Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Art of Murder

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?


  1. Martha Grimes frequently has art in running subplots in her Richard Jury books. I'm a huge visual/performing art nut, so I love the references.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - Right you are! I like those references a lot, too. I don't have a deep background in the arts, except for music, but I do like novels that include them. I actually wish I knew a bit more about art.

  3. I adore mysteries that take place in the amateur theatre world. Amateur theatre, in books at least, is a great 'backdrop' for all those larger-than-life, frustrated actors bent on revenge. I love those stories and your blog, Margot.

  4. Bobbi - What a sweet thing to say : )! You're right, too, that actors with swollen egos and distorted senses of their own importance are a real "fit" with an amateur theater as "scenery." Characters like that tend to alienate other people, which can get you killed if you're a character in a mystery novel : ).

  5. I think you are right that theatre (et al) plots tend to be in what might loosely be defined (;-) ) as "cozy" mysteries, as there is a ready-made group of suspects and formula for a story in going through them all (eg with Bobbi's point about the egos).
    I have not read too many of these, though long ago I very much enjoyed Ngaio Marsh and slightly more recently (but still long ago) Simon Brett's Charles Paris books.
    I believe that one of the Mallory books was about the theatre, and involved a murder there? I quite enjoyed that one but felt it went on for much too long for its content.
    To be honest, the most memorable murder mystery I can think of involving the theatre is Hamlet, with its play within the play!

    One of Liza Marklund's novels takes place on location - but if my poor memory serves, it was a TV presenter who was murdered, so maybe that does not count.

  6. Maxine - I know what you mean about books going on a bit too long for the content. By "Mallory books," do you mean Carol O'Connell's books about Detective Kathleen Mallory? If you do, then perhaps you mean Shell Game, which is about a magician who dies when an illusion he's doing goes horribly wrong. That takes place at a theater. Or perhaps I'm wrong and you're referring to something else. Either way, I would include Liza Marklund's Prime Time. Although it takes place in a television studio, many of the same ingredients are there that fuels so many good "theater" murders.

  7. I enjoy Lilian Jackson Braun’s series with Jim Qwilleran. Maybe it's because is a newspaper person or the fact he has two cats he adores. Mysteries set in the theatre, music or art world can be very intriguing as the list of possible suspects is always long.

  8. Mason - You're right; there are so many possibilities for suspects in the music, art and theater world, and all of those worlds have, to many people, a "touch of glamor," so that's an added "draw." No wonder they're such popular contexts for murder mysteries. I agree with you - Jim Qwilleran is a great sleuth, and I like many of the Braun novels very much.

  9. Your accuracy puts me to shame, Margot! Yes, these were precisely the two books I was thinking of! Thanks for recalling the titles.

  10. No need to thank me, Maxine - at all. I live in a state of awe at the number of books that you've read and thoughtfully, helpfully and intelligently reviewed. I just got lucky with those two titles : ).

  11. Now, how big a shock is it that I'm commenting on this particular post? Really, are you surprised? Anyway...

    I've always loved the Charles Paris books (the earliest ones most of all) and I adored "What Bloody Man Is That?" Some of my fellow actors, who've also read it agree the moral of that particular book is NEVER to sign a 'play as cast' contract. Only bad things will happen. But we knew that already.

    I don't know any artists, I know a few musicians (drummers are weird. without exception in my experience), but wow, do I know actors. Strange beasts. Huge, huge egos. Tiny, tiny self-esteem. Emotions sit very close to the surface. Now throw in the stress and pressure of putting on a play with a short rehearsal schedule (which is what it usually is). I'm shocked murders don't happen more often!

    Civilians (as we theatre folk call non-theatre folk) love knowing 'backstage stories'. They like finding out what goes on behind that curtain. Those of us who've been behind the curtain like books like these because they're set in a familiar world.


  12. Elspeth - Yes, I must admit, I was looking forward to reading what you had to say about this particular post, and I thought of you quite a lot as I wrote it. I'm glad you like the Charles Paris series and What Bloody Man is That. I really enjoyed it, but as I'm not privy to the acting world as you are, I did wonder how realistic it was. Good to hear that it is.

    You're right, by the way. Civilians (at least this one) really do like to find out what happens "behind the scenes" (pun very much intended) in the theater world, It probably isn't nearly as glamorous as it seems from the outside, but it must be fascinating. I wish I knew more about it...

  13. Margot,

    As usual, another outstanding post with an intriguing, thought-provoking topic.

    Can you believe in my true crime memoir, one of the two cops working that snowy Saturday night in 1955 when the murder occurred had to do a "theatre escort," which meant the cop transported the manager of the Red Barn Theatre (which hosted such notables as Sidney Poitier, and in later years, Christine Jorgensen, the former George Jorgensen) to a night depository to make a cash drop. So, I managed to fit in a bit of theatre drama in my story!

  14. Kathleen - Thanks for your kind words : ). You've really whetted my appetite for your book! It sounds as though you do a solid job of establishing background and backstory as well as telling what happened. I am excited for your book, and I can't wait to read it : ).

  15. Cyril Hare's When the Wind Blows is a very agreeable mystery with a musical background - and a musical clue.

  16. Martin - Thanks for that suggestion; I much appreciate it. You always mention such fine authors! I'm not as familiar with Hare's work as I wish I were, so I shall have to take a look at that one.