Some contexts just seem to be conducive to murder. By that, I mean that the “ingredients” (motive, opportunity, access to the victim, etc.) are very much present, so that it makes sense that someone might commit a murder. After all, one aspect of a good murder mystery is that we have to believe that someone would kill for a given motive. For example, we can believe that in the espionage community, people would kill others. That’s the essence of spy thrillers. The arts community is another context that we can argue is “ripe” for murder. There’s a lot at stake in the theater, music, and visual arts world; we can believe that someone might kill to get a coveted role, a solo performance or an important gallery showing. That’s possibly the reason for which there are so many examples of murders in this context in crime fiction.
Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That ? is a clear example of a murder that takes place in the theater community. In that novel, down-and-out actor Charles Paris has joined a provincial repertory company’s production of Macbeth. It’s not a glorious part, but it is a start towards the comeback he’s planning. Paris soon learns that this is going to be no easy job. The cast members are disparate and dysfunctional, and there is a great deal of spite to go around. One night during rehearsals, Warnock Belvedere, who’s playing the role of Duncan, is poisoned to death. As it happens, Paris has stayed late at the theater and, because he’s had too much to drink, has fallen asleep. When he wakes up, he finds he’s locked in the theater with Belvedere’s body. The police immediately settle on Paris as the prime suspect, so he has to figure out who killed Belvedere in order to clear his own name.
Ngaio Marsh wrote several mysteries having to do with the theater, which was her first love. The first of these novels, Enter a Murderer, is a very effective example of how the theater community makes for a conducive context for murder. In a change of cast, Felix Gardener has been given a prime role in the Unicorn Theater’s production of The Rat and the Beaver. Arthur Surbonadier, who’d wanted that role, has to be satisfied with a lesser role. He and Felix get into a dramatic dressing-room argument about the role, and later, when the two are on stage in a climactic scene, Felix shoots Arthur. Of course, the on-stage scene involves a gun with blanks instead of bullets, but in the chaos before the performance, someone has replaced the blank caps with real bullets, and Arthur Surbonadier lies dead. Inspector Roderick Alleyn happens to be at the theater that night, and quickly takes charge of the investigation. At first, it seems that Gardener must be guilty. However, it’s not long before Alleyn and his assistant, Sergeant Fox, uncover the fact that Surbonadier was an unpleasant man and a blackmailer, so more than one person had a motive to kill him.
There’s a very similar scenario in Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man. That’s the story of Esslyn Carmichael, the lead actor of the Causton Amateur Dramatic Society (CADS). The CADS is putting on a production of Amadeus, and Inspector Barnaby’s wife, Joyce, has a minor role in the play. So, Barnaby is in the audience one night when the performance goes horribly wrong. During the scene when Carmichael’s character, Salieri, slits his throat, it becomes immediately apparent that someone’s switched the blunted stage-prop knife for a real one with an all-too-sharp blade. Now Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy have the unpleasant task of looking into Carmichael’s past, and his relationships with the other members of the cast, some of whom Barnaby has known for years. As it turns out, most of the cast had good reason to murder Carmichael, so there are plenty of suspects in this murder.
James Yaffe’s Mom Doth Murder Sleep also takes place in a theater setting. The Mesa Grande, Colorado amateur theater group puts on a production of Macbeth; included in the cast is Roger Meyer, whose friend, Dave, is an investigator for the Mesa Grande Public Defender’s Office. Set to star in the play is Martin Osborn, the local Lothario. On opening night, Osborn is stabbed onstage, and the most likely suspect is Sally Michaels, who plays Lady Macbeth. Sally’s arrested for the murder, but Dave’s mother, who’s an amateur sleuth, isn’t sure that the police have the right suspect. So she persuades her son to look into the case. Dave soon finds that Sally was far from the only one in the cast who wanted Osborn dead.
Agatha Christie’s novels don’t center around the theater. However, actors and actresses feature frequently in her novels. For instance, Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner) is the story of actress Jane Wilkinson, who is accused of stabbing her husband, 4th Baron Edgware. She’d begged Hercule Poirot to help her find a way to get rid of her husband so she could marry again, and she said that if that didn’t work, she might have to “bump him off.” She was seen entering the house and heading for the library on the night of the murder, too. At first, it seems that Jane Wilkinson must be guilty – until the evidence of twelve people says that she was at a dinner party on the night of the murder. Now Poirot has to sift through everyone’s story, and figure out how and by whom the crime was committed – and how someone can be in two places at once.
Of course, the arts involve more than just theater. In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, Jim Qwilleran, a former news reporter and Braun’s sleuth, is trying to put his life back together after a series of personal sorrows and a bout with alcoholism. An old friend and editor at the Daily Fluxion gets Qwilleran a feature-writing job on the “art beat.” Thus Qwilleran meets George Bonifield Mountclemens III, a very unpopular art critic. Through Mountclemens, Qwilleran meets Zoe Lambreth, a popular local artist, her husband Earl, whose gallery shows her work, and two other artists, Scrano (whose work is shown at the same gallery) and Nino, Zoe’s protégé. One night, Earl Lambreth is murdered, and half of a valuable painting goes missing. Shortly afterwards, Nino, one of the suspects, is killed by one of his own creations, and Mountclemens himself turns up dead. In order to solve these murders, Qwilleran has to get to the bottom of the inter-relationships among the members of this artists’ community.
We also visit the art world in Dorothy Sayers’ The Five Red Herrings, in which Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the murder of Sandy Campbell, a talented but unpleasant Scottish artist. On the bank above the stream where Campbell died is a partly-finished painting. At first, it looks as though Campbell accidentally fell into the stream; however, Wimsey soon figures out that Campbell couldn’t have done the painting, and begins to believe that the death was a murder. Six other artists become suspects (hence, the title). Each of them had quarreled with Campbell, and each was talented enough to fake the painting. Wimsey and the police now have to track down each suspect and follow up on their alibis in order to find out which one is the real killer.
Agatha Christie touches on the art world in a few novels. In Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of Amyas Crale, a famous painter. This case, though, doesn’t involve professional jealousy. Rather, it involves Crale’s family and close friends. His wife, Caroline, is convicted of the murder and dies in prison. Sixteen years later, their daughter, Carla Lemarchant, hires Poirot to find out the truth about the murder, since she is convinced her mother was innocent. There are other suspects in the murder, too, including brothers Philip and Meredith Blake, old friends of Crale’s; Elsa Greer Dittisham, Crale’s lover at the time; Angela Warren, Caroline Crale’s half-sister; and Cecilia Williams, Angela’s governess at the time. Each of these characters has a motive, and Poirot has to look through their personal accounts of the murder to find out who really killed Amyas Crale.
In The Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple’s first case, St. Mary Mead’s much-disliked magistrate, Colonel Protheroe, is shot while he’s visiting the local vicarage. At first, the prime suspect is a local painter, Lawrence Redding, who’s been doing a painting of Protheroe’s daugther, Lettice, and having an affair with Protheroe’s much-younger wife, Annie. Soon enough, though, Miss Marple helps Inspector Slack, who investigates the case, to see that more than one local resident had a good reason to kill Protheroe.
The world of musical competition is part of the context for my own B-Very Flat, in which rising violin star Serena Brinkman dies suddenly on the night of an important musical competition. She’s an undergraduate student at Tilton University, so her fellow competitors and some of the faculty come under scrutiny when it becomes clear that she’s been murdered. As former police officer-turned-professor Joel Williams soon finds out, though, this case isn’t that simple.
The world of fine arts can make a very effective context for a murder mystery because of the nature of large egos, professional rivalry and competition, among other things. The books I’ve mentioned here don’t even touch the number of cozy mysteries that are focused on the art, theater and music world. Do you enjoy mysteries that take place in that world? Which are your favorites?