Crime Fiction, Mystery, Thrillers, and Suspense Blog
Sunday, 03 February 2013 09:17
Wednesday, 30 January 2013 04:14
The year has barely a month old so it’s time for my annual office cleanup. As part of the out with the old, in with the new, I have come across several ideas for blogs I meant to write.
Ah, so many ideas, so little time.
As I have said before, mystery fiction can bring us a new view of history, help us understand who were are and who we were.
This past year, at least one novel gave me insight into a piece of history I knew little about.
In A Simple Murder, Eleanor Kuhns took readers back to the mid-19th century when the Shakers were the largest and most successful utopian group in existence. These tight-knit communities were scattered throughout the Northeast and in Kentucky.
Before I read Kuhns’ novel, I had only thought of the Shakers as group that practiced celibacy and made wonderfully graceful but simple ladder-back furniture and crafts. I also had always meant to visit the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Ky., which is the largest restored Shaker community in America and supposed to have a great restaurant that serves authentic Shaker recipes.
In her debut, Kuhns, a career librarian, shows how the Shakers lived, their daily routines and their faith, as well as how others were often suspicious of them.
I didn’t know until I read A Simple Murder that this religious sect stressed equality of the sexes and pacifism, or that orphans and abused wives often came to a Shaker village seeking refuge.
Sexual relations, even among married couples were forbidden, making it a difficult religion for many to follow. Married couples often joined after they’d had several children. Today, one Shaker community remains in Maine as well as several heritage villages and museums.
A Simple Murder, which won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America’s 2011 First Crime Novel Competition, is set in 1795. Kuhns' next novel, Death of a Dyer, will be out in June 2013.
Widowed weaver Will Rees arrives at a Shaker community seeking his 13-year-old son who had been under the care of his sister. Hoping to repair the relationship with his son, Will agrees to help the Shakers find out who killed one of their female members.
In my review that ran in the Sun Sentinel, I said: “A Simple Murder works as an intense historical but also a heartfelt story about families, especially the bonds between fathers and sons, and the grievances that can pull relatives apart.”
Sunday, 27 January 2013 04:38
A well-devised, crafty and evil villain is worth his or her weight in gold in mystery fiction. Without great villains, the suspense wouldn’t be as high, interest would wane and the story would fizzle. After all, a good hero or heroine needs the challenge of a villain to prove their mettle.
But heroes and heroines also need friends. That circle of friends can elevate a plot, make dialogue seem more realistic and give the main characters a sense of purpose. In real life, where would we be without friends? The same goes for mystery fiction.
Friendship plays a major part in a scheme that jumpstarts The Professionals, Owen Laukkanen’s excellent debut.
Laukkanen mixes the economic downturn and a bleak job market to produce an insightful thriller about four out-of-work, newly graduated college friends who become kidnappers, as I stated in a review. Laukkanen allows the reader to care about each of these friends, but never asks readers to approve of what they are doing. They become too caught up in “some crazy Robin Hood thing, this gang of broke kids, outsmarting the rich, redistributing the wealth” to realize that what they are doing is “hard-core, no safe word, wrong.”
Friendship spurs on the four college buddies who have an annual reunion in The Three-Day Affair by Michael Kardos.
That’s the only way to explain how these ordinary, upstanding Princeton graduates turn kidnappers after stopping at a convenience store. When one of them drags out a young store clerk after just robbing the place, they stick together. In a review for Mystery Scene, I said “Kardos does a masterful job of forcing these ordinary characters into the heart of darkness to uncover their ethics in times of stress. Kardos, author of the short story collection One Last Good Time, explores the friends’ moral dilemma with the precision of a surgeon as each man learns what kind of person he is. Kardos imbues The Three-Day Affair with unpredictable twists and steamrolls to a shocking finale.”
In 1975, two young female cops forge a friendship that lasts for decades in Criminal by Karin Slaughter.
Usually Slaughter only writes about the older Amanda Wagner and Evelyn Mitchell, but seeing these two women in their 20s allows us insight into how they became who they are today. While Criminal is a contemporary mystery the novel also shows the ramifications of a decades-old murder. Back in 1975, Amanda and Evelyn notice a pattern of young prostitutes disappearing in a crime-ridden neighborhood. None of the male cops are interested in the case, so the two women begin their own investigation. That will be their career-making case.
While Criminal continues the story of physician Sara Linton and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent, the younger Amanda and Evelyn stay in our minds.
A different kind of friendship haunts the neighbors in The Playdate by Louise Millar. Suzy Howard and Callie Roberts live on the same London street and appear to be best friends. But Callie’s decision to return to work begins a frisson in the women’s friendship that is exacerbated by their new neighbor, a teacher with a dark history and fragile mental health. A lot of secrets thrive on this lovely London street.
Neighbors become a sounding board for each other in Cloudland by Joseph Olshan. But the regular coffee klatches provide a superficial friendship, until they learn more about each other.
Some friendships are a staple of a series and without them the main character would be diminished.
Sara Paretsky's private detective V.I. Warshawski needs Charlotte “Lotty” Herschel and Max Loewenthal as much as a sense of justice that her cases provide her. Although she might not admit it, V.I. also needs her neighbor, Salvatore Contreras, not just because they share two dogs. Contreras is a busy body and a bit overbearing at times but part of V.I. wants that in her life.
And the assortment of eccentrics who live at Helen Hawthorne’s apartment building are more than just background in Elaine Viets’ Dead-End Job series. Landlady Margery Flax acts as Helen’s mother, friend and sister as do the other permanent residents.
Helen needs them all, and so do the readers.
Wednesday, 23 January 2013 04:59 Florida Theater on Stage, an online arts publication dedicated to covering live theater. A portion of this article ran in Florida Theater on Stage. Bill is a frequent Mystery Scene contributor.)
By Bill Hirschman
Veteran Broadway producer and impresario Zev Buffman foresees a future for stage theater — in radio.
Not just for any theater, but orphans like the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale that are too big for local theater troupes and too small for Broadway tours.
And he wants to do it in part by reviving the genre of mystery/thriller plays.
Buffman's first foray began this month with his production of Agatha Christie’s The BBC Murders, four radio plays lost for a half- century, uncovered by Buffman’s detective work and adapted by grafting full-fledged theater techniques onto a vintage radio drama foundation.
The BBC Murders are now in the middle of a three-week run at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse. Here is Florida Theater on Stage's review.
The episodes’ origins as radio dramas before and after World War II in London dictate that the first piece opens in a vintage BBC radio studio with actors reading from scripts into stand-up microphones. Sound effects are provided in ingenious ways by a “Foley artist” and his assistant.
But as the evening ensues, ever-increasing theatricality seeps in: actors become untethered from their microphones and relate to each other, costumes and lights are added, musical underscoring increases, projected scenery appears, and the sound become increasingly more sophisticated (moving around the auditorium like Quadropehenia) until the production emerges as a complete
Melinda Peterson as Christie
Among the four pieces is Three Blind Mice, the forerunner to Christie’s The Mousetrap, which holds the record for the longest continuous production still playing to audiences. Yellow Iris, featuring Christie’s fastidious detective Hercule Poirot, is augmented with original music by Broadway composer and mystery writer Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood)
because the last piece occurs in a jazz cabaret.
The show features 20 actors, musicians and Foley artists including Gary Sandy, a seasoned stage actor best known for TV’s WKRP in Cincinnati; Phil Proctor, a founder of the counterculture comedy troupe Firesign Theater; actress/singer Amy Walker whose UTube video features her performing 21 accents in two minutes; Proctor’s wife Melinda Peterson impersonating Christie
herself as the hostess and narrator, plus South Florida actresses Elizabeth Dimon and Angie Radosh.
The tales are:
Butter In A Lordly Dish: First performed by the BBC on January 13, 1948 in a series entitled Mystery Playhouse Presents The Detection Club. Christie’s drama follows a lawyer’s relationship with a mysterious woman who he meets while convicting a man for a series of vicious murders.
Three Blind Mice: A snowstorm and a psychotic killer on the loose have a cast of characters locked in a guest house full of accusations and anxiety. It was first performed on May 30, 1947 as part of an evening program in honor of Queen Mary’s 80th birthday. The BBC approached the Queen some months prior and she requested a new mystery by Agatha Christie, a writer the Queen deeply admired.
Personal Call: This mystery mixes “a strong drink of delicious deception into a haunting story of lies and betrayal. Superstition takes you on a murderous adventure through London train stations and provides a ghostly encounter.” This never published thriller was Christie’s final play for the BBC and reuses the character of Inspector Narracott from the 1931 novel The Sittaford
Yellow Iris: The past comes to haunt dinner guests during a party held in a cabaret on the one-year anniversary of a murder. Fear is the centerpiece of a table decorated with a yellow iris as Poirot tries to solve the first murder to prevent a fresh one. First presented on the BBC National Program in 1937.
The idea of radio as a setting for theater is not new. Musicals ranging from The 1940s Radio Hour to Million Dollar Quartet are set in recording studios. South Florida actor Gordon McConnell’s local company AirPlayz performed radio plays for several years including The Maltese Falcon and The War of the Worlds. But this production is complex enough to require 577 sound and light cues, Buffman bragged.
The path Buffman, 82, and The BBC Murders took back to the Parker stretches back more than a decade when he lived in Palm Desert, California.
“I was hanging with Angie” — Angie being Angela Lansbury –‘We had done three shows together and we talked about the disappearance of mystery thrillers from the New York, Toronto and London stage.” Indeed, at one time, works like Dial M For Murder, Sleuth and Deathtrap were regular Broadway staples. Lansbury, the star of Murder, She Wrote agreed with him that all the playwrights writing mysteries had defected to the more remunerative and reliable film and television industries.
Buffman moved in 2003 to Owensboro, a small college town in western Kentucky where an ailing sister lived. He agreed to manage a local theater complex but it needed “product.” He gathered Lansbury and an equally well-known collection of friends to help create an International Mystery Writers Festival that would choose and produce mount full productions or readings of complete plays, one-acts and radio scripts. The first edition in 2007 sorted through 1,000 entries and mounted 12 productions.
To help produce them he enlisted Proctor, Phil Austin, David Ossman, Ossman’s wife Judith Walcutt and Peter Bergman from Firesign Theater whose irreverent, surrealistic albums in the late ’60s and early ’70s combined radio drama techniques with a counter-culture sensibility.
The Christie project came about because Buffman had read in her biographies about titles only produced on radio once and whose current whereabouts were a mystery, even to the Christie Estate. The conventional wisdom was that some were lost during the bombing of London by the Germans and the rest disappeared in later post-war cleanup projects. But during a persistent treasure hunt, Buffman finally located them in the archives of a London library.
The pages were tattered and weather-beaten, but they still contained the actor’s notes in the margins and marks to cut sections to fit the time slot. The library allowed Buffman to copy these scripts, which he then reproduced on paper approximating the kind used by the BBC. The works adapted and directed by Walcutt and Ossman became the centerpiece of his 2009 edition of
Buffman’s continuing festival.
It has had only one other outing: last November in Clearwater where Buffman says the audience “fell in love with it.”
Buffman is negotiating with theaters in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco to present the Clearwater/Fort Lauderdale production. But The BBC Murders and what Buffman dubs “radio theater” is really a trial balloon for a much larger project.
He sees a severe need for tightly-produced original programming like this to fill mid-sized theaters with about 1,000 seats.
Financially, that’s too small to support the cost of mega-tours like Wicked and too big for a regional theater to fill over a three- to five-week run. The grand plan is for Buffman to produce those works and tour them across the country.
The radio theater concept might be the answer, said the genial Gary Sandy, who has been in several of Buffman productions and admires his integrity. But it has to be satisfying theater, not just a stunt.
“It’s a work in progress. If Zev and David and Phil can figure out a way to put radio on the stage and make it more than just a gimmick or a novelty. In the first 20 minutes, the audience is fascinated by how it’s done, but after 20 minutes, they’ve seen it, and you have to find (material) that will hold them.”
Sandy has become a Buffman fan since hooking up with the original production. “He has integrity. Three years ago he said, I’m going to do this someday and I’ll want to you to do it.” Sure enough, the call came earlier this year. “By God, he did.”
The idea that an 82-year-old is running an entertainment complex on Florida’s west coast, helming what he hopes will be a national tour and changing the fate of empty theatres across the country doesn’t strike him as strange.
He laughs off the mention of about retirement. With that slight Israeli accent, Buffman asks, “What would I do?”
Agatha Christie’s The BBC Murders runs through Feb. 3 at the Parker Playhouse, 707 Northeast 8th Street, Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $26.50 – $66.50. For tickets and information, call 954-462-0222 or visit www.parkerplayhouse.com.
Photos: Top, Amy Walker and Gary Sandy; Center, Zev Buffman; Bottom, Alex Jorth, David Ossman and Amy Walker create an eerie aura in Agatha Christie’s The BBC Murders
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