Five to Try: Theatrical Mysteries

The theater is one of my favorite settings for a mystery because it feels so fitting. Murder mysteries are, by their nature, artificial with the clues carefully staged for the audience’s benefit. Mysteries set in the theater often acknowledge and own that artificiality, turning it into a virtue, by showing us how, with a little careful arrangement, a murderer is able to hide in the wings.

Just a reminder before I offer my suggestions, especially as it’s been a while since I last did one of these – I am not saying that the below are not the five best theatrical mysteries. I cannot claim to have read widely enough for that. I do think though that all five of my selections are interesting. They have stayed with me – in some cases for years after reading them – and I think they are all worth tracking down.

Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith

Of course, the most common way that a theater can feature in a mystery is as a choice of setting for the story.

Many classic Golden Age series feature at least one installment in which a murder takes place on stage during a performance. Often the detective sits in the audience, unaware that the killer waits to strike. My first pick was actually written in the later part of the twentieth century, though it channels some of the spirit of the Golden Age, and was published a few years ago by Locked Room International.

In Come to Paddington Fair, Derek Smith has his sleuth – Chief Inspector Castle – receive an anonymous invitation to attend a play. During the performance in a scene in which one character should shoot another, a member of the audience stands up and appears to fire a gun at the female lead before trying to make their escape.

The case is an interesting one, in part because it only becomes clear how this is an impossible crime near the end. It even boasts a Challenge to the Reader! But the thing that stands out to me most about the book is the way it channels the geography of a stage and makes it important to the plot.

If you like this, you may also enjoy James Scott Byrnside’s The Opening Night Murders which also presents an impossible crime in a theatrical setting.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E. & M. A. Radford

This is another novel that utilizes the theater primarily as a space for murder but it does so in a slightly different way.

In this story an actor is murdered during a performance. The audience observes the murder take place and identify the actor portraying the cat as the murderer. The problem is that both the person meant to be playing that role and their understudy have pretty solid alibis raising the question of just who was wearing their costume.

I really enjoyed this story which presents a very carefully clued and logical case. Both the authors, who were a husband and wife writing team, had experience in the theater and they draw on that to produce a representation of a theatrical company that feels credible and detailed.

For another on stage murder, check out Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer which I reviewed earlier this week.

The Fourth Wall by Barbara Paul

Acting is often perceived to be a profession that brings together people with strong egos, all competing for top billing. The politics of the theater troupe can be fascinating, even if the deaths don’t take place on stage.

In Barbara Paul’s The Fourth Wall a series of gruesome murders take place behind the scenes of a theatrical production. One of the most successful aspects of this book is its rendering of an entire theatrical company. Paul explores the nomadic lifestyle of the actor and the different approaches that some have to the craft.

Throughout the book there are lots of references made to a famously lurid Jacobean drama, Middleton’s The Revengers Tragedy, helping to establish the idea that this is a case of some old scores being settled. While a few aspects of the book date it, I think it really captures the sense of a theatrical company very well.

Murder in the Title by Simon Brett

Of course, actors are not always the victim. Unlikely as it may seem, some can use their professional skills to solve crimes.

Simon Brett’s series sleuth, actor Charles Paris, is such a creation. He makes his first appearance in 1975’s Cast in Order of Disappearance and has since featured in nineteen further adventures which are usually quite lighthearted in tone. Typical plots feature digs at trends in the acting profession, rendering some of the stories decidedly of their time.

Murder in the Title sees Charles enter the world of provincial reportory theater, performing in a historic theater on the verge of closure. The production, a terrible mystery play in which he plays the corpse, is hit with a number of strange accidents that keep occurring on stage. This culminates in what appears to be a suicide but Charles suspects that it may be murder…

The case is one of the better efforts in the series and, for the most part, holds up well in spite of it being almost forty years since it was first published. The novel does a particularly strong job of portraying the fragile relationship between Charles and his estranged wife, Frances, and exploring the challenges that continue to face smaller, provincial theaters.

Those in search of another sleuth with links to the theater may enjoy Vincent Starrett’s The Great Hotel Murder which is solved by a theatrical critic.

I have not reviewed this title on the blog.

Close-Up on Death by Maureen O’Brien

While an actor may be famous, how well do we really know them? The death of young television star Liza Drew creates a media sensation in Maureen O’Brien’s Close-Up On Death and brings her best friend Millie, a talented but little-known theater actor, into the spotlight.

O’Brien develops a compelling mystery plot but what makes this book so memorable for me is its discussion of the profession and the relationship between talent and fame. She uses the mystery structure as a way to explore these ideas and presumably draws on some of her own experiences from her rich and varied career on stage and screen.

Those themes do not sit apart from the mystery plot – in fact they prove just as important to solving the mystery as the clues and the character development.


So, there you have my suggestion for Five Theatrical Mysteries to Try. What are some of your favorite mysteries that are set in or around the theater?


23 thoughts on “Five to Try: Theatrical Mysteries

  1. This is a good topic for a post. I have only read 4 of the 8 I think. It’s interesting that Christie never produce a novel which solidly focused on the theatre, though it does crop up in her short stories and They Do It With Mirrors. Some other titles I enjoyed are Death Goes Dancing by Mabel Esther Allan, Measure for Murder (1941) by Clifford Witting, Made Up to Kill (1940) by Kelley Roos, Quick Curtain (1934) by Alan Melville, (although it is not as good as Death of Anton) and could we count The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin as one?

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    1. Yes – actors, professional and amateur, are certainly a frequent inclusion but the buildings themselves are largely absent. As for the suggestions you make they sound interesting – I have only read Quick Curtain which I agree with you about. Gilded Fly is on my TBR pile somewhere so I haven’t read it yet but from the descriptions and reviews I have read I would definitely count that one!

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  2. I was hoping to find The Fourth Wall here, so I’m gratified to see it. It’s unexpectedly gruesome for a theatrical sort of mystery, but very well written (as are all her books). I guess the term “dated” is accurate, but (if we’re thinking of the same thing) the terminology used by the characters is also accurate for its time, as I can testify from having been around then, and someone described by said terminology (which I used myself). Paul wrote a lot of good books, but I wish there’d been still more — I know she had more she wanted to write.

    I was expecting to see a Simon Brett “Charles Paris” title too, and this one will do as well as any. I like his breezy writing style, but it leads me to expect more from the books than I usually get. Or maybe I just eventually get tired of his sleuth-actor, always on the verge of turning his life around and never doing so.

    An exceptional theatrical series, written with a real insider’s eye, is the Jocelyn O’Rourke series by Jane Dentinger. “Josh” O’Rourke is an actress (occasional director) who never means to do any detecting, but can’t help noticing clues that others miss. I especially remember a Major Barbara production that she directs (complete with ideas about subtext and doubling of roles), her venture into TV acting opposite a gifted but untrained former child star, and her jumping in to replace the deceased faculty-star of a college production of The Winter’s Tale. Oh, and a really nasty-hilarious roman à clef about a regional vanity production of Peter Pan.

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    1. Given your positive recommendation as well as that from Aidan of Paul’s The Fourth Wall, I found an affordable copy online and ordered today. I look forward to reading it.

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      1. Scott, some of Barbara Paul’s later books continue the characters and theatrical setting established in The Fourth Wall (and in other of her books, uniting the worlds), if you find that you like The Fourth Wall.

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    2. I think we are thinking of the same thing. As you rightly point out, it was not an outlier in terms of the era in which it was written (the Charles Paris stories which I mentioned are not dissimilar in that regard).

      I couldn’t help but include Paris because of the character’s importance in reengaging me with mystery fiction – I blitzed through most of the books in a single Summer. I don’t blame you for feeling frustrated with the character though. There certainly are installments which strike me as quite depressing, particularly towards the end of the original run of novels before Brett took a break from the character.

      Thank you so much for the suggestion of the Dentinger. I will seek out a copy of one as this setup sounds marvellous. I also plan to return to Paul at some point soon. Too many books, too little time!

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      1. One nifty detail in one Dentinger book (I *think* it’s a book by her, and not Barbara Paul, but it’s been decades either way…) is an opening-night good-luck telegram from Charles Paris.

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    1. If opera counts, I would certainly name 3 books by Robert Barnard: Death on the High C’s, Death and the Chaste Apprentice, and The Mistress of Alderley. All have solutions that have specifically to do with operatic knowledge.

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  3. Aidan – thank you. I really enjoy your five to try posts including this one. I have only read the Radford and Smith books and particularly enjoyed the latter.

    Some other titles to consider with a theatrical or Hollywood setting:

    Anthony Boucher: The Case of the Solid Key
    John Dickson Carr: Panic in Box C
    Elizabeth Daly: Unexpected Night
    Michael Innes: Hamlet Revenge!
    Anne Morice: Tessa Crichton series features an actress sleuth in England – newly reprinted by Dean Street Press
    Patrick Quentin: Puzzle for Players

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    1. Thank you. They are fun to do! I thought about the Crichtons too but unfortunately the only one I have read so far didn’t really focus on that element of the story. I certainly need to get back to her soon.
      Thank you for the suggestions and the list you linked to – lots of inspiration here for expanding my TBR pile!

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  4. I liked Swan Song by Crispin, which I suppose counts. I also enjoyed all the theatrical mysteries of Marsh. I even liked her last one, which does not seem very common.

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    1. I like Swan Song too. AND the Marsh stories with theatrical settings, though as usual (for me) with Marsh, what hangs in memory is the setting and characters, never the mystery itself.

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  5. I have to say this has become my least favorite possible setting for a mystery. That feeling had been growing on me, and then I read — foolishly, cover to cover — Death of a hollow Man by Caroline Graham, an appallingly bad book. The Radford is on my TBR, as is Hamlet, Revenge. I have read none of these.
    One to try is Morality Play by Barry Unsworth.

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  6. I really like theatrical settings too, has anyone mentioned Ngaio Marsh here? I was familiar with all these except the Maureen O’Brien – I have ordered it, it sounds right up my street, thanks for introducing me to a new author..

    I have to say, the aspect of the Barbara Paul that we are all skirting round – well I found it extremely off-putting. To the extent that when I read it (a long time ago, this is not my bringing a contemporary sensibility to it) I wrote to the publishers to express my concerns, something I have almost never done before or since. (I got nowhere 😉 of course)

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    1. I hope you enjoy the O’Brien when it arrives.
      I can understand being put off by that aspect of the Barbara Paul novel – I really wish the author had handled that aspect of their story differently.

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