around Bath's Theater Royal.

The stage seems a natural setting for a crime story, doesn't it, thriving as it does on disguise and deception. Lovesey, that most ingenious of crime writers, does something else as well. He has a supporting player on the police force whose only dialogue is clownishly baroque wordplay.

The verbal games remind the reader that the simplest statement can be twisted into any number of meanings — surely appropriate for a mystery story. And they drive Peter Diamond entertainingly batty.

Such over-the-top verbal business might be a distraction in an otherwise realistic police novel. Here, the character is like a commedia dell'arte clown, thrown into the mix to stir things up.

Now, here's a question you'll likely be able to answer more readily that I could: What other crime writers have set stories in the world of the theater? Why did they choose those settings? What do such settings add to the story?
I'll start you off: Dame Ngaio Marsh.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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19 Comments:

Blogger Bernadette said...

I just read a new mystery set in an old New Zealand theatre - MURDER IN THE SECOND ROW by Bev Robitai - she obviously has a love for amateur dramatic societies and crime fiction so decided to combine the two - it's a good yarn, quite funny and definitely brings out all the fun (and murderous intent) of working on a stage production

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Bernadette, that's one I am definitely adding to my TBR list. I love murder stories set in the theater. Of course, I love Ngaio Marsh's theater stories. They are wonderful, especially since she was a stage producer as well as a writer, so she got the details and ambience right. (Far as I know, anyway.)

Recently read a Mr. and Mrs. North mystery that took place in a theater. DEATH ON THE AISLE by Frances and Richard Lockeridge. This one has a rather unusual motive.

There's DEATH AT THE OPERA by John Gano. Haven't read it in ages though. So can't remember much about it. (Opera/theater - either/or.)

Parnell Hall's detective Stanley Hastings is also a part time actor. Though only a couple of the series are actually set in or near a theater. I'm trying to remember which...ACTOR is one. (Hall likes one word titles.) I think there might be a couple others.

I love Stanley Hastings. Haven't read any in a while, though. But, far as I'm concerned: Stanley Rules! Maybe it's time to re-read the series....Hmmmm.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Meant to add: I LOVE Peter Lovesey. So I'll be reading this latest Diamond as well. :)

February 13, 2011  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

Dash Hammett's The Maltese Falcon has Joel Cairo & the Geary Theater of San Francisco. I also suspect the flower Spade notices in Cairo's lapel has as its literary antecedents the flowers that Oscar Wilde & his buddies wore to the theater fifty years earlier. That Hammett was commenting upon a secret code??

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow, it looks like this post may have to be held over by popular demand.

Bernadette, it's interesting, isn't it, that authors still set mysteries in theaters even though the theater is probably not as much a part of most people's lives as it was a few decades back. Is that Bev Robitai a New Zealander? If so, she's obviously heir to an honorable tradition of theatrical mysteries.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I avoid theatrical anythings like the plague however I do remember an episode of Columbo called Dagger of the Mind that was written by that man (men?) of mystery Baldinotto da Pistoia that was pretty entertaining. Pussy Galore was in it and Columbo's foil in Scotland Yard was an Inspector Dirk which I thought was a good pun.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I'd include Michael Dibdin's Cosi Fan Tutti, a mystery structured along the lines of Mozart's opera Cosi Fan Tutte. Thanks for your list; Death on the Aisle works for me as a title.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Meant to add: I LOVE Peter Lovesey. So I'll be reading this latest Diamond as well. :)

Yvette, Peter Lovesey has to be among the more talented and versatile crime writers ever. He can write with a hard edge, as in the first Peter Diamond novel, and he can poke fun at countryhouse mysteries, update them, and write a credible and entertaining example at the same time, as in Bertie and the Seven Bodies. He's a superb technician.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'm not generally a theatrical type of guy, either, much less a reader of countryhouse mysteries. But Lovesey is a master.

February 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, Fred, Joel Cairo goes to see The Merchant of Venice. I forget who starred in the production, but I can check my Hammett books when I get home. (Hammett names neither star nor play, but Hammett scholars have found it no hard work to find out what was playing on the dates Hammett specified in The Maltese Falcon.)

I hadn't thought of the flower as a secret code, but it would not surprise me in the least, given the stuff Hammett would sneak into his books. We've recently had a discussion of gunsel here, what the word meant, and what Hammett probably hoped censors would think it meant -- and indeed what it came to mean after The Maltese Falcon.

February 14, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

No fair, picking Ngaio Marsh right off the top. :)

Donna Leon has a novel involving the Venice theater, It may be her first.

My feeling is that this sort of thing lends itself to the "traditional mystery" plot because it involves a closed group or suspects familiar with each other, alibi plots involving time, and issues of opportunity.

February 14, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, actually I have one, too. THE HELL SCREEN. Though that is by no means traditional.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger michael said...

Simon Brett's Charles Paris

Kelley Roos "Made Up To Kill"

Actually I am willing to bet the stage was a common setting for the classic mysteries of the first half of the 20th century.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I picked Ngaio Marsh right off the top because hers was the only other name I could think of.

The Donna Leon novel you have in mind may be Death at La Fenice, though arson is likelier to be the crime of concern at that opera house than is murder, I think.

I, too, had a feeling that the theater was a likely setting for a traditional mystery, but I could not say why, You did so very nicely, with the closed group of suspects, and so on. A production is like a village. Thanks.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Michael. I had forgotten about Simon Brett and Charles Paris.

See I.J.'s comments for why the theater may have been a common setting for mysteries.

February 14, 2011  
Blogger michael said...

I.J. is right. Plus entertainment backdrops from stage to movie sets remain a dramatic setting (complete with the melodrama of the over the top actors).

February 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not to mention the old standby of the prop weapon that turns out to be real.

February 14, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Lovesey and I am eagerly awaiting the new Diamond.

Two theatre related books off the top of my head are Full,
Dark House, first Bryant and May mystery, by Christopher Fowler. The theatrical setting is well done and essential to the book.

Allingham's Dancers in Mourning is an English country house mystery revolving around a group of variety show performers.

Rebecca

February 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Christopher Fowler is a nut. That book ought to be fun. Thanks.

February 14, 2011  

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