The Fourth Wall by Barbara Paul

Originally Published 1979

Sylvia Markey sits in her dressing room, holding her cat’s head in her hands. Just the head—the body is nowhere to be found. This gruesome act of violence was committed just a few minutes before curtain, and Sylvia has no time to grieve. She collects herself, and gets ready to perform. She makes it halfway through the second act before her nerves get the best of her, and she vomits onstage. As the run continues, so does the sabotage, and the unknown troublemaker attacks actors, vandalizes the set, and hurls acid at one of the designers. To playwright Abigail James, the meaning is clear: Someone is trying to murder her play.

The police do all they can, but it will take someone who understands theater to unravel the mystery. This is a matter of revenge—and Abigail will settle it backstage.

I think the theater is a marvellous setting for a mystery novel. After all, most mysteries feature elements of performance and artificiality where the author carefully arranges elements and attempts to hide the workings, much like the actors and cables are hidden by the wings or are kept high above the stage.

Lately I have been on a big of a theatrical mystery binge. I am not sure when I became conscious that I was picking up theatrical mystery after theatrical mystery but I think I can pinpoint the inspiration. Recently I read Maureen O’Brien’s superb Close-Up On Death (it’s great – go read it!) and I suspect that I have been drawn to titles with a similar setting or themes ever since.

The Fourth Wall begins with Sylvia Markey, the lead actress in a play, discovering the decapitated head of her pet in her dressing room. This is just the first in a string of events that seem to be focused on a Broadway production which eventually escalate to murder.

The story is told from the perspective of Abby James, the playwright, who has been called back to New York mid-production to try and fix some problems with the play’s second act. She initially believes that the incidents are prompted by Markey’s imperious behavior behind-the-scenes. Eventually though it becomes clear to everyone that she is not the villain’s only target and that they all could be at risk.

Early in the play Paul drops several references to a Middleton play, The Revenger’s Tragedy, which she establishes as having some parallels to the events of her own story. For those unfamiliar with the play (I don’t know who such people are – I would have thought a working knowledge of Jacobean revenge tragedy would be a central part of any modern education) she provides a handy description both of the plot and the themes of the work so the uninitiated will not be disadvantaged. I thought this made for an interesting parallel to consider and I thought it was reflected thoughtfully in the action of this story.

In addition to being an interesting reference to consider, the reader is also clued in on the criminal’s motivation. Rather than diminishing the sense of mystery about what is going on however it serves to heighten it as the reader is prompted to wonder just what the victims did to be targeted in this way and how their actions are helping them achieve their goal.

Part of what makes it challenging to work out what is going on is that Paul devises an interesting series of crimes that initially seem quite disconnected from each other in the methods used. Some of these are admittedly a little more lurid and eye-catching than others but considered together they make for an initially quite confusing picture that did a good job of drawing me in. Before long however Paul provides us with an explanation that makes better sense of what is happening and further reinforces the parallels readers will already notice with The Revenger’s Tragedy.

Paul provides us with a pretty broad cast of characters, all from the theatrical world, each with quite distinctive backgrounds and personalities. The links between them are interesting and I felt fairly realistic, particularly given that all of the characters in the book are essentially living nomadic, theatrical lifestyles. I appreciated that Paul takes the time to show us their differing attitudes and approaches to their craft and I think that, along with the tensions that those different approaches can produce, helps create the sense of a credible theatrical company.

In addition to The Revenger’s Tragedy, another story that gets name-checked several times in this novel is Christie’s And Then There Were None. While I would normally suggest authors not seek to draw a comparison with one of Christie’s cleverest and most iconic stories, here I think that comparison is earned. Paul plays with some similar story beats and ideas at points but she also clearly charts her own course and develops her own themes. For instance, both books develop these larger casts of characters who are both potential killers and suspects at the same time, though Paul does not seek to isolate her cast in quite the same way (in fact, their public and professional accessibility is the source of their being at risk in spite of the bodyguards and police protection they receive later in the story). The comparison ends up enriching the narrative and I appreciated it even more after finishing the book.

One of the original themes Paul does explore is the idea of how you survive after disaster strikes. I think it does not give too much away to say that many of the characters are profoundly damaged by the events of this novel and by the cruelty of the criminal. Rather than simply revelling in the instances of violence, Paul devotes time to explore the aftermath and see how people try to rebuild their lives (or attempt to take solace in isolating themselves). The different reactions are each interesting and I think they help give the sense that these are not events happening in a vacuum but that they affect an acting community, sometimes having knock-on effects on those around them as they panic and try to protect the things and people they love.

For the most part I think The Fourth Wall is a satisfying read but one area where I feel it falls short is in the development of its villain. Now, I referenced how Paul draws several parallels with The Revenger’s Tragedy and certainly you do see that reflected in the creation of her killer. This is an interesting and rather creative choice that fits the theatrical setting pretty well but it does mean that our killer is perhaps not as grounded in reality as some readers may like. It can make for an exciting ride while you are reading as you wonder how much further will they go and who will be the next victim, but when you pause to consider what they did to achieve their goals, their actions are not particularly credible.

I should also say that there is an aspect of the writing that dates this book to the period in which it is written – the discussion of an aspect of the killer’s identity. We realize fairly early in the novel what their motive for committing the crimes must be, helped by the literary parallel Paul draws, but that also means that the characters begin to search for the killer based on an aspect of their identity. The way that identity is discussed feels very much of its time and may grate with readers today, though I think it is essentially realistic to that period, particularly if you consider that the killer is not supposed to be representative of their community but rather an individual driven mad by the desire for revenge.

In spite of my issues with the development of the villain I will say that I found this to be an exciting and pretty compelling read. I loved the theatrical setting with its company of actors and I found the scope of the plot to be really thrilling (the action takes place in New York, Chicago and LA). It certainly left me keen to investigate more of Paul’s work and to see how her career as a crime novelist developed.

4 thoughts on “The Fourth Wall by Barbara Paul

  1. I’m a fan of the writing of Barbara Paul. I’ve read all her books, liked almost all of them, and wish she’d written more. (Also, full disclosure, I eventually met her and became a sub-moderator for her online message board, when it existed.)

    I think the criticism of the book here is fair; it’s probably the most gruesome of all her books. (Although there is an aspect of Kill Fee that makes me never want to reread it.) If I’m recalling the same aspect that you describe in the penultimate paragraph, I agree that it’s “of its time,” and as such not objectionable to me — I undoubtedly spoke the same way then. We’ve all evolved since then.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am normally pretty squeamish about the gore but I actually really enjoyed those elements here. There certainly is some variety on offer and it fits the Jacobean revenge themes pretty well. The opening may upset some cat lovers though…

      I definitely would not want to imply that this book was unusual in the way it discussed and presented that aspect for works of that period (I can think of far worse published more recently). I think it surprised me mostly because the book otherwise feels quite timeless.

      I am certainly keen to read more Paul. Do you have any titles you particularly recommend?


      1. Barbara Paul made a study of Jacobean tragedy in college, which is probably not too surprising. Remembering this book, I once asked her if Middleton was a special subject of study for her, and she said no, it was (I hope I’m remembering this right) Massinger.

        Be careful if looking for her books: There’s another author who used the name Barbara Paul (along with 2 or 2 other pen names), a British writer of historical romance.

        Of her other books, I like The Renewable Virgin, a multiple-viewpoint book that introduces her continuing character, Marian Larch of the NYPD. (Marian appears in seven books altogether, I believe, sometimes peripherally and sometimes centrally.) It’s set in the world of TV production, as The Fourth Wall is of theater. A lightweight one that I’ve enjoyed reading repeatedly is Your Eyelids Are Growing Heavy, set in Pittsburgh where she lived for a number of years; I once kidded her that it read like the novelization of a TV movie-of-the-week, a pilot for a weekly series to follow.

        As a musician and music historian, I have a special fondness for her series of three books set in and around the Metropolitan Opera of the early 20th century, with famous singers as detectives and suspects; the background is accurately delineated, as far as I can tell. These are A Cadenza for Caruso, Prima Donna at Large, and A Chorus of Detectives.


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