Fifteen years ago, I wrote a marionette musical called The Christmas Spirit, which Elwoodettes Marionettes produced for the Vagabond Players Christmas show in 2003. The audiences were greatly amused by the whimsical plot where, though time travel, a woman named Mary Fairfax was brought forward several hundred years and found herself inhabiting an old English manor house which was haunted by her spirit. Thus she found herself present in both body and soul.
Because the plot went over so well, I thought it would be fun to take that concept and use it in a romantic comedy for actors, as opposed to marionettes, and what better place to premiere the play than the Bernie Legge Theatre, which reputedly has several ghosts of its own. The original story took place in England, but the play is set in Canada—in a heritage home in the Queens Park area of New Westminster.
The historical details have been adjusted accordingly. Mary’s ‘tragic’ story now stems from an event during the second Boer War, specifically the battle of Paardeberg Drift, a struggle where Canadian soldiers stood out for their bravery. The references to Mary being the star of the local operatic society are also pertinent as there was an opera house in New Westminster at the time. The design for the wainscoting and other set details were inspired by a tour of Irving House.
One reference in the play needs clarification: Geordie Fairfax, the tall, cantankerous Scottish landlord in the play, is referred to by his tenants as ‘Wee Geordie’, an eponym that will resonate with people who are old enough to have seen the delightful 1950s comedy of that name that starred Bill Travers. The film was loosely based on the life of Scots Olympian and farmer, Tom Nicolson, so the real Geordie, being a sturdy hammer thrower, was definitely not ‘Wee’.
Another point of interest for long-time Vagabond Players patrons: The opera collages that will be decorating the set are the artwork of the late James Keary, a member of the club who acted in and designed sets for Vagabond Players shows during the eighties. Jim is fondly remembered by all who knew him. He was a great supporter of my own artistic endeavours and I like to think that he, along with his collages, will be there in spirit on opening night.
The play is now cast, with a wonderfully talented group of actors, and an equally fine production team is in place. The lovely poster design by Michael McCray is ready to go, reflecting the New Westminster heritage-house location. The cast list and other details can be seen on the Body and Soul page in the play section on this website. Another new play! Another new adventure.Read More
When I recently attended the charming Burnaby Lyric Opera performance of La Bohème at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, the afternoon brought back memories of many lovely productions of the popular Puccini opera. Surprisingly, considering how familiar I was with the opera, I had only seen one other production on stage, and that was with the Vancouver Opera in 1970.
However, I had watched several filmed productions, including the wonderful Zeffirelli film with Mirella Freni and a Metropolitan Opera version in which Teresa Stratas was by far the most consumptive-looking Mimi I have ever seen. The glorious score is familiar to me from listening to the Pavarotti/Freni recording many times, not to mention from working on the arias with the wonderful Luigi Wood in my younger days as a singer.
My familiarity with La Bohème also stems from experience on the other side of the curtain. I had been in the VOA chorus for the company’s 1976 production, which was directed by Jan Rubes, and starred Clarice Carson as Mimi, William McKinney as Rodolfo and Mary Costa as Musetta. The chorus as a whole was only on stage in Act II, by far the liveliest act and great fun for the participants. However, the few tiny bits and pieces from Act III—customs officers, milkmaids and peasants scurrying back and forth between the customs house and the tavern—were allotted to a handful of the chorus singers too. My memories of that scene are vivid.
The setting is a cold February morning and the snow is slowly falling. I can still remember the feel of the chill in the air, which could have been a draught from the wings as I crossed the massive Queen Elizabeth Theatre stage, but more likely, it was the dim blue lighting and the sporadic snowflakes that created such a wintry atmosphere that I actually felt cold. It was eerie on that vast stage, looking back at the warmly lit windows of the tavern, and then gliding across to the snow-covered customs house. No wonder, years later, when wanting a suitably spine-chilling atmosphere for a mystery story, I recalled this experience and gave my heroine, Philippa, one of those bit parts. Naturally, in between singing her chorus music, she also solves the murder of a spectacularly unpopular prima donna. Appropriately, the story is titled “Mimi’s Farewell” and is part of an upcoming collection in the Beary mystery series.
The subject matter of the opera lends itself well to the mystery genre. Based on Henry Mürger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, the opera deals with the life of young artists, who can sometimes be volatile and insecure individuals. Public perception conventionally thinks of Mimi and Rodolfo’s relationship as a gloriously romantic love affair, but their story is actually a tale of two people every bit as riven by jealousy and quarrels as Musetta and Marcello, the secondary characters who spend most of their onstage time having spats. The difference is that, in the principals’ case, the negative scenes happen offstage. But what a perfect scenario for a mystery story where the couple’s relationship differs dramatically on stage and off and the detective must pick up the nuances that distinguish what is real and what is histrionic.
While it was fun to use the darker aspects of Mimi and Rodolfo’s relationship in my mystery writing, I found a use for their more conventionally romantic image when writing my play, Body and Soul, which is due to premiere with the Vagabond Players in October of this year. The setting is a heritage house, haunted by a ghost who, in life, was a leading soprano with the local operatic society. Her most glorious memories are of moments on stage with her tenor and lover, Umberto, as they sang the love duet from La Bohème. Needless to say, the occupants of the house have to be very careful about their choice of music if they feel like breaking into song. More news to come on this project. Thank you, Puccini! So much inspiration in one glorious opera!Read More
Back in 1986, when my husband was involved on a variety of boards and community associations, we were invited to a State dinner for Vice President, George H. W. Bush, which was hosted by the Honorable Pat Carney, then Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, and the Honourable Don Mazankowski, who was Minister of Transport at the time. That sounds very grand, but of course, we were not invited because we were in any way important—simply because we were considered ‘safe’. Basically, when any VIPs come to town and are the featured guests at a banquet, the place has to be filled with appropriate attendees who can be guaranteed to behave themselves, and the local community and political associations are raided for bodies.
Naturally, we were very chuffed to receive the invitation, for the event promised to be something to remember. The thick, cream-coloured card specified black tie, along with an addendum on the RSVP card that ballerina-length gowns were also acceptable for women. Since I was young and glamorous and loved dressing up, I was even more excited than my husband, who gloomily agreed that he would have to rent a tuxedo. As Hugh and I had been married in our home and I had worn an evening gown as my wedding dress, this dinner was the perfect opportunity to get my gown out again.
On the night of the event, we made our way downtown to the Hyatt Regency, and elegant in our finery, entered the foyer by the ballroom. I was stunned. In spite of the specific directions for the dress code, the majority of the men were in business suits and a significant number of women were underdressed as well. Many were not even in cocktail dresses, but simply wore suits or day dresses, and those of us who wore the specified gowns felt over-dressed, even though we were not. West Coast laid-back ethos with a vengeance!
Once we got over our amazement at the way people had ignored the dress code, we settled down to enjoy the hors d’oevres and the fascinating social scene. As Hugh quipped, seeing another keen-eyed, ear-plugged, sombre-suited gentleman glide by, “All the deaf men are security.” We soon found several people that we knew and remained in the lobby chatting until the final call, since within the ballroom, we were to be seated at assigned tables. Hugh, having fully appreciated the open bar, had to make a last-minute bathroom break, which meant leaving the foyer and passing security yet again on the way out of the men’s washroom. On his emergence, he looked across to the ladies where a female RCMP officer stood on duty and informed the policeman by the men’s that, if he had to be frisked, he wanted that one to do it. This caused great hilarity among the uniformed police, but not a smile was cracked by the plain-clothes team, all intent on making sure there were no threats to the guest of honour.
The rest of the evening was greatly enjoyable. Our table companions were interesting and the meal was definitely not the rubber chicken that one often gets at group events. When the President and his Lady appeared, we felt vindicated to see him in his tuxedo and Barbara Bush glittering from neck to toe in red sequins. The speeches were short and to the point, and when the guests of honour left, their route took them right by our table, where they paused to shake hands in the homey, friendly way that we tend to expect from our U.S. neighbours. The evening had been fun—a buzz, as my Australian cousins would say—an experience to remember. My wedding dress went back into the closet, where it has hung ever since, but the memories were taken out recently, because I realized that this was a great setting that I could use for one of my mystery stories. So when Bertram and Edwina Beary embark on “A Tale of Vice and Villainy” in an upcoming book, you’ll know where all the background detail came from. Not that we had any corpses dropping into the soup at the real event, but mystery writers are entitled to a little dramatic licence.
Looking back on that evening from so many years later, I feel a little sad as I realize that there are several differences today that are a sad reflection on our society. We are now so bound by political correctness that almost any remark can be construed to be offensive. When my husband made his quip outside the men’s washroom, the officers on duty laughed and sent him on his way, but I can’t help wondering what the reaction would have been today. Leaving aside the issues of ‘speech’ crime, the police have so many additional stresses to deal with that they seem to have lost their sense of humour. One can’t stop and chat with a policeman these days without being surveyed with suspicion. The old community feeling of easy interaction between honest citizens and the Force seems to have disappeared into the ether. Everyone was much less edgy in the pre-911 days.
The other major difference that struck me was our own attitude towards the host of security men. We, along with our other friends who were present, thought it was vastly entertaining to see a raft of plain-clothes policemen on duty to protect the Vice-President. Today, our reaction would have been quite different, for the sight of all the security personnel would have simply reminded us of our own vulnerability in a world where terrorism has become a common term in daily news. Instead of being relaxed, we would have been surveying the crowd with the same suspicious eye as the men and women on duty. Hey ho! Writing my ‘cozy’ mystery simply reminded me that our corner of the world is not as cozy a place as it was thirty years ago.Read More
One of the advantages of writing a short-story collection is that I can send my characters travelling to places that I have enjoyed visiting myself. One such location is a small town that we discovered while searching for a coffee shop during a cross-country driving trip several years ago. Fort Benton, which boasts of being ‘The birthplace of Montana’, is located on the Missouri River a little below the series of rapids that gave Great Falls its name. Because the river was not navigable beyond that point, the town became the place where the steamboats stopped and the stage coaches began.
Starting as a fur-trading post and later sold to the military, Fort Benton was where infamous trails such as the Whoop-up Trail to Alberta and the Fort Walsh Trail to Saskatchewan began. According to one of the plaques in the riverside park, the town in the early days was so wild that the U.S. Calvalry had to be called in if arrests had to be made.
With the advent of the North West Mounted Police in 1874, however, the whiskey trade was halted and an era of commercial interaction and cooperation between Canada and Fort Benton began. This historic connection is reflected in the three flagpoles that stand by the river, for the Canadian flag flies between the U.S. and the Montana State flags.
In 1883, the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad to Helena and the Canadian Pacific Railroad to Calgary caused a decline in business and ended Fort Benton’s importance as a prosperous commercial hub; however, there are still many fascinating sites to see that reflect the town’s history and its glory days. The Fort Benton Bridge, which was the first bridge to cross the Missouri River in Montana Territory, is the oldest steel truss bridge remaining in the state. Although a new traffic bridge was built in 1963, the old bridge is accessible as a walking bridge and provides lovely views of the river and surrounding hills. When I strolled out and watched the powerful Missouri churning past the metal plates that sheathed the concrete piers below the bridge, I realized it was the perfect location to begin a mystery story.
Another striking historical landmark in Fort Benton is the Grand Union Hotel, built in 1882. Although the hotel failed when the town’s fortunes declined, a multi-million-dollar project in the nineties restored the hotel to its former elegance, and now it provides a delightful lodging and dining experience for visitors to the town. Fine dining, old-world atmosphere, and a saloon providing beer on tap with highly original names! My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our stay there, and I resolved on the spot that one of my story characters would have to stay there at some point in the future.
The thing that most deeply touched my heart, though, when we first visited the town, was the statue of a dog that stands outside the Grand Union Hotel. Our dog, Max, had died shortly before we began our trip, so the Montana memorial was particularly moving for me. The statue is of a dog called Shep, whose sad story goes back to 1936 when his master died and the body was sent back east at the request of his family.
The faithful dog kept vigil at the railway station, continuing to watch for his master until the day he died. Shep was buried on the hillside overlooking the railway station and a small cairn marks the spot, alongside the original Shep memorial.
The statue by the hotel is a bronze sculpture surrounded by bricks that people can buy to commemorate their own pets. Naturally, we bought a brick to commemorate Max, and on a subsequent trip to Montana, we returned to see it in place. So if you ever visit Fort Benton, be sure to look for the brick that bears the name, Max, the Ho Hum Husky.
The Shep statue was not the only moving tribute to dogs in the town of Fort Benton. The military park adjacent to the fort has a section devoted to service dogs, and predictably, one of the plaques is dedicated to a Shep who served in Vietnam. Naturally, having visited the two Shep memorials and having read the touching dedication to service dogs in the military park, it was inevitable that the story I set in Fort Benton was developed around a series of incidents related to dogs. Hopefully, when The Devil Gets his Due and Other Mystery Stories is out, readers will enjoy their literary visit to this charming town as much as I enjoyed our stays there.Read More
My third play was another murder mystery. The idea came to me years ago when I was home with a dose of flu. I was too ill to concentrate on a book so I resorted to browsing through the want ads. Suddenly, I came across a notice for a children’s nanny. It read: “Mary Poppins, Where are You?” This was around the time of the Bernardo/Homolka murders and the thought popped into my head: What if the nanny had been one half of a homicidal couple and the ad had been placed by her partner in crime after she had been released from jail. Suddenly the cheerful wording of the notice took on a sinister tone.
A lot has been written and filmed about couples who have been convicted of multiple murders. The inevitable question that comes to mind is: Was the female half of the partnership a willing participant, or was she intimidated into aiding and abetting her partner? This became the subject of my play. The script deals with a serial killer named Peter Crampton who has escaped from jail in order to get even with the girlfriend who gave evidence against him. When the play begins, his girlfriend has been released from jail, but she has disappeared from view and no one knows where she is.
I set the play in a hunting lodge in the mountains. Although I was very attached to the title that had given me the idea for the plot, I realized that it would have to be changed as it would be misleading on a marquee. Therefore, the play-script became Shadow of Murder. However, I decided to re-use the plot for one of my mystery books, and in that format, I was able to keep the original title. As it turned out, “Mary Poppins, Where are you?” was already in print before the play was produced, so the short story provided a great resource for the actors’ character studies.
Although the play has a very dark theme, its tone is that of a typical community-theatre murder mystery. There are elements of romance and humour that offset the serious subject matter. The suspense comes from the fact that the characters are isolated at the lodge and a dangerous killer is at large in the vicinity. Without these elements, the play would have been irretrievably gloomy. However, most of these features were unnecessary when I rewrote the script as a short story. Therefore, I dispensed with the humour and romance, and kept the tone serious and sinister.
Transforming Shadow of Murder into story form was fun. I’d learned my lesson on my previous projects and I took a different approach right from the start. The biggest plus was being able to take the action outside the hunting lodge. Dialogues took place by the lake; characters mulled over problems while walking forested trails; squad cars raced along highways in high winds; motorists were stranded by landslides; policemen discovered bodies in the river. It was so much easier to narrate the events as they happened rather than write dialogue to let the audience know about the action that was occurring outside the stage set.
It was easy to create suspense with the short-story format, too. Instead of writing dialogue, I could describe the thoughts of the characters, far more evocative than the spoken word for communicating the fear that gripped them. The varied settings helped too. The dark forest, the raging storm, the turbulent river and the cold, sinister lake all generated a doom-laden atmosphere.
Other differences between the two formats? With a story, it is easier to insert red-herrings into the plot. The clues can hide amid pages of description or exposition. The stream-of-consciousness technique works well. Character’s thoughts can be written in a way that is entirely accurate, yet still leads the reader in the wrong direction. Red herrings in a theatrical production are trickier. It is hard to fool a group of people collectively focussed on a live performance, so a play demands visual trickery and extraneous action to divert the audience from the clues in the dialogue.
The final major difference between the two forms was in the endings. In spite of the darkness of the theme, I was able to end the stage play on an upbeat note that left the audience smiling. However, in translating that plot into a story, levity simply did not work. “Mary Poppins, Where are you?” had to be ‘played’ straight, and the story’s conclusion resounded with bitterness and a desire for retribution. Same plot, totally different mood. The power of style and structure over content never ceases to delight me.
The Burnaby Village Museum is a wonderful place to visit during Heritage Christmas. For us, the village has special significance, since we have performed there annually since 1994. Our first gig was a single-day booking when we were eager new puppeteers. We were also the owners of a boisterous new pet, whose image had been recreated as Max, the Ho Hum Husky, and that first booking was the premiere performance of Guard Dog in Concert. Max, the dog, came along with Max, the puppet, and hovered backstage throughout the performance, eagerly awaiting the moment when he would go out to bow with his puppet and receive a cookie as a reward.
As the years rolled on, we continued to perform at the museum. Whatever the weather—frost, rain, wind or blizzards—we made it to Brookfield Hall in time to deliver our shows. The bookings increased to two, and then three days. We put on two half-hour shows a day, and later, a third one was added to accommodate the people who wanted to get in. Max became so seasoned at performing that on one occasion, he anticipated his bow and slipped out to socialize with the audience during the final few minutes of the show. We couldn’t figure out why the audience was laughing more than usual until we realized that the backstage blanket was empty.
As our puppet company grew, we progressed from our rickety old trailer to a grand Wells Cargo version, which the village janitors probably hated as it threatened to tear down all the garlands as we made our way round to the loading door. We developed a second Christmas show, The Fairy Tale that went Wrong, and alternated the shows from year to year. In the early years, our daughters performed with us, and enjoyed touring the museum between shows. More recently, our grandchildren have come to the shows, and we have enjoyed seeing the museum through young eyes all over again. Our original trailer has come full circle too, since the grand Wells Cargo one was stolen in 2009; now the old one is back on the road, doing Trojan service and not offering any danger to the village decorations.
Since the museum started offering free admission for Heritage Christmas, the crowds have grown so large that the longer shows are no longer practical. Now we do eight shorter shows a day, and our booking this year is for seven days. Quite the marathon, so we are very grateful for our cozy backstage area, and make sure we’re equipped with what we need to catch a few minutes rest in between shows. We also venture out and take a turn around the grounds, for the lights seem to grow more brilliant and abundant every year. So if you’re looking for a lovely way to celebrate the Festive Season, come down to the Burnaby Village Museum – and don’t forget to drop in and see the puppets on your way through. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Why is it that crime-writers love to combine the Season of Peace and Goodwill with a juicy murder mystery? Incongruous themes? Not really, when you consider how psychologists expound on the subjects of anxiety, tension and depression at Christmas. The Web abounds with sites that offer tips on how to avoid stress during the festive season. It’s the time of year when families come together, whether the individual members like each other or not. There is an expectation that the feuds be buried, or at least suspended, no matter how much resentment might be simmering under the surface. One is conscious of obligations to others, whether the will is there to follow through. There are gifts to be purchased, which stretch budgets that may already be out of control. People who are alone feel lonelier; those who are inundated with relatives feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Such a lot of smoldering emotions for a crime writer to plunder.
As if the turbulence of family relations was not sufficient to tempt a mystery writer, Christmas also provides a wealth of opportunity for atmospheric settings. What could be more ‘cozy’ than firelight flickering in the hearth and snow falling outside the window? What can be more chilling than a black winter night with only the soft beam from a streetlamp lighting footsteps in the snow? What possibilities for sinister disguise lie in the cross-dressing of a Christmas pantomime? What great opportunities for the evil-minded are presented at those parties and dinners where food abounds and glasses and plates are often left unattended. No wonder mystery writers can’t resist creating a Christmas dilemma for their detectives to solve!
Christmas mysteries have been around for a long time. Charles Dickens certainly knew how to wring drama out of the Christmas season, and what a trend he began. Sherlock Holmes solved the puzzle of a goose that provided a lot more than Christmas dinner; G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown recovered “The Flying Stars”, diamonds that disappeared at a Christmas party; Hercule Poirot’s Christmas included a body in a locked room; Ngaio Marsh produced a corpse that was Tied up in Tinsel; and Rumpole has a whole book of Christmas stories. There are many anthologies too, such as Murder Under the Mistletoe, which features a host of stories by writers such as Margery Allingham, Peter Lovesey and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Current authors continue the trend. The detectives in Deborah Crombie’s compelling novel, And Justice There is None, mingle Christmas shopping with the the investigation of a particularly brutal pair of murders; Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks suffers through a Blue Christmas; and Anne Perry has written an entire series of Christmas novellas, as has M.C. Beaton. Mary Higgins Clark, with her daughter, Carol, has also produced a set of seasonal mysteries, and following the same trend, Charles Todd put out a similar publication this year. The list goes on and on.
I think it’s a great tradition, and one that I’ve been delighted to follow. I enjoyed concluding my last three books with a Christmas story, each one utilizing a setting that has brought me personal pleasure during the festive season. My childhood, and my children’s childhood, always included an annual visit to the Christmas pantomime, so it was great fun to write “The Mystery of the Black Widow Twanky”. My nod to our years of performing as the Elwoodettes Marionettes is reflected in “Christmas Present, Christmas Past”. My latest book concludes with “The Mystery of the Christmas Train”, and what a joy it was to write a light-hearted story that could re-create the atmosphere of Stanley Park’s Bright Nights festivities.
So what am I going to do this Christmas? It’s not hard to guess. Our holiday season will include a visit to the Metro Theatre pantomime, a week’s run at the Burnaby Village Museum with the Elwoodettes Marionettes, and a ride on the Stanley Park Christmas Train. And last, but definitely not least, leisurely time sitting by the Christmas tree and reading the deliciously cozy mystery stories that I put on my Christmas wish list—firelight flickering, snow drifting down outside the window, and the mysteries only within the pages of my book. A Merry Christmas indeed.
Richard Beary had one inviolable rule. Never allow a girl to meet one’s family on a first date. Nothing spelled death to a potential romance like a premature introduction to a surfeit of boisterous and opinionated Bearys, led by a matriarch whose cozy chats as she assessed the newcomer resembled an interview with the Grand Inquisitor. Whenever Richard felt it was appropriate to introduce a girlfriend into the family circle, he took care to break her in gently. No more than one or two Bearys at a time. Therefore, there was one outing that Richard always attended alone. Every December, the Beary clan convened en masse for a festive visit to Stanley Park and a ride on the Christmas train, revelled in by senior and junior Bearys alike. The event was always followed by a late supper at his parents’ home. Richard enjoyed this annual jaunt, for it provided him with an opportunity to socialize with his nephews and nieces, who seemed to have grown like weeds every time he saw them. But the train expedition was a solo outing. Dates were out of the question.
However, one year, temptation appeared in the form of a new neighbour who had moved into his apartment block. Larissa Swinton would have made the stoutest man weaken. Her soft blonde hair, delectably alluring lips and pouter-pigeon bosom brought Scarlett Johansson to mind, and her baby-blue eyes held an ocean of promises. However, her luscious curves were well protected, for the young divorcée, in addition to her mouth-watering attributes, also possessed a ten-year-old son called Billy whose vice-like grip on his mother was as immovable and effective as a medieval chastity belt. It was obvious that the route to the winsome Larissa’s heart was through her son, for she made it quite plain that she would be delighted to go on a date as long as it was a child-friendly activity and Billy could come too.
Sorely tempted, Richard reminded himself of his rule. And broke it.