St. Luke’s Players in Victoria is the most recent company to stage my play, Casting for Murder, and the production team graciously invited me to come over to see the final performance and be the guest of honour at a post-show reception. My husband, Hugh, and I had been busy with Metro Theatre’s production of The Winslow Boy, so our trip to Vancouver Island had to be a day excursion, but we were very happy to be able to accept the invitation and go over for the final Sunday matinee.
It was well worth the trip, and we were so happy that we’d been able to attend. The production, under the expert direction of Tony Cain, was excellent. The staging was imaginative and effective, and the set was stylishly designed and exuded West Coast ambience. The costumes of Jane Krieger and Madeleine Mills struck just the right note, and the attractive visuals were augmented by an atmospheric soundscape with the noise of wind and sea intermingled with musical clips that heightened the tension at the appropriate moments.
To my delight, the casting was spot on. It was fascinating to see the actors appear, as each one perfectly matched the characters that I had created in my script. Elizabeth Brimacombe gave a bravura performance as Angela, the actress at the centre of the drama, and Kevin Rich was outstanding as Bertram Beary, the feisty councillor who drives the plot to its startling conclusion. Kathy Macovichuk demonstrated great virtuosity as Susan, the understudy with a secret agenda whose performance is critical if the final revelations are to carry the necessary punch, and Luke Krayenhoff delivered an impressive performance as John Rutherford, the mystery writer who is married to Angela. Perry Burton hit just the right combination of charm and menace as Steven Sanders, Drew Waveryn was hilarious as the alcoholic director of Angela’s play, and Deirdre Tipping was deliciously bitchy as the actress who may play second lead onstage, but has no intention of playing second fiddle offstage.
The St. Luke’s production was a perfect example of community theatre at its best. I was as impressed by the volunteer network and the efficient production crew as I was by the show itself. It’s obvious that a great number of people take a lot of pride in the theatrical productions and willingly give their time to provide support. A big thank you to everyone involved for a most enjoyable afternoon – a great production and a delightful reception. We felt most honoured to be there.
As we drove back to the ferry and prepared to head for home, Hugh and I found ourselves reminiscing about the way the play came about, and how it was Casting for Murder that provided the stimulus for my Beary mystery book series. It all began many years ago, during a period when ill health prevented me from singing. I turned to writing and produced two short stories with an opera-singing female sleuth whose brother was a detective inspector with the RCMP. The stories sat idle once I was singing again, but a few years later, after a lot of activity in local politics which introduced me to a fascinating assortment of city councillors, I wrote the short story, “To Catch an Actress”. This introduced the character of Bertram Beary, an outspoken, highly independent, politically incorrect civic politician who napped through the odd meeting but was always wily enough to outmanoeuvre the bureaucrats—not to mention catch the occasional murderer. My husband read the story and suggested that I turn it into a play. At the time, we were vacationing on the Sunshine Coast of B.C., so when I wrote the play, I changed the setting from Vancouver to the Coast, added more characters, and wrote the story as a three-act mystery play.
Under the title, Casting for Murder, the play premiered with the Vagabond Players in New Westminster in 2000, and has since gone on to other productions in locations all the way from Vancouver Island to Nova Scotia and back again. However, it was the original audience’s reaction to the character of Bertram Beary that inspired my mystery books, for when I saw how popular he was, I decided to give him a family and write some additional stories featuring these characters. Thus Beary gained a high-school-teacher wife and four grown children. Two of these were the opera-singing sleuth and her detective inspector brother from the earlier stories. The other two were Sylvia, the lawyer, and Juliette, the stay-at-home mother who also ran a puppet company.
I had several reasons for this choice of characters and the collective short-story format. I didn’t want to always write about Bertram Beary so I decided on a family group with varied backgrounds and skills. I chose characters that reflected my own experiences—other than Richard, but then, it’s hard to have a mystery novel without a policeman. The variety in the characters also enabled me to vary the story subjects. I could use my knowledge of theatre, politics and education as backgrounds for my plots, along with my husband’s experience with outdoor recreation.
People often try to pin my Beary family characters onto people within my own circle, but although the odd characteristic might sneak in, my story characters are imaginary. However, some elements and the odd incident are taken directly from life. I take a sentimental delight in giving Beary a motorhome name Arvy and a boat named The Optimist, both of which we own or have owned. Beary’s cat, Minx, the Manx, has resided with us for many years, and his dog, MacPuff, is unashamedly based on our beloved Max, who deserves a story all of his own—hence the Dog Blog on this site.
The first set of stories was very much an experiment. Because it was well received, I went on to a second book, and once again, it was audience/reader reaction that guided my direction from there. Bertram Beary as he appeared in Casting for Murder was the stimulus for publishing the story collection in the first place, but by the time the second book was out, the feedback from readers indicated another area of interest. They loved Beary and found him very entertaining, but the person whose ongoing story had caught their attention was Philippa, the singer. Young and single, she provided the element of romance, and suddenly I had readers asking me when she was going to settle down and who was to become her future mate. It was as if she had come to life and I had a host of relatives offering their opinions about her prospects. With that feedback, I felt compelled to continue the series, and Philippa’s story became the main thread that held the stories together. Now with the fourth Beary collection in print, I am moving on to a fifth book which, I hope, will provide the solution that these readers have been asking for.
Whether or not I will continue the series beyond that point is still a question mark. Another five books to marry Richard off? Maybe, maybe not? We shall see. But in the meantime, thank you to all the wonderful people at St. Luke’s Players for their great reminder of the way my series began. Their production of Casting for Murder showed Bertram Beary at his feisty, outspoken best. What a character! No wonder I couldn’t resist putting him in all those stories.Read More
Johnny Duncan, known in the Vancouver theatre world as Mr. Metro, has always wanted to direct Sir Terence Rattigan’s wonderful classic drama, The Winslow Boy. Having waited for years for the opportunity, it has now come twice in a row. Last year, Vagabond Players in New Westminster, produced the play at the end of their season. Now Metro Theatre is remounting the production for its own patrons. What a bonanza for Vancouver audiences, as well as for Johnny!
Considered the greatest of Terence Rattigan’s plays, The Winslow Boy is set in the years leading up to World War I. Inspired by a precedent-setting historical event, the play depicts a riveting battle against the establishment. When Ronnie Winslow is accused of stealing a postal order and expelled from the Royal Naval Academy, every member of his family is affected by the struggle to clear his name. His father, Arthur, is determined to vindicate his son at any cost, but the cost is high. His own health deteriorates, financial hardship eliminates his older son’s prospects for higher education, and the ensuing scandal jeopardizes his daughter’s engagement.
In spite of overwhelming odds, Arthur pursues justice, first through the Military Court of Appeals, and later, through a daring challenge to Parliament. Handling the case is Sir Robert Morton, a brilliant barrister who believes as firmly as Catherine and her father that ‘Right’ must be done. Recent revivals of Terence Rattigan’s work are starting to appear in film remakes, such as The Deep Blue Sea, and on many prestigious stages around the world. The current Old Vic production of The Winslow Boy has opened to a rave review, and the value of this playwright’s exceptional work is being realized again for the excellent theatre it is: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/9940315/The-Winslow-Boy-Old-Vic-Theatre-review.html
I was privileged to be the set designer for the Vagabond Players production, and it was lovely to see my design come to life again when I attended the gala opening at Metro Theatre. As before, the show is visually attractive and utterly engaging. Real-life father and son, Mike and Adrian Jones play Arthur and Ronnie Winslow, and Isabel Mendenhall delivers a charming performance as the beleaguered mother who questions whether the sacrifices made in pursuit of justice are truly worthwhile. Gina Raye Young is outstanding as Catherine Winslow, the daughter whose engagement is threatened by the publicity that surrounds the trial, and her interaction with Gavin LeClaire as the lawyer who handles the case provide some of the most enthralling moments in the show. Kris Michaleski makes a likeable Dicky, the brother whose future is affected by the family’s financial struggles, and Alison Main-Tourneur is delightful as Violet, the loveable parlourmaid who has been with the family for many years. New to this cast is Roger Kettyls, who delivers a superb performance as the family friend who has long been in love with Catherine. Also stepping in valiantly for the Metro production are Chris O’Connor as Catherine’s fiance and Iris Gittens as the reporter sent to cover the case. Rob Stover, the fine performer who played Desmond, in the Vagabond production, will be playing Sir Robert Morton during the second half of the run, and I look forward to seeing him in his new role.
Many times filmed for BBC television and twice made into a movie, The Winslow Boy has attracted such illustrious performers as Nigel Hawthorne, Emma Thompson, Gordon Jackson, Jeremy Northam, Ian Richardson, Margaret Leighton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. The gripping story, set in the visually glorious Downton Abbey period, will have you cheering for the Winslow family right to the final curtain. Vancouver theatre-lovers should welcome the opportunity to see this great play. Directed by Johnny Duncan, and with the beautiful original costumes of Cynthia Chow augmented with additional period pieces by Metro’s Sean Ullman, The Winslow Boy promises to be a highlight of Metro’s season. A thrilling classic not to be missed! The Winslow Boy runs March 23 – April 20, 2013, Thursday to Saturday – 8:00 pm, Sunday matinees, April 7th and April 14th - 2:00 pm, at the Metro Theatre Centre, 1370 SW Marine Drive, Vancouver, B.C. Box Office: 604-266-7191 www.metrotheatre.com
Next, on April 10th: St. Luke’s Players’ first-class production of Casting for Murder brings back memories of how the Beary mystery series began.
I’ve always enjoyed mysteries with historical settings, so I am always quick to buy when a new offering appears from writers such as Anne Perry, Charles Todd, Laurie King or Barbara Cleverly. However, I’m even more intrigued by stories where a modern-day protagonist attempts to solve a mystery from the past. This enthusiasm was triggered many years ago when I read Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time, which deals with the mystery of the princes in the tower and asks the question: Was Richard III really guilty of murdering the children? The question has been in the news again with the discovery of Richard’s skeleton, and anyone who wants to study a case made against the Tudors would certainly be interested in the argument laid out in Tey’s novel.
Many mystery writers use plots that are driven by puzzles from the past. I recently discovered the books of Kate Ellis, who makes the past/present theme an integral part of her series, for she has a detective solving modern mysteries while his archeologist friend unearths historic parallels. But long before I came across the Kate Ellis series, I was planning stories for my third book, The Beacon, and it was the example set by Josephine Tey that inspired me to write a mystery story in a similar vein. However, because my books have a heroine who is a singer, I wanted to find a historical mystery with an operatic connection, and I found that connection in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Lucia di Lammermoor is a superb role for a soprano. The music is beautiful, the singing is virtuoso, and the dramatic opportunities surpass most other roles in the coloratura repertoire. Lucia, duped into believing that her lover has abandoned her, is forced into a loveless marriage. When her lover shows up at the wedding and berates her for her infidelity, Lucia is driven mad. On her wedding night, she stabs her husband to death, and, in her bloodstained nightgown, descends back to the wedding feast where she sings twenty minutes of spectacular coloratura before collapsing and dying in grand operatic fashion.
Lucia is the role that turned the great Australian soprano, Joan Sutherland, into an international star, and the first time I ever saw Lucia, it was with Sutherland in the role. It was a breathtaking and memorable performance, and one I never thought I would see matched again. Subsequently, I enjoyed other Lucias, and sang in the chorus of one Vancouver Opera production, but nothing matched my memories of that first performance. However, two years ago when in New York, I saw Diana Damrau in the enchanting Metropolitan Opera production, with its Victorian setting and magical enactment of the ghostly lovers in the last act, and once again, I was thrilled to the core by Donizetti’s glorious work.
Donizetti’s opera was based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. In Scott’s novel, Lucy does not make a blood-soaked entrance into the wedding feast. Screams are heard inside the bedchamber, and when the room is entered, her bridegroom is discovered bleeding on the threshold while Lucy, in her bloody nightgown, is gibbering madly, crouched in the corner of the “great old-fashioned chimney” of the room. Lucy falls into a delirium and dies the following evening. The bridegroom ultimately recovers.
The novel, like most of Scott’s writing, was based upon an actual historical event. The real Lucy’s name was Janet Dalrymple and she is still supposed to haunt Baldoon Castle in Scotland. If one reads the prologue to Scott’s novel, or the varying versions of the tale that abound on the Internet, the facts that emerge are different yet again—and not only different, but inconclusive. Therefore, once I read Scott’s prologue and researched the story of Janet Dalrymple, I discovered my mystery and was able to embark on my story.
My heroine, Philippa, like Tey’s hero in The Daughter of Time, was bored and miserable. In Philippa’s case, depression was the result of a broken romance and a dose of the flu that had forced her to drop out of the opera chorus for an upcoming production of Lucia. Philippa’s father, Bertram Beary, brings her Scott’s book to cheer her up. Once he points out that, contrary to the events in the novel, Janet Dalrymple died and her husband survived, Philippa’s interest is caught, especially when she learns that the husband refused to divulge the details of what happened and took the secret with him to his own grave thirteen years later.
Since I did not want to write a story that sounded like a research essay, I needed a modern case for Philippa’s detective brother to solve—and it had to be one that resonated back to the older mystery. The tragedy of Janet Dalrymple resulted from an arranged marriage, which ultimately became a forced marriage. Therefore, it was easy to find a modern parallel, for this is another subject that frequently makes the headlines. A wealth of information was available, and I received assistance from a variety of sources, even being presented with a book on Sikh customs by our friendly taxi driver in New York. Many South Asian women are now speaking up about their rights, and publishing books and articles about their experiences. One of the most fascinating accounts I read recently was Unworthy Creature, the book National Post columnist Barbara Kay co-authored with Aruna Papp, and I’m sure many more such accounts will be written as women from other cultures continue to strive for independence.
But back to the mystery of Janet Dalrymple. As Philippa embarks on her historical project, DI Richard Beary is called in to investigate a double stabbing at a Sikh wedding. The two parallel cases continue throughout the story, until finally, Philippa and Richard meet at the opening night of the opera. Here, they discover that the mystery from the past and the mystery from the present result in the same solution, a solution, by the way, that makes perfect sense based on all the details and evidence in the prologue to The Bride of Lammermoor. I hope those of you who read the story will agree that Philippa’s conclusions have merit, for there is nothing more satisfying for a mystery writer than to feel that one has really solved a mystery. Yes, it was great fun combining sleuthing with creative writing. No wonder “Who Killed Lucia” is one of my favourite stories!
From WHO KILLED LUCIA
Beary dove into his bag and pulled out a large, utilitarian-looking paperback. “Here, I brought you something to occupy your mind. A work of Sir Walter Scott to put your romantic trials and tribulations into perspective.”
Philippa studied the book in her father’s hand.
“The Bride of Lammermoor. You know, I’ve always thought it would be interesting to read Scott’s original story. Does the opera follow it closely?”
“There are similarities,” said her father. “The family feud, and the concealed letters to make the lovers believe that each has forgotten the other—but the villain in the book is the mother, not the brother. Plus there’s a ton of other stuff . . . background on Scottish politics and how the feud developed. It’s quite fascinating. But what you’ll find really intriguing is the fact that Scott based his novel on a true story. The prologue talks about the history of the real Lucia. Her name was Janet Dalrymple. Your operatic heroine really existed.”
Philippa’s eyes widened.
“And did she really go crazy and attack her husband on their wedding night?”
“Read it for yourself,” said Beary. “The most interesting detail is the fact that the husband survived.”
“Why is that so interesting?”
“Because Janet didn’t. She died two weeks later. Nobody really knows what happened. Scott tries to explain it in his novel, and he may well have reconstructed everything accurately, but the reality is that he was just speculating from stories that had been passed down through the generations by people who were related to the family of the bride. And since he was writing in the early 1800s and Janet Dalrymple died in 1669, there was a lot of time for the stories to become distorted.”
“Are there no records? Surely the husband had something to say after he recovered?”
“No,” said Beary. “He refused to say anything, and he banned anyone from enquiring how he had received his wounds.”
“Really.” Beary planted the book in his daughter’s lap. “In the final analysis,” he concluded, “it’s a mystery.”Read More
Reading the recent news about VPD Service Dog, Teak, who miraculously survived after being slashed by a criminal, reminded me of the wonderful service dogs we had the privilege to watch when I was researching a story for The Agatha Principle. Mystery writers always look for ways to garner information about police procedure, and my visit to the VPD Dog Squad and a subsequent opportunity to watch the team on a training exercise provided me with a wealth of fascinating information.
The service dogs, as we all know, are used for tracking, apprehension and identification of substances such as drugs or explosives. At one time, Labs were used as sniffer dogs, but they were phased out a couple of years ago; now sable, or black and tan German shepherds are cross-trained to handle all jobs. However, the Labs are still used for customs and excise as part of Canada Border Security Agency. Not every police force has its own dog unit. VPD has a large contingent of service dogs, and Port Moody has a small K9 team. However, Delta and New Westminster share a unit, and the RCMP has a mobile unit that is shared between Burnaby, North Vancouver, Coquitlam and Surrey.
It is well worth a visit to VPD’s lovely new facility off Terminal Avenue. The tour that is offered is interesting and informative, and it is great fun seeing the demonstration of how the dogs work. The VPD dogs are a European strain, but bred locally, and German commands are used in training them. Most are males, but occasionally a female is used, and the dogs stay with their handlers from puppyhood throughout their entire lives. Specialized trainers train the dogs, but the handlers are taught to work with them, and when the dogs are retired around 8 or 9 years of age, their handlers can buy them for one dollar. Once that dog is retired, the handler is also out of the dog squad.
Training for dog handlers is critical. Dog handlers are extremely vulnerable as their eyes have to be on their dogs much of the time and their hands are on a leash. Therefore, they may not be as quick to spot trouble, and in a sudden emergency, they cannot get to their sidearm quickly. Dog handlers are also often first on the scene so part of their training involves taking special race-car driving courses. The dogs ride in expensive Chevrolet Tahoes with climate control and refrigerated floors. The handlers are allowed to leave the engines running all the time when the dog is left in the car.
Like the cars, the VPD Dog Squad building is very impressive. There is a report room, a workout room, a food-storage room and a laundry/dog-wash/checkup room, the latter with a bath that every dog would envy, not to mention every human if you substituted moisturizers for flea soap. A flip of the dial produces soap, conditioner, flea soap, flea powder or anti-bacterial soap. There is also a flip-up counter for checkups and a scale to check the dog’s weight. In the hall, there is a notice board where handlers can leave instructions for their colleagues if they are going to be away and their dog needs care. Each dog has a large kennel with access to the outdoors. The K-9s are very well looked after, but so they should be. A row of photographs in the report room and a list of names at the base of the statue outside the building remind visitors of the wonderful dogs who have been killed in the line of duty.
The dog squad is a popular unit, so there are lots of applicants, and anyone who wants in has to spend some months as a ‘quarry’ before getting taken on. Being a quarry isn’t for the faint-hearted. When watching the demo on the training ground, we learned that the dog’s reward is the sleeve. Since the dogs are trained to go for the arm, the quarries wear a heavily padded detachable sleeve. We watched a handsome shepherd named Kane go through his paces, racing round the obstacle course, tail wagging and eagerly responding to his handler. When it came time for the quarry to appear, complete with padded arm, Kane was barking in joyful anticipation. In spite of his obvious enthusiasm, he waited patiently for the appropriate commands. The dogs are trained to sit and stay while the handler searches the quarry, and have to wait until they receive a command to apprehend. However, if the quarry moves during the search and there is danger to the handler, the dog makes its own judgment call to attack again. The dogs are also trained to listen to one person only, and are given exercises where they learn to ignore a command given by the quarry. Kane performed in exemplary fashion, and once he had successfully ‘apprehended’ and the demo was over, he got to play with the sleeve.
After the demo, when we mingled and talked, we were introduced to two of the dogs, one a puppy, still untrained, and one a lovely fellow named Gus who was close to retirement. The puppy had obviously been watching the big guys go through their paces, because he lapped up the pats and attention, but he wanted to chew non-stop on my arm.
My second opportunity to see these great dogs in action occurred a few months later when my husband arranged for VPD to use the IOCO Boat Club for a training exercise. This exercise involved the Dog Squad with the Emergency Response Team, and each group was brought in on a rigid-hull inflatable, after which they had to act out scenarios which none of them knew in advance. Different formations were used for different terrains and scenarios, although the dog handler, being the most vulnerable, was always last off the boat and at the rear when coming up the dock. Caution seemed to be the foremost concern, and having seen the groups in action, I could understand why. However entertaining it was to watch the training exercise, the reality hit home. The police and service dogs have very dangerous jobs, and they can’t always anticipate when that danger will strike. I have a lot of admiration for those willing to take on the challenge.
The IOCO event enabled me to talk with trainers as well as handlers, and that was really useful, since the story I was researching involved sniffer dogs. Whereas other training doesn’t start until 15 months as it’s gruelling and hard on the dogs, sniffer dogs can start training as early as six months because they are doing fun stuff that pups enjoy. To train a sniffer dog, one sets out tubs containing different items. When the dog sniffs the item you want it to recognize, it gets taken outside for a game with a ball. Evidently one can train dogs to find anything. One female handler had a dog that got bored easily, so she hid items all over her lot while the dog was in its crate; then she turned it loose to track them. I was told that misbehaved dogs make good sniffer dogs because they love climbing all over things and ripping them up. So not only did I get the information I needed to finish my story, I learned all kinds of useful tips on dog-training. Of course, we’re a dogless household these days, given that Minx the Manx is elderly and deserves to enjoy her old age in peace, but the next time I acquire a dog of my own, I’ll be able to teach it how to fetch our slippers. Thank you Vancouver Police Department!
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.
Since my new mystery book opens with a story titled “The Agatha Principle”, it seems only appropriate to make my first blog a tribute to Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. I have a special fondness for Christie’s work, because she was the writer who first introduced me to the murder mystery. It is probably because I discovered her books as a teenager that I am writing murder mysteries today. Since those early years reading Agatha Christie, I have moved on to enjoy many other wonderful mystery writers, but it was her books that got me started on my love affair with the genre.
Over the years, I have read all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries and have seen the films that were based on her books. I have enjoyed the various television series made from her stories and I have seen several of her plays on stage. I also directed a production of The Mousetrap with my high-school drama students, so the only reason that Agatha Christie is now merely a ‘good’ as opposed to a ‘great’ read for me is that I know all the endings. However, I still occasionally get nostalgic pleasure in going back to one of her books and seeing the way she laid her trail of clues and red herrings to aid and divert the reader.
I was extremely flattered when the very first review of my first book said that I had written “Classic murder mystery stories reminiscent of Agatha Christie” and I am always irritated when literary or theatre snobs downgrade her work. Naturally, with such a huge volume of work, some pieces are going to be more engaging than others, but what other writer has set so many intriguing puzzles, loaded with clever twists and turns, for the mystery lover to solve? I have to admit, though, that I prefer the books and the television adaptions to the stage plays. I think the medium of film is better suited to generate suspense and put across the more reflective moments of the characters, whereas the stage plays, depending so much on dialogue, lose some of the tension that comes across so well in the books and on screen.
Still, if well-directed, the plays are tremendously entertaining. My favourite is Witness for the Prosecution, though, unfortunately, it is rarely performed, due to the large cast and the demands of the set. Ironically, since it is the only one I have staged, The Mousetrap is my least favourite, probably because the second act is long on interviews and short on action, making the script a considerable challenge for the director and cast. Given that the play has run for such a long time, many people talk of it as if it’s an institution rather than a mystery drama. Some of my theatrical friends consider it more of a farce than a mystery, a piece as innocuous as the game of Clue designed to please the middle-aged and the middle class. I don’t agree with that point of view. Yes, there is some humour, but the subject matter is serious and extremely topical—today’s newspapers frequently cover stories of social worker’s tragic mistakes, of foster-care gone wrong and officialdom passing the buck—and when played straight, The Mousetrap can be compelling. I’m a traditionalist, like my fictitious director, Jordan Hope, in my story “The Agatha Principle”, and I get extremely irritated when I see productions that veer into parody, with the actors descending into caricature in the search for cheap laughs instead of playing the characters for sincerity. I believe one of the real strengths of Agatha Christie is her understanding of human nature and the needs, passions and ambitions that govern people’s actions. However much the exterior trappings may date a story, those things never change.
The Mousetrap certainly has an impressive history. It was first performed in Nottingham in October, 1952. Most of the reviews were good, although the critic from the Sunday Dispatch disliked the play. According to the 1984 biography by Janet Morgan, Christie herself thought it “quite a nice little play” but did not believe it would run for much more than six months. Nobody could have realized what the future was going to hold. The play celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and two local productions have been part of that celebration. One, directed by my good friend, Dwayne Campbell, had a highly successful run at Vancouver’s Metro Theatre in April. Another followed soon afterwards in White Rock. These are only two of the many productions mounted world-wide to celebrate the milestone. However, I was not thinking about this special anniversary when my own story went into print. The timing was purely coincidental.
I wrote the first draft of “The Agatha Principle” in 2009 after re-reading Agatha Christie’s short story, “Three Blind Mice“. This was the story on which she based the play, The Mousetrap. After reading the story, an idea occurred to me, a twist that was a play on the plot of the Christie story. I hesitated at first, because of the issue of revealing the plot, but given the sixty-year record of public performance, and having scrolled the Internet and seen how the solution is so readily available on a variety of sites, I decided to go ahead, hoping that my story would be perceived in the spirit it was intended—as a tribute to Dame Agatha herself. However, this blog can serve as a spoiler alert: If you are anticipating attending one of the countless productions of The Mousetrap being mounted this year and you don`t know the ending of the play, you might want to wait before reading my story. And for those who do know the solution and intend to read my book, I hope you have as much fun trying to solve “The Agatha Principle” as I had weaving a tale around a clever plot devised by the ingenious Queen of Crime.Read More