by Sandra Murphy
This week we have a review & giveaway of a fun theatre related mystery, Much Ado About Murder by Elizabeth Duncan. We also have a fun guest post by Elizabeth about the theatre side of her book. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Much Ado About Murder, and a link to purchase it from Amazon, and an indie bookstore where a portion of the sale goes to help support KRL.
Much Ado About Murder: A Shakespeare in the Catskills Mystery by Elizabeth Duncan
Review by Sandra Murphy
Charlotte Fairfax was born in England but now lives in the States. She’s a costume designer for The Catskills Shakespeare Theater Company. She, her Corgi Rupert, and her significant other Ray, a local police officer, share one of three bungalows on the grounds of a hotel where the plays are performed. This year, the theater company is lucky enough to have English actor Audrey Ashley as their star. Audrey’s sister, Maxine, acts as her dresser between scenes as well as her manager.
The season is set, but the current director is called away for a family emergency—and doesn’t return. That leaves the company in a mess, but another local director is available. Too bad Audrey uses a clause in her contract to insist on Edmund, an English director she worked with before.
The company is astonished when Edmund announces his plans for Much Ado About Nothing. His vision is to set Shakespeare’s play in Civil War times. This calls for complete changes in sets and costumes as well as the way the actors portray their characters. Time is short; the budget won’t allow for the sudden change, but there’s no way out of the contract. It’s do it or have a dark theater. In the end, the board agrees to Edmund’s plan. He’s ecstatic about the anticipated publicity although the actors have doubts, Audrey most of all.
When Charlotte and Audrey drop in to see Edmund the next morning to discuss costuming, they find his body instead. He’s been shot, and it looks like suicide, but why would he kill himself just when everything is going his way?
There are a number of suspects: an actress who thought the casting couch was the way to a better role, Audrey for her unhappiness with the changes, the local director for not getting the job, a mysterious nighttime prowler, an anonymous admirer of Audrey’s and more.
This is the third book in the series. Charlotte and Ray are a good couple who truly enjoy each other’s company. Paula, a wealthy woman who lives nearby is involved in the theater group and has become a good friend. She has a Corgi too. As all Corgis do, Rupert supervises activity on the hotel grounds and monitors Charlotte’s office and home.
There’s a lot of information about how a theater works, the backstage activity, and how the director brings out the best performances from the actors, all without getting in the way of the plot. Suspects take turns being the most likely, only to have the true killer be a satisfying surprise. Duncan also writes the Penny Brannigan mysteries, eight so far. They’re set in Wales and are an equally good read.
The Unlikely Inspiration Behind Charlotte Fairfax and the Catskills Shakespeare Theater Company
By Elizabeth J. Duncan
The germ of the idea for Charlotte Fairfax, costume designer/amateur sleuth in the Shakespeare in the Catskills series, came when I was dog walking in Toronto with my friend Marlene. Occasionally we spotted a friendly-looking, middle-aged woman walking a little terrier, and Marlene pointed her out to me.
“That’s Sandra,” Marlene said. “She used to work in the costume department at Stratford.” That’s Stratford, Ontario, Canada, not Stratford Upon Avon, England. The Stratford Festival in Ontario is North America’s largest classical repertory theatre company and presents a dozen or more productions each season: classics, contemporary dramas, and musicals, with special emphasis on the plays of William Shakespeare.
A woman who works in classical theatre, in costume design, I thought. Now that’s an intriguing idea for an unusual main character. Fabrics? Interesting. Shakespeare? Bottomless. And she’d be at the heart of the theatre company, creatively involved, able to go anywhere, talk to anyone, and yet she’s in the background. Not quite invisible, and certainly not front and centre, as an actress would be. Just there.
I pictured this character in her workroom, fitting a Toby Belch costume on a pompous, arrogant actor, while he completely ignored her. Or offering a bit of comfort to an unhappy actress, and slipping in a few pointed questions alongside the tea and sympathy.
As an author, you’re looking for a protagonist who is a deep well from which to draw, and who brings you a compelling assortment of possibilities. If the character you have in mind can’t do this, he or she probably isn’t going to work.
I was excited about this costume designer character, and wanted to work with her, but had no projects where I could use her, and didn’t even have a name for her. But I made a few notes, and then tucked her away, knowing that her time would likely come. The great thing with writers is that few ideas are ever wasted.
And then, a couple of years later, Crooked Lane Books was looking for a new series, and I was invited to pitch a few ideas. I offered several concepts, including a series set at the Stratford Festival featuring an English costume designer.
Crooked Lane liked the costume designer, liked the Shakespeare, but suggested that the series be set across the border in the Catskills, rather than Ontario, Canada. When I did a little research, and realized how revitalized and up and coming the Catskills are, the setting turned out to be perfect.
So I fleshed out my costume designer. She began her career with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon Avon. She’s in her early forties. She’s smart and attractive. And finally, I gave her a name: Charlotte Fairfax. It’s elegant, has a literary hint about it, and just seemed to suit her.
So if you’ve ever wondered where authors get their ideas, sometimes it all starts with a friend pointing out a woman across the street walking a small dog called George.
Unfortunately, Sandra moved out of our neighbourhood before any of the Shakespeare in the Catskills books were published, and I never got the chance to thank her for being the inspiration for the amateur sleuth in my new series.
But as a little tribute, Charlotte Fairfax has a small dog, and if you visit Jacobs Grand Hotel in upstate New York, home of the Catskills Shakespeare Theater Company, you might just catch a glimpse of the two of them. If you do, be sure to give them a little wave.
To enter to win a copy of Much Ado About Murder, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “ado,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen January 20, 2018. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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