Peter Lovesey writes a good mystery, and this one is entertaining on several levels.
What could mean more fun than a mystery set in a theater? Perhaps a mystery set in the wonderful eighteenth-century spa town, Bath? In Stagestruck (325 pages, Soho Crime, $26), Peter Lovesey does both. Peter Diamond, a middle-aged detective with a strange phobia about theaters, is called in to investigate when a high-publicity star runs off the stage screaming on opening night in Bath’s Theatre Royal.
Diamond has to force himself to enter the theater, but when he does, he finds a cast of characters—players, managers, dressers, and costume crew—that are as eccentric and self-important as any group he might encounter. They are also protective of their own, competitive, and, Diamond suspects, vindictive; and this very soon becomes a case of who planted the caustic soda that caused the popular star to run off the stage screaming as her face burned.
In his own office Diamond has quite a cast of characters too, from the smoldering Ingebord, who is razor sharp in her observations and quick in her responses, to Horatio Dawkins, the newest member of CID, who couches every response in theatrical language and who seems to love every little assignment he is given.
Not soon after the investigations into what happened to the actress, other tragedies occur. The dresser, who applied the make-up that some suspect harmed the star, is found dangling in the staging wires, an apparent suicide. And then, just when the earlier victim has given up her lawsuit against the theater and has tried to make amends for her actions, the young starlet is found murdered too.
Diamond has all he can do to run this investigation because every time he enters a theater, his heart starts beating and he is gasping for breath. This makes for some cruel jokes at his expense, but he is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery; and as the novel proceeds he actually confronts these inner demons.
The case eventually turns up some surprises, and the guilty parties emerge from the most surprising locales. Lovesey knows plotting, and this novel is masterful in that way. It is also masterful as the dramatization of theater life. The company is trying to mount a production of Christopher Isherwood’s I am a Camera, and that in itself is interesting, both from the point of view of theater history and from that of the notion of criminality itself.
Peter Lovesey has written a great novel for summer reading. If you can’t make it to England this summer, at least you can read about a couple of complicated weeks in Bath.
Stagestruck is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.