Somewhere around the time I turned ten years old, my father decided to make a dream of his come true and he joined a local theater company. This was in a small town in a small state and so I always assumed it was for sociability and for a love of theater that prompted this in him. Surely he had no dreams of being recognized or becoming a star so late in life (thirty-five), and surely he recognized shortly after being in a few productions that he was never going to be a headliner. When he moved across the country, it wasn’t long before he insinuated himself into another company to fill the same type of roles. His dramatic specialty, from the number of shows I witnessed, consists of meaningful raises of his eyebrows and extra-careful annunciation of his lines. Bit players have such few opportunities to shine.
One of the bonuses of being related to someone in the theater, if you can call it a bonus, is the plentiful opportunities to go to theater parties. For the uninitiated, imagine a group of about twenty people, all simultaneously and in increasing levels of volume and drunkenness competitively auditioning for the role of “Life of the Party.” The half-life of entertainment for this kind of thing is incredibly short and by evening’s end, you will wonder why there aren’t more celebrity murders. After one theater party, you really will have had your fill for the decade. I’ve had my share in my college life and as a post-graduate.
By sheer coincidence, the two books I listened to at the end of the week, both rather short, happened to involve murder and the stage. (Get caught at too many theater parties and you will find yourself linking these concepts indelibly.) Both could be considered cozy mysteries featuring somewhat bloodless crimes and amateur detectives, though the older, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play Spider’s Web, comes from the mystery master, who oftentimes features crimes that are rather grisly. The second, Simon Brett’s Star Trap, has a seedy atmosphere and the kind of behavior that would shock my grandmother and perhaps many a cozy mystery reader (heavy drinking by the protagonist, casually loveless and almost hostile sex, existential crises brought on by age and failure, and poverty unflinchingly portrayed).
And that last element, the rather grimy lowlife atmosphere, has a mundane reality that grimmer, more noir mysteries lack. While hardboiled detectives never lack for their bottle in the desk drawer, their poverty, if part of the story, is simply a minor element. Charles Paris, the low to middling actor/detective in Star Trap, has the kind of shortage of funds that cause him to reflect on simple things, like the difference between drinking when you’re poor and when you’re working steady. His dreary flat has no romantic glamour. His romances likewise are lacking in dramatic flair.
The crimes of the book are also of a more simple nature. While more gritty detective stories feature daggers in the back and fatal struggles with a dropped pistol, Star Trap, which tells how Charles Paris tries to discover who, by knocking cast and crew about, is sabotaging the show he is in, features minor violence. Muggings that might not be muggings, a bit of paraffin wax slipped into someone’s gin to give them a touch of food poisoning, someone who may or may not have tripped down a flight of stairs.
I’ve always felt resistance to series of novels in which normal, regular, everyday people spend their days and nights stumbling over bodies. It’s the kind of thing that would take a psychic toll, yet Jessica in Murder, She Wrote never seems to lose her joie de vivre and sprightliness. While I understand the rubbernecking titillation fans of this series are expressing (just the hint of a thrill, a tidy, bloodless body), their very hygienity is perhaps more appalling. These folks want murder, but just for entertainment purposes, the bad guy clutching his stomach and toppling from rooftop, pure and safe for prime time.
Star Trap doesn’t pander to this vile sentimentality, and in fact, the actual crime element of the story is an incredibly small portion. While the crimes are clean enough for television, there is a seedy furtiveness that dramatic mysteries always overleap. What most of the book focuses on is the backstage dramas between the prima donna lead and every single other member of the show, the almost superstitious remedies for sore throats and coughs, and the little vanities actors are prone to. Brett elegantly skewers this bit of self-dramatization with the delightful phrase “...generally putting on expressions of private suffering which they had learnt when rehearsing Chekhov.”
The other element that is much to be admired in Brett’s novel is just how underplayed the climaxes and moments of drama are, how authentic they feel. When in anger Charles decides to buck his orders to protect the star of the show over everyone else, rather than the timpani moment of some books, this scene is done with silent teeth gritting vengeance, the way you would do in isolation. When a cast member is hit by a car, his injuries are minor, a Mini-clipping him and breaking his kneecap. The revelations that come to Charles are shown not as sudden and elusive epiphanies, but the result of working hard (when the mood strikes him), and come after he makes many attempts to avoid his unpleasant conclusions. That he is so frequently wrong makes him even more sympathetic to readers.
What ends up being the most striking about this is that the book demonstrates a keen psychological insight into the characters. Where most mysteries provide us with long-suffering existentialist automatons for heroes, one dimensional dramatic props, Charles Paris strides the literary stage with all his good and embarrassing bits fully on display, fully synthesized and realized. His flaws are not romantic, nor are they romanticized as heroic weaknesses. That’s rather appealing to find a writer willing to portray his hero so unflatteringly.