OPERA MURDER MYSTERIES
Reviews by Reta Ralph
Gramercy Park by Paula Cohen, St. Martin's Griffin, 2003
To New York City, 1894, comes Mario Alfieri, celebrated tenor and toast of Europe, for his premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. In an attempt to find refuge from the clamor of New York’s elite and the eager women who seek him out, Mario attempts to rent an elegant mansion, home of a former multi-millionaire. Fascinating tale of opera and all things Victorian, a story of hate and revenge, scandal and murder. Cohen is a native New Yorker with an addiction to opera and all things Victorian. This is her first novel, published in 2002.
Deadly Aria by Paul Myers, Vanguard Press, 1987
Myers worked in the world of classical music for over 25 years, producing recordings by distinguished conductors, instrumentalists and singers. His work took him to diverse locations as Tokyo and Helsinki, Europe and the United States, which makes the people and actions in his novel ring so true! Mark Holland, successful manager of classical musicians attends a concert in Geneva which ends with a shocking death which was obviously meant for him. His past as an agent for British Intelligence during the cold war is a present threat. Published in 1987. An exciting read!
Ransom at the Opera by Fred Hunter, Minotaur Books, 2010
This is the seventh in the Ransom-Charters series. It is opening night at the new Sheridan Center in Chicago and a daring production of Carmen has been sold out for weeks! The performance is brilliant until the final act when the tenor singing Don Jose dies onstage. Emily Charters and her policeman friend, Jeremy Ransom, deal with this complex case where there are suspects aplenty, cast intrigues, and a dicey financial situation in the opera company. A cozy winter read!
Death At the Opera by Gladys Mitchell, Grayson & Grayson, 1934
First published in 1934 as Death in the Wet, this book was re-issued several times by various publishers. Miss Ferris, the arithmetic mistress of Hillmaston Coeducational Day School, has offered to finance the annual comic opera for the school. She is offered and accepts the role of Katisha in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. When she drowns in a wash basin during the first performance, the police rule her death a suicide. The headmaster, however, calls in that grand dame of detection Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley to investigate. The methods of clever Mrs. Bradley annoy others but she is never wrong! Mitchell wrote 66 mysteries featuring Mrs. Bradley between 1929 and 1983. This was filmed for British television in 2000 with Diana Rigg playing Mrs. Bradley.
Die Upon a Kiss by Barbara Hambly, Benjamin, 2001
This is an atmospheric mystery set in ante-bellum New Orleans. (Note - I was impressed by the author’s historical research and her depictions of the Byzantine class structure, exotic culture and menacing politics of this great city in the early part of the 19th century. It comes alive with vivid descriptions of the horrors of slavery, free blacks, placees, creoles, planters, voodoo, and the “Kaintucks”.) The victim is not a tenor this time, but a planter who richly deserves the grisly fate he suffers! Benjamin January, free man of color and a pianist of considerable talent, observes diverse acts as they threaten to darken the opera houses. Soaring music leads January into a tangle of love, hatred, and greed as he attempts to discover who is responsible for the treacherous deeds , both on and off the stage. Interesting read! Published in 2002.
False Notes by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Jove, 1991
Exit the famous French tenor, dead on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House during the last act of Les Contes d’Hoffman. Enter Charlie Moon, American Indian with a law degree who is hired by a patroness of the opera to protect the reputation of the opera company and determine which of the international suspects hated Gui-Adam Feurier enough to kill him. San Francisco and opera are a far cry from the Ojibwa reservation of Charlie’s childhood, but as a resident of both worlds believes murder is a crime that should be prosecuted, even if the victim got what he so royally deserved. Published in 1991.
Elegy for a Soprano by Kay Nolte Smith, Paper Jacks, 1986
Dinah Mitchell is distressed to learn that her favorite soprano, Vardis Wolf, has been poisoned, especially when she discovers the woman behind the beautiful voice is her natural mother. Along with an old friend from the N.Y. Police Department, Dinah is driven to find the truth about the singer’s life and death. Four people in Vardis’ inner circle have already confessed to her murder. Dinah’s absorption in their lives and shared past takes her into the dark world of genius and the reality of her mother’s true nature. Kay Nolte Smith was a member of Ayn Rand’s inner circle and like most of that circle she did not start writing until she left that world. Published in 1985.
Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon, Harper Perennial, 1992
There is little crime in Venice, the beautiful city of mystery and magic, history and decay. That changes when Maestro Helmut Wallauer, world-renown conductor, dies during the intermission of La Traviata at La Fenice from cyanide poisoning. Guido Brunetti, vice commissioner of police, uses his considerable skills in this chilling affair. A shocking portrait of revenge and depravity takes shape and the reader will delight in increased familiarity with that romantic city. This definitely is not a genteel Agatha Christie read! Published in 1992.
Death on the High C’s by Robert Bernard, Simon and Schuster, 1977
The Northern Opera Company, a fledgling group in England, is to open its second season with a production of “Rigoletto”. A distinguished soprano, a black tenor, a veteran Rigoletto, a nervous director, a promising Gilda, a saturnine Sparafucile, and a Maddalena who has offended everyone in the company add to the interesting mix. It is not long before the first murder occurs (!) and English Superintendent Nichols and nearly everyone in the company admits that the victim “deserved her fate!” The story is marked by rows and theatrical upsets, the author’s malicious wit, which can only be the result of tremendous passion. This 1977 mystery satire is highly recommended.
A Chorus of Detectives by Barbara Paul, Signet, 1988
This is the third and last of the three opera murder mysteries by Barbara Paul using historical figures from the Metropolitan Opera as characters. The time is 1920, World War I is over and New York is crowded with immigrants, veterans, refugees, and anarchists. Echoing the dissonance of the time the Metropolitan Chorus has become truly unruly and divided into factions when someone starts killing them, one by one. Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Ferrar, Emily Destin, Pasquale Amato, Antonio Scotti band together to identify the culprit. Guards are posted, but the killings continue. Caruso’s appearance on Xmas Eve in 1920 was his last performance and he died the following year. Geraldine Ferrar retired at the end of the next season. Emmy Destin went back to Prague. Pasquale Amato’s wonderful voice declined from over-use and he retired from the stage. Circumstances signify that the “golden age of opera” is ending.
Prima Donna at Large by Barbara Paul, Signet. 1987
This is the second of the three mysteries that uses historical figures from “the golden age of opera”. This story takes place in 1916 when WWI was raging. Geraldine Farrar is our “detective of record” aided by Enrico Caruso, Toscanini, Gatto-Casazza and a large cadre of singers. When a most unpleasant baritone arrives from France to escape the horrors of war, it is not long before someone eliminates him. This mystery gives us insight into the lives of talented musicians of the time and reveals surprising vignettes of their professional lives--such as the fight between Farrar and Caruso in the last act of Carmen and the night that Farrar dropped her blouse in Zaza! A charming read, related in first person by Farrar herself. Published in 1985.
A Cadenza for Caruso by Barbara Paul, Signet, 1986
This is the first murder mystery by Paul that uses historical figures from the “second golden age” of the Met. Readers get to peek into the personal lives of familiar opera personages. Rehearsals for the world premiere of La Fanciulla del West become complicated when composer Giacomo Puccini becomes the major suspect in the murder of a very seedy impresario. Enrico Caruso cannot allow his dear friend and countryman to be convicted of this killing and so becomes a bumbling and lovable undercover cop! The premiere comes off on schedule, of course. The actual premiere of La Fanciulla was on December 10th of 1910 and the first-night audience was wildly enthusiastic. The cast, Toscanini and Puccini took a total of 52 curtain calls! Published in 1984.
The Metropolitan Opera Murders by Helen Traubel, Inner Sanctum, Mystery, 1951
It happened right in front of the soprano, while singing Brunhilde in Wagner’s Die Walkure. The prompter began making strange faces, his eyes were wild, he turned blue, and then slowly disappeared. So begins the tale of murder at the Met by a real-life Wagnerian soprano at the height of her fame. Helen Traubel was called “the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her time.” Born in St. Louis she was a fanatic baseball fan and was a stockholder of the St. Louis Browns. She loved mystery stories and this intriguing story takes the reader behind the trappings and pomposity of the Met opera stage to where jealousy, temperament, and talent are co-mingled with violence and murder. Her autobiography is entitled “St. Louis Woman”.
Murder a Mile High by Eleanor Dean, Rue Morgue Press, 2001
This mystery was set in the summer of 1942, just months after Pearl Harbor and the locale is a semi-fictional Central City with its 1897 opera house, perfect for a nest of Nazi spies and a dead tenor. Heroine Emma Marsh was a precursor of the independent women sleuths with which we are more familiar today. Anyone fond of Central City, opera, Colorado, antiques, and mysteries will find this thriller charming. Murder was more delicate in the 1940’s, and unpleasant events are alluded to in a lady like manner. The story is a lively study in the sociology and manners of that era.
Murder at the Opera by Margaret Truman, Ballentine Books, 2007
Margaret Truman, former President Harry Truman's daughter, published in 2006 a novel of suspense that features the popular crime-fighting couple Mac Smith and his wife, Annabel Reed-Smith, as they navigate the glitz, glamour, and grime that is Washington, D.C. A petite young Asian Canadian named Charise Lee, scarcely a star at the Washington National Opera, is stabbed in the heart backstage during rehearsals. Georgetown law professor Mac Smith thought he’d just be carrying a rapier in Tosca as a favor for his beloved Annabel, but now they’re both being pressured by the panicked theater board to unmask a killer. Providing accompaniment will be former homicide detective, current P.I., and eternal opera fan Raymond Pawkins. What they uncover is an increasingly complex case reaching far beyond Washington to a dark world of informers and terror alerts in Iraq, and climaxing on a fateful night at the opera attended by none other than the President himself.
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt, Penguin Books, 2006
This is non-fiction and not a who-dunnit. The story opens on Jan. 29, 1966, when a sensational fire destroys the historic Fenice Opera House. Berendt spent several years probing the life of this remarkable city and this expose encompasses history, art, and the Italian life-styles and traditions. Highly recommended!
(Berendt ia also the author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”)
Death of a Fat God by H. R. I. Keating, Dutton & Co, 1966
Henry Raymond Fitzwalter Keating produced his first story at the age of eight, had a fine education in England, and worked as a journalist and crime book reviewer for a number of years before he wrote a healthy number of who-dunnits. He received many awards for his crime literature and wrote a biography of Dame Agatha Christie in his later years. The opening chapter of Death of a Fat God takes the reader into the ending moments of Act 2 of Tosca. Scarpia is at his desk writing a letter ensuring Tosca and her lover safe passage across the frontier to freedom. Tosca sees the glistening knife on the table and hides it in the folds of her dress. As Scarpia signs the document her hand rises and plunges the knife into Scarpia’s heart, who clutches his chest and slumps to the floor. Tosca finds the pass in Scarpia’s pocket and prepares to leave his apartment before his officers return. But wait! Scarpia’s arm moves to his shoulder--is he not dead? The audience stirs. Tosca places the two candelabra near the body and slips into her cloak as she moves toward the door. Unseen by her, Scarpia slowly lifts his body onto his arm and climbs to his feet as the door closes on the departing Tosca. Almost certainly, for the only time in the history of opera, has the story of Tosca become the triumph of Scarpia! By the time you finish this book you will have known as exotic a collection of characters as ever performed on an opera stage, while trampling on one another's egos! And there is Superintendent Pryde, C.I.D., who is both dense and rude, struggling to solve a murder almost anyone in the cast might have committed. Surprisingly, the case is cracked by two unlikely characters, charwomen, one of whom is the brightest person in this story! .
A Knife at the Opera by Susannah Stacey, Summit Books, 1988
Susannah Stacey is a pseudonym used by writers Jill Staynes and Margaret Storey. The team has produced a series of mystery novels featuring widowed British police superintendent Bone. This is a sequel to the authors’ first novel, Goodbye, Nanny Gray, which introduced Inspector Bone to readers. They also wrote a series of mysteries set during the Italian renaissance under the name of Elizabeth Eyres. One has to think that “a knife at the opera” title is a takeoff on the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera filmed in 1935 by MGM. Backstage at Tumbridge Wells Girls’ School, a production of The Beggar’s Opera is about to begin and all is bedlam. Claire Fairlie, the pretty English teacher, is found with a knife plunged into her back. The Superintendent, who was in the audience, discovers there is a lot more to Miss Fairlie than first met the eye! Bone finds a number of suspects among the students as well as Fairlie’s discarded lovers. It is an adroit mix of comedy and tension as well as sensitivity in the relationship between Bone and his young daughter. It’s a good book for those who love vernacular English and the Brit's approach to murder!.
Murder and Sullivan by Sara Hoskinson Frommer, St. Martin's Press, 1977
Aha! Another “cozy” mystery series! Frommer’s books target opera, composers, musical instruments, and, yes, everyday people and their everyday problems! This mystery begins with a tornado sweeping through the small college town of Oliver. Our heroine, Joan, is the director of the Oliver senior center and plays viola in the local symphony, presently performing in the local production of Ruddigore by Gilbert and Sullivan. Although her home is in shambles, she agrees to support the symphony which means that she is a witness to the murder on stage of a well-liked judge during opening night. Together with her friend, police lieutenant Fred Lundquist, and her college age son, Joan follows clues which lead to a final confrontation with a killer bent on revenge. This charming mystery was enhanced with numerous quotes from Gilbert and Sullivan operas--or operettas, per your choice. Some were quite familiar to me and others will require a bit of further research. Again, this is a small town musician who becomes a heroine by rescuing a neighbor’s young daughter from the tornado which damaged so much of this small town. A nice read for women. (Charles would never pick this up on a quiet evening at home!)
Setting the Stage for Murder by Robert W. Gregg, Infinity Publishers, 2008
Robert Gregg, a multi-talented New Yorker, bounced around from pre-med, literature, philosophy, and geology before completing a doctorate in political science and teaching at Wake Forest University. He and his family eventually moved to Washington D.C., where he began writing novels as well as academic articles. He traveled extensively and sustained his love of opera as a volunteer with Washington National Opera. This story is set in the Finger Lake region of New York, renown for producing good wines and, apparently, plenty of murders, as evidenced by Gregg's nine Crooked Lake murder mysteries, which are placed in this area. Our hero is a vacationing college professor who teaches music at a school in the New York area. During his summer retreat at a family cottage on Crooked Lake he is producing Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi with local singers and musicians. On the day of the dress rehearsal the leading man is found strangled to death. In operatic tradition, the cast is a veritable hot house of passions and motives for murder. The local sheriff is a young woman with whom the professor has established a romantic relationship and they join forces to solve the mystery and bring the killer to justice. The plot of this charming mystery has many twists and turns, spiced up by the romantic relationship between the music professor and the attractive sheriff.
Murder at the Metropolitan Opera by J. Tracksler, Llumia Press, Coral Springs, FL, 2008
J. Tracksler has garnered many literary awards for her mystery romances. She lives in Kittery Point, Maine. Tracksler loves her family, her friends, opera, gardening, wine, cooking Italian foods and writing about the exploits of the Sabatino cousins. It is October, 1929, three weeks before the Metropolitan Opera in New York City will open the golden curtain on Puccini’s masterpiece, La Bohème, starring the internationally acclaimed diva, Vivienne du Lac, as Mimi. The role of Rodolfo will be sung by Sergei Andreyi. The young and beautiful Antonina Sabatino will sing a minor role in the production. In his final performance before retirement Maestro Massimo Orsini will conduct. In addition to the principals, we are introduced to several of the many who will create the production that are now converging on the opera house to begin rehearsals-- stagehands, chorus members, instrumentalists, costumers-- all of whom will suffer through the temper tantrums of the diva and become involved with or be affected by the murders that are about to ensue. And in the week before the opening-- the stock market begins its historic crash! I consider this a really good story with something for everyone--the birth of an opera star, romance, tension, death, the approaching financial crash, and immersion in the Sabatino family, Italian immigrants who have become successful in America’s largest city. The author provides wonderful insights into the lives of New Yorkers in 1929, an era when wealthy patrons commonly brought their dogs to the opera.
The Stranger in the Opera House by Helen Macie Osterman, Five Star, 2009
When Charles first laid eyes on the cover of The Stranger in the Opera House, which identified the book as one of the Emma Winberry cozy mystery series, I knew immediately that nothing in this “cozy” mystery book could possibly tempt him to read it! Being of sterner stuff, however, I plunged in to find out all I could about this stranger! Emma and her significant other, Nate Sandler, are supernumeraries at the Midwest Opera in Chicago for an upcoming production of The Ghosts of Versailles. The title is prophetic when the soprano screams there is a strange man in her dressing room. Although the police can find no one lurking about, both cast and crew are on edge. The stranger is seen again and again but attempts to apprehend him fail. A large sum of money is stolen from the opera office and one of the guards is injured seriously. All but our Emma assume this is the work of the stranger. More intrigue is added by the discovery of an old trunk in the basement storeroom of the opera house containing documents dating back to the Underground Railroad, and the opera librarian is assaulted during an apparent attempt to steal these papers. The stranger is again blamed, but our modern day Miss Marple is convinced that the apparition is a “lost soul” trapped between the two worlds of life and death. Adding to the mystery, a figure in black secretly leaves and picks up packages in a hidden cave near the Opera House and bordering on Lake Michigan. Determined to uncover the truth of the mysterious occurrences, Emma and her adventurous friends are led on a life-threatening journey which may be their last! I truly enjoyed this easy read. Nothing beats a good mystery nocturnally evolving in an opera house! It is full of surprises and compelling characters, and may even tempt one to pursue other cozy reads in this mystery series.
Murder in the Pit by Erica Minor, Paladin Timeless Books, 2010
Violinist turned author Erica Miner has had a varied career as an award-winning screen-writer, author, lecturer and poet. She studied music at Boston University, New England Conservatory of Music, and Tanglewood Music Center. After the highs and lows in a quest to forge a career in New York City, Erica won the coveted position of violinist with the Metropolitan Opera, the pinnacle of a career in her field. But, sadly, injuries suffered in a car accident spelled the end of her musical career. She then drew upon her life-long love of writing and has won a number of awards in both poetry and screen-writing. Her experiences as a member of the Met orchestra gave her an understanding of the complexity of managing an opera house and served her well in the of writing this story. In Murder in the Pit a young violinist is about to embark on a career as a member of New York’s Metropolitan Orchestra Opera. The premiere of Verdi’s Don Carlo is about to take place before an audience of glitterati. A leading tenor is waiting in the wings, and a celebrated maestro is on the podium in the orchestra pit. For Julia Kogan, the maestro’s protege, this is a baptism of fire at the risk of being exposed to the envy of resentful colleagues. Not only is she musically gifted, but her beauty is attracting to both men and women alike. Maestro Trudeau has given Julia a jeweled violin pin and a song dedicated to her prior to the opera. Before Julia has the opportunity to savor her first night at the opera, an assassin’s bullet strikes down the maestro on the podium, turning Julia’s life on its head. Her close friend and violin colleague is accused of the murder, according to the NYPD which has been called in to solve the tragedy. Julia is determined to prove her friend innocent and enlists support from associates at the Met--a tenor understudy, the head stagehand and her roommate, as well as eventually a detective from the NYPD who is a devoted opera fan. She does not know who to trust and barely escapes being crushed by toppling scenery. The story unfolds with increased danger and another murder. Julia is drugged and faces the horror of losing her life as she realizes some of her associates are not who they seem to be. Through twists and turns, with clues from the dead maestro, and Julia’s determination to prove the innocence of her long-term friend, the case is finally solved.
Death of a Designer by Cynthia du Pont Tobias, Amazon Digital Services, 2010
Just as Sally Farmer is about to start her first professional job as assistant scenic designer, her friend and teacher is brutally murdered. The New England Opera is strangely reluctant to let her deliver his design. Can she and her friend Philip solve all the mysteries without being murdered themselves? And will the production of Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila make it to the stage with all its scenery intact and the two great opera stars healthy and in great voice? Step into the backstage world of opera. Meet the singers, director, conductor, and all the other designers. This is romp through the sometimes ugly world of creating beautiful sights and sounds. Would one of them stab a shy scenic designer late at night in the snow? And why? Cynthia du Pont Tobias directed and designed scenery for Gilbert and Sullivan operas while a student at MIT. After college, she joined the chorus and the scene shop of the Opera Company of Boston, where she worked with Sarah Caldwell ans designed twenty-one operas and other shows, and directed fifteen. She also has been the set designer for OperaDelaware.
Ding Dong the Diva's Dead by Cat Melodia, Camel Press, 2011
Cat Melodia is the nom de plume of a Seattle-based mezzo soprano and voice teacher. Like her heroine, she often wears pants on stage. Three of her opera translations/adaptations have been performed at community colleges. She has a B.A. degree cum laude in German Literature from Princeton and a Master’s in Music. Deborah de Lille is an opera singer--in the least grand sense. Debbie doesn’t foresee a future beyond Handel’s Messiah and low-budget tours until her agent finagles her the role of Nicklausse in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman with a small town company in Idaho. The singer Debbie replaces died under suspicious circumstances and when another minor character bows out suddenly she is also given her role. Now she has two small roles that no one in their right mind would kill for. So, are the close calls that ensue a threat to Debbie’s safety or just unlucky coincidences? A mixture of three preening tenors, a sexy lesbian director, a vengeful conductor, a rich and handsome general director, a fading Italian pop star, a trio of bitchy leading sopranos, an ambitious understudy, countless attention-starved underlings, an anti-opera terrorist group, a resident ghost, and Debbie’s dysfunctional family are predictably going to create mayhem! Present are more than a few spooky characters that would neatly fit into the role of murderer! The characters are amusing, though some seemed like caricatures created by an outsider not familiar with opera. And would a serious mezzo get caught stark naked so many times? I really like Hoffman so the details of the spooky story, with its three diverse divas, were of interest to me, but they might wear on a reader with less passion for opera. Also, there is more information than one may like to know about the frenetic characters and their frequent sexual shenanigans. One has to wonder how the cast found time to rehearse, fit their costumes and stage this complex opera! The behind-the-scenes exposure was interesting but I kept wondering just what all these people were doing in this tale that spins and whirls in never-ending action! The revelation of the killer’s identity left me--a lifelong who-dunnit fan--feeling that something had been omitted. Lacking was the traditional process of discovery and gathering of clues that eventually lead to a satisfying solution of the murder.
Murder for Choir by Joelle Charbonneau, The Berkley Publishing Group, New York, 2012
Even as a struggling opera singer, Paige Marshall has never seen anything like the cutthroat competition of the Prospect Glen High School show choir! Coaching these championship-hungry students may well be her toughest gig yet! Especially when her best young male singer is suspected of killing the arrogant coach of Prospect Glen’s fiercest rival choir. To clear his name, Paige will have to sort through a chorus of suspects and go note-for-note with a killer who wants her out of the spotlight for good! Paige is headstrong and admirable--rather like her Aunt Millie, with whom she is temporarily living, who comes up in every chapter with something about the case that is new and unexpected. And there is the obnoxious dog, Killer, consistently annoying Paige and occasionally victimizing her colleagues, but must be tolerated for it is the beloved pet of Aunt Millie. This is a jolly read-- breezy and entertaining, yet gripping, with the tension building throughout. You won’t solve the mystery until the final surprising chapter! Then there’s the hunky cop who finds Paige attractive even as he suspects she must be involved in some way with the murder. And the intriguing teacher who flirts with her, though he is allegedly gay, complicating what Paige really wants to do with her life. Good fun! Joelle Charbonneau is a stay-at-home mom and a successful writer who produces books with a frequency that makes other writers envious. Her undergraduate and graduate degrees were in music and theater. She has performed in a variety of operas, musical theatre, and children's theatre productions across the Chicagoland area, and also gives voice lessons. She uses her stage experiences to create compelling characters in her several series of mystery books. This one is from the Glee Club Mystery series.
Opera can be Murder by Tizia Rossi, Privately Published, 2012
When aspiring young opera singer Tami Ann Torcelli shows up at rehearsal for her debut in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, she is prepared to encounter an authoritative conductor, an incompetent stage director, a temperamental tenor, and a snobbish opera board matron--but she never expects to become the star witness in a scandalous murder investigation that threatens to close down the opera company. Lending a hand to the handsome detective working on the case only lands Toni Ann in more trouble when a second body turns up, and her glamorous operatic rival makes an equally unwelcome appearance. As a storm of bad publicity erupts outside the opera house, tensions inside build as the murder investigation swirls toward a conclusion. The author brings us backstage to reveal a seamy side to the world of opera. In this microcosm of malicious divas and clashing egos, our heroine--in her first starring role in a slowly rising career--uses her considerable powers of observation to help solve the murder of a Catholic Bishop. Plenty of plot twists keep the reader guessing. The plot is always the most important element, and here the clever plot is well developed and the conclusion leaves no untidy loose ends. It’s an inside look at the world of opera that is entertaining from start to finish! You don’t have to be an opera lover to enjoy this fast-paced mystery.
The Detectives Who Loved Opera by Barbara J. Langner, Mysterious Valley Press, 2013
The author, who is a high school teacher of English literature in Albuquerque, sets the story in the historic KiMo Theater of that city. When the chandelier crashes into the empty seats of the old house, singers rehearsing for the upcoming production of Carmen speculate that a phantom of the opera has settled in Albuquerque. Then a violent death follows and the local seer is called in to conduct a seance for an explanation, while our amateur detective (she is a high school teacher) searches the theater and the neighborhood for clues. Local theater-goers know there already is a ghost inhabiting the KiMo that regularly pulls harmless pranks, so the producer hoped the new one might attract a larger attendance to the upcoming opera. Carmen has been reinterpreted to take place in Rome B.C. instead of 19th Century Spain, so the costumes and names have been changed to conform with this abomination. For instance, instead of making cigarettes, the girls are making Jesus Sandals with JC as the brand name. Of course Roman togas are the required costumery. There are the usual stock characters and plot twists, a police detective who is the boyfriend of our heroine, the mysterious oracle and her equally strange cat, black flowers, raspy voices in the dark, and murky murders to be solved. Is the sprightly spirit the guilty one or did a flesh and blood person commit the crimes? I cannot enthusiastically recommend this book. It is fairly entertaining but the story should have been presented in a more intriguing format, especially in such an exotic setting as Albuquerque. If you love classic, well-researched mysteries, you might want to take a pass on this one.
Death at the Beggars Opera by Deryn Lake, Back-In-Print-Books Ltd., 2013
Deryn Lake is the pseudonym of a well known novelist who joined the ranks of historical detective writers with her John Rawlings mysteries. John Rawlings, an apothecary, with a talent for detective work, and John Fielding, the phenomenal blind magistrate whose “runners” formed London’s police force in the 18th century, star in this evocative mystery. The story opens with a production of John Gay's The Beggar’s Opera in the Drury Lane Theater. The leading actor, playing Macheath, is a man notorious for his philandering and when he is murdered on opening night there is no shortage of suspects with motives for murder. As the police begin the hunt for clues, they discover rivalry on and off the stage and a trail of obsession that leads to the dark heart of a cold-blooded killer. This was a very enjoyable read. This foray into 18th century London, meticulously described by the author, kept me glued to the pages! Imagine streets with lovely old names, the sedan chairs, hansom carriages, linkmen with their torches in the dark back streets, all of which create a genuine feeling of the period. You will be charmed by elegant members of the beau monde with their wigs and white-painted faces, and intrigued by informers from the underworld, and the Bow Street Runners who are recruited to help catch the perpetrators. The Threepenny Opera by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill is an adaptaion of The Beggar’s Opera, offering a socialist critique of the capitalist world. You will no doubt be familiar with the popular ballad from this production, “Mack the Knife.”
Scherzo: A Venetian Entertainment by Jim Williams, Simon & Schuster, 1999
Meet two unusual detectives--Ludovico, a young man, castrato opera singer, narrator and unlikely hero; and Monsieur Arouet, a fraudster or possibly the philosopher, Voltaire. It is carnival time in mid-18th century Venice, full of masquerades and decadence, a world of pimps, harlots, gamblers, forgers and charlatans. A religious nobleman is found swinging from a bridge, brutally murdered, with a message in code from his killer. Monsieur Arouet sets out to solve this murder which seems to mask some kind of secret ceremony, and he uses Ludovico to help, due to the singer’s access into some of the upper classes’ Venetian homes. There are many sub-plots, dead ends and asides, and nothing is quite what it seems. The book promises an interesting story and one has to be impressed by the explicit descriptions of Venice in that long-ago world. However, there are interjected letters and memoirs from people who are various and sundry peripheral relatives and friends, some of which lend lewd humor to the story and then disappear. The reader might have to keep looking back in the book to identify the writers. The murder mystery is actually secondary to the story and opera is only a passing fancy in the houses of the wealthy Venetians. Eccentric characters who have nothing to do with the central plot serve only to confuse the reader. I found myself wondering why I should care about the many characters who wandered on and off the pages, muddling the story. Eventually I ended up rushing toward the end just to get to the murder's solution. I confess that I put the book down one late night and said to myself, “That’s enough!” I cannot recommend this book to either mystery or opera fans.
Murder at the Frankfurt Opera by Pamela Cramer, AuthorHouse, 2014
Houston resident and mezzo soprano Pamela Cramer adds a murder mystery novel to her many accomplishments, written in a context she knows well-- opera! Cramer lived in Germany for many years, singing lead roles at several opera theaters in a number of operas. She currently sings in the chorus of Houston’s Opera in the Heights and engages in an impressive list of activities related to opera, including church music, master classes, and teaching voice students. Murder at the Frankfurt Opera is an engrossing story of intrigue, danger, and opera. It follows the life of Myra Barnett, a young American singer who has recently relocated to Frankfurt to join its respected opera company as a chorus singer. When a colleague is mysteriously killed in an on-stage accident, Myra is determined to prove it was not an accident but murder. The plot thickens when Myra is going through a friend’s belongings and finds many secrets in his past, including a romance that ended badly. Myra is faced with the problem of convincing the stiff German Inspektor that her friend was murdered. If romance raises its pretty head during the investigation, then so much the better! After all, it’s not over until “the killer sings”! In this book the reader will not only go on a murder mystery adventure, but will get a behind-the-scenes look into the life of an American opera singer in a foreign country. It is a how-to-do-it if a singer wishes to perform with a German opera company. It’s clear that Cramer spent a great deal of time working with a Germany company and it is equally clear that she loved the German people and her work in Germany. I found the details of her life in a foreign land fascinating and very informative. I am looking forward to her next book which will be published in 2016, Murder at the Berlin Opera.
An Aria of Omens by Patrice Greenwood, Evennight Books, Cedar Crest, NM, 2014
Patrice Greenwood was born and raised in New Mexico and remembers when dusty dogs rolled in the Santa Fe Plaza. She loves afternoon tea, old buildings, tailgating at the opera, and solving mysteries. Wisteria Tearoom owner Ellen Rosings coaxes detective Tony Aragon to go with her to the Santa Fe Opera, but the magnificent performance of TOSCA ends in disaster. In counterpoint to the opera’s plot,’‘Scarpia” is murdered in his dressing room and Tony must rush to secure the crime scene. Ellen is left to comfort Vi Benning, a former server at the tea room, who is now an apprentice at the Opera and a protegee of the slain singer. No opera aficionado, Tony turns to Ellen to help navigate the world in which he must now conduct an investigation. The tea room must cope with a sudden, mysterious jump in business, following the publicity that follows the death of the famous baritone. The mystery gains complexity when Ellen’s friend, Vi, is the next victim of murder in the desert location of the Opera. The staff at the tea shop not only deals with the sudden spike in customers, but the death of a dear friend. Complicating Ellen’s life is the tea room’s location in an historic house formerly the home of a mid-19th century captain who was killed there. Was he the ghost that appeared to be playing a motif from a Mozart opera and causing the lights in the tea room to flicker off and on? Will Ellen and Tony be able to establish a real relationship in spite of their differences? And were the murders recent evidence of the storied “TOSCA Curse”? This is Patrice Greenwood’s third book from the series, Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries. Book 4 is scheduled to come out this year. The author satisfies the need for a knowledge of opera in general, tea rooms, Santa Fe, and local history. There’s something for everyone!
The Figaro Murders by Laura Lebow, Minotaur Books, 2015
This is a cozy murder mystery novel set in the past, Vienna in 1786, featuring fictionalized versions of historical people: Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart, Saleri, Emperor Joseph II and others. The author tries to stay as close to the truth about theses people and the events they were involved in at that time. Lorenzo Da Ponte finds himself in trouble after he does a favor for a barber friend (Figaro), who is looking for his birth mother and through that mystery he gets caught up in the murder of a young prince who was working for the baron. Lebow brings the historical figures to life while weaving a story full of intrigue, affairs and betrayal. Because Da Ponte was a poet and librettist for operas, we are immersed in the opera community, given a ring-side-seat as Mozart and others create and stage an opera. The opera featured in the book is Mozart and Da Ponte's The Marriage of Figaro. Da Ponte is instantly likable because things aren't all rosy for him. He's working hard to make Figaro a success and he has a lot of enemies that would like to see him fail. But it is his loyalty to his barber that will endear him to readers. He has only a small box of items that may or may not help him find his barber's family. This hunt leads him from pawn shops to schools for the deaf. After many twists and turns that make it almost impossible to discover who the barber's mother is, there is a surprising revelation at the end.
Lethal Boundaries by S. M. Senden, Second Wind Publishing, 2013
The author is a forensic artist and has studied creative writing, play writing, and screen writing. She currently resides in the Omaha and is working on a modern day series of novels involving a forensic artist. When it comes to murder, people in small towns have a way of keeping secrets for many years, but not forever. In a such a town in Iowa someone guarded a secret for nearly 30 years, until 1939, when the body of a young woman was discovered in an abandoned opera house, setting tongues wagging and minds speculating, for no one can identify her. The foregoing mention of what once was an opera house is at best a tenuous reason for including this book in our murder mystery series, but if you are a serious mystery fan you may want to pursue this captivating story of murder and deception. It will draw you into the past of the Iowa town of Red Oak, when life was simpler but murder is still murder. A new killing and an attempt on the life of a curious teenager who tries to identify the body by researching an old family diary inspires a local police lieutenant to delve into long-held secrets which may help him put an ancient mystery to rest. In this fascinating mystery the author gives a wonderful depiction of an earlier time period, its crime detection methods, and complex characters in a midwestern setting, all woven together in a complicated plot. This small town will come alive for you with local history, family dynamics, and moldy secrets. I was particularly intrigued by this book since Charles and I have spent a fair amount of time in Red Oak and the nearby Swedish village of Stanton, in which many of my ancestors settled in the 1800’s, and where my great-grandparent's home still stands. The owners of this lovely old house say that it is inhabited by a ghost -- perhaps one of my relatives! I encourage you to read this taut and absorbing murder story!
Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network