Along with my good blogfriend Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk I am posting my list of ten novels with theatrical settings. Theatres are closed communities of people engaged in a very stressful profession and so make wonderful settings – for crime novels in particular. Actors are good at lying. Deceiving people is what they do for living. And theatres can be sinister places, especially when the performance is over. Here is my choice:
Simon Brett, Murder Unprompted (1982) I could have chosen almost any one of the Charles Paris mysteries. This is one I happened to have on the shelf. They are all acutely observed and very funny. What an old reprobate Charles is, with his fondness for Bell’s whisky and his roving eye, yet his heart is the right place and he never quite loses the reader’s sympathy. In Murder Unprompted it seems he might at last hit the big time when he is the second lead in a play that transfers to the West End. Then the star is shot on stage . . .
Helen McCloy, Cue for Murder(1942). At the end of Act I of a revival of Fedora, a rare hoary old melodrama, it transpires that the corpse on stage really is a corpse and only the one of the three actors on stage could have been the killer. It’s up to McCloy’s psychiatrist sleuth Basil Willing to unravel the mystery. The theatrical setting is brilliantly evoked.
Gwendoline Butler, A Dark Coffin (1995). I suspect that Butler, who died in 2013, is not much read now and if so that’s a pity. She combined crime and the macabre in a quite original way. The series featuring John Coffin began in the late 1950s. By the time she reached A Dark Coffin he is a very senior policeman happily married at last to Stella Pinero, an actress in whose theatre two people are found stabbed to death in a box at the end of the performance. Butler wrote shortish novels, not a word wasted and all the better for that: very suspenseful, very good.
Glen David Gold, Carter Beats the Devil (2009). Charles Carter is a stage magician who is given his stage name “Carter the Great” by Houdini.The novel begins in 1923 with the most daring performance of Carter’s life. Two hours later US President Harding is dead and Carter flees the country, pursued by the Secret Service. This is one of those long densely written novels that you don’t want to end. Lots of fascinating stuff about the art of the stage magician. A great read.
Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (1992). The first in her Venetian series, which have given me a lot of pleasure over the years. The audience are waiting for the third act of La Traviata to begin, when the artistic director appears between the curtains to ask ‘Is there a doctor in the audience?’ But Maestra Wellauer, poisoned by cyanide in his coffee, is beyond medical help. When Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates he finds that the man had plenty of enemies. Combines one of my favourite cities with one of my favourite settings.
Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie’s (1982). Freddie’s is a stage school for children and Freddie herself is an institution and something of a monster: ‘she knew she was one of those few people in every walk of life, whom society has mysteriously decided to support at all costs.’ It’s set against a production of Shakespeare’s King John. Fitzgerald herself described her subject as ‘The courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it.’ It is both funny and profound.
Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House (2003). I am a fan of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series. This was the first and it begins with an explosion at the Peculiar Crimes Unit. John May mourns the death of his old friend Arthur Bryant. It seems to have something to do with their very first case in 1940 during the Blitz. It began when a dancer is found dead – and minus her feet – in the Palace Theatre, which turns out to be a very sinister place indeed.
Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song (2009) is set in the vividly realised Tarleton theatre on London’s Bankside and is another crime novel that moves between the past and present. I love all the details of the old music hall shows, the terrific creepiness of the old theatre at night, and the on-the-edge-of your-seat suspense.
Ngaio Marsh, Opening Night (1951). Marsh is the doyenne of the theatrical mystery. She was made a dame for her contribution to the theatre in New Zealand. This is an usual crime novel in that the murder and the arrival of Alleyn don’t take place until well over half-way through. It’s a decent mystery, but the main appeal is the superbly realised theatrical setting.
Margery Allingham, Dancers in Mourning (1937). Reading this, I realised all over again what an excellent writer she is, so good at the way people think and behave. Chloe Pye, a dancer almost over the hill, has died. Her sister-in-law says: ‘ “. . . she was a good girl, I’m sure – at least her family always thought so, and now that time to be charitable if ever, when the poor soul’s lying dead.” This perfunctory dismissal . . . had the ruthlessness of a pronouncement of Time itself, and the more sensitive of them shivered a little. Arch, inviting Chloe Pye was dead indeed. It was like the drawer closing on a last year’s hat.’ Quite brilliant. The setting is a production of a musical comedy and Campion falls in love with the wife of the chief suspect.
That’s it. It is always such a treat getting together with Moira in this way – and I have had a lovely time rereading some old favourites. Do over to Moira’s blog at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk and see what she has chosen.
I love a theatrical mystery, so Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song, set in the vividly realised Tarleton theatre on London’s Bankside, has been on my TBR pile for a while. I’ve just finished it and loved all the details of the old music hall shows, the terrific creepiness of the old theatre at night, and the can’t-stop-reading suspense. Sarah has kindly agreed to be my guest today. I began by asking her, How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
These days I’m lucky enough to be able to write full-time, which means starting around 8.30 am and finishing at a reasonably civilized hour. But there was a time when I lived a double life, pursuing a fairly hectic nine to five job, writing when and where I could: in the car, on the hoof, during meetings if no one was looking – I used to make furtive plot notes on the back of quarterly sales reports. In the evenings I wrote into the small hours to meet deadlines, so I generally arrived at the office each morning pink-eyed from lack of sleep.
What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?
It’s usually an idea, and ideas are everywhere. They’re in bits of TV news items or overheard conversations in the supermarket.
But for The Whispering, published in paperback this month, a very particular event sparked the plot…
Some years ago, my brother searched the newly-released Debt of Honour Registry for mention of our father who had died in 1963, but fought in WW1 – he was fifteen when war was declared and he lied about his age to join up.
Disconcertingly, we found that someone with father’s name, age, regiment, and place of birth, was listed as having been killed in action in 1917. His name was even inscribed on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
We knew very little about father’s early life – he hadn’t met mother until 1940 and by then he had lost touch with his family, so there was no one we could ask. So who was it who had died in 1917? Who had my father really been?
For me, that was the start of a fascination with the Great War – its causes, its atmosphere, and the many tragic and heroic stories about the individuals caught up in it. Over the years I wrote two books touching on its causes and build-up – Ghost Song and What Lies Beneath. But for The Whispering I was interested in the letter that soldiers wrote for their families, in the event of their death. A last farewell, a final message of – what? Love, regret, courage?
With that question, a plot began to take shape, centring on a young man from a remote house in the fens, writing that letter to the people still living there… But a young man who believed he was going to die in an unexpected way, and who wanted to preserve the heroic legend his family had created.
Often in your novels the present is intertwined with the past. Tell us a bit more about your interest in history.
I think it’s that I like the feeling of the past affecting the present.
Many of my plot inspirations come from buildings. There’s a marvellous theme running through Benjamin Britten’s opera, Owen Wingrave, which is based on the Henry James’ story. It’s – ‘Listen to the house.’
And I do just that. I don’t mean cavorting round the Tower of London thinking you’re seeing Ann Boleyn. I mean ordinary buildings where people have lived and worked. There’s so much to hear from them – their atmospheres, their histories. Homely details like how Winston Churchill stipulated there must always be a ginger cat called Jock in residence at Chartwell. And so there is.
The supernatural figures frequently in your novels, notably in your Michael Flint/Nell West series. Have you had any supernatural experiences yourself?
The nearest I can get is an incident that occurred while writing House of the Lost. I was describing a character’s appearance – it always matters to let readers know what people look like, of course, but this was a special case because he was being eyed with semi-suppressed ardour by a lady who shouldn’t have been eyeing him at all.
I described him as being in his early thirties, with soft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie, and cotton shirt. I finished the scene, then went off to collect some shopping. In the supermarket checkout was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie…
I’m glad to say he had bought pasta, wine, cheese and fruit. If he had been buying chicken nuggets and frozen faggots I would have had to re-write the whole of Chapter Six.
By the time I reached the car park he had vanished. I do know the sensible explanation was that I’d seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion and subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it. But I would much rather believe that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
My tastes are quite catholic – but I enjoy anything that’s well written. I do love the classic ghost stories from the early 1900s – M.R. James and his brethren. I’m also a huge Dorothy L Sayers admirer. And one of my desert-island books is Broome Stages, written in the 1930s by Clemence Dane. A massive doorstop of a saga about a theatrical family over three centuries.
What are you writing now?
I’m halfway through the sixth in the Michael Flint/Nell West series – which is probably going to be called The Bell Tower. This series has been so good to write – I’d only done stand-alones before, and I’ve loved staying with the same two central characters all through.
Thank you, Sarah. Sarah’s new novel Deadlight Hall is out at the end of December and The Whispering has just been published in paperback. Find out more about Sarah and her books at www.sarahrayne.co.uk