Originally Published 2012
Ivy Meadows #1
Followed by The Sound of Murder
Like every actor, Ivy Meadows knows that Macbeth is cursed. But she’s finally scored her big break, cast as an acrobatic witch in a circus-themed production of Macbeth in Phoenix, Arizona. And though it may not be Broadway, nothing can dampen her enthusiasm—not her flying cauldron, too-tight leotard, or carrot-wielding dictator of a director.
But when one of the cast dies on opening night, Ivy is sure the seeming accident is “murder most foul” and that she’s the perfect person to solve the crime (after all, she does work part-time in her uncle’s detective agency). Undeterred by a poisoned Big Gulp, the threat of being blackballed, and the suddenly too-real curse, Ivy pursues the truth at the risk of her hard-won career — and her life.
The theater is one of my favorite settings for a murder mystery. I think the reason is that when we enter a theater to watch a play we make a conscious decision to ignore any artificiality of the space to absorb the performances and mystery readers are used to making their own, similar choice. After all, mystery fans are used to idea of embracing and enjoying some of the more artificial trappings of the murder mystery. To me the combination of theater and mystery, when done well, can be quite delicious.
MacDeath is a lighthearted adventure that introduces us to Ivy Meadows (real name Olive Ziegwart), an aspiring actress looking for her big break. She thinks she may have found that when she auditions for a role in a stage production of Macbeth at the Phoenix Shakespeare Theater, even when she learns that it will be circus-themed.
Among the cast is Simon Black, a notorious actor with a long list of credits to his name but a history of heavy drinking and difficult behavior on set. He assures Ivy that he has changed his ways and asks her if she would be a surrogate sponsor for him while he is working to make sure he does not suffer a relapse.
While some members of the cast doubt Simon’s commitment, Ivy feels sure that he is sincere so she is surprised when she discovers him dead on his dressing room floor shortly after their opening night performance concludes with an empty bottle of Rémy Martin nearby. The official verdict is alcohol poisoning but Ivy grows suspicious and starts to wonder if there could be a murderer in their company…
A large part of the appeal of this story lies in its entertaining and sympathetic protagonist. Ivy is an inherently likeable character, often making amusing and somewhat self-aware observations. I appreciate that Brown gives Ivy a more complex set of motivations for getting involved than simply “I found the body” or “I must clear my name”. One of the most powerful is grounded in some aspects of the character’s background that are only alluded to at first but become clearer as we get deeper into the novel. This struck me as a pretty organic and convincing way to introduce and explore those ideas so they feel like they lie at the heart of her character.
Ivy gets some support from some more formal and experienced investigators as the novel progresses including her Uncle Bob, a private investigator who gives her a part time job in his office. He does serve a practical (if somewhat oblivious) role in the investigation, giving her advice that helps her develop some skills she uses in her own case, but he is also there to be someone who cares about her while he is also one of the few non-thesps in the cast of characters.
Turning to those characters, Brown creates an interesting mix of theatrical types to serve as suspects. To give a few examples, we have an exacting director who is determined to have an innovative take on the text, a rather controlling stage manager, a local TV celebrity who fancies himself an actor, several experienced thesps who have history working with and being frustrated by him before and a handsome young actor whose strong performance is overshadowed by Simon’s starpower. It makes for a varied and distinctive group and I think Brown does a good job of giving most of the relatively big cast unique motivations.
I found the early chapters of the book in which we get to know them and discover more details about the production to be pretty entertaining and I appreciated the humorous commentary about conceptualizations of Shakespeare. The chapters are relatively short, typically three to five pages long, which keeps things moving at a quick pace and before long we have a body on our hands and enter into the investigative phase of the story.
That investigation is similarly quite entertaining and it takes some interesting twists and turns. That is interspersed with some details about the play’s continued run and also a (sort of) romantic subplot for Ivy though it is more of a connection of the bodies than the souls, for those for whom that sort of thing matters. Brown throws in some further suspicious incidents which are spread out well to maintain interest and make the situation more perilous for Ivy.
Which brings us to the final third of the book. It is unfortunate that my issues with the story lie in the part it is hardest to write about without spoiling what happens – something I do my best to avoid in my reviews. For that reason I will have to write in generalities and hopefully it will convey a sense of my issues.
There are two aspects of this part of the book I did not care for. The first of these is the choice of the murderer and the second is an action that villain takes towards the end which seems to be designed to provoke a sense of jeopardy and excitement for the reader rather than because it makes sense for them to do.
These two issues combine to create a sense that the choice of murderer has been almost arbitrary rather than carefully clued. When I reflected on it after finishing the book I do think this isn’t accurate – there certainly are hints and clues given – but the manner in which they are revealed and they discuss their reasoning didn’t convince me at all.
This is a shame because I liked so much of what had come before and I enjoyed getting to know and spend time with Ivy. Even though those aspects of the conclusion disappointed me, I will say though that I some enjoyed other aspects of these final chapters and was left curious enough to want to try the next installment.
The Verdict: An enjoyable theatrical mystery with a fun protagonist but with some weaknesses in its final act.