In 2011, I asked Jane Dentinger, then Editor-in-Chief at the Mystery Guild and someone who accounted for about half the books I was reading, if she knew of any theater-themed mysteries. She then very kindly sent me a package of Jocelyn O’Roarke mysteries. The Jocelyn O’Roarke theatrical cozies were exactly what I was looking for. Their author was none other than Jane Dentinger herself, thus underling the fact that I am the sort of lack-wit who wouldn’t think to drop an editor’s name into Google for the entire time I was freelancing for them. Because I suck.
A hung-over Jocelyn “Josh” O’Roarke is woken by what turns out to be a welcome call for her agent; if she can manage to get across town in time, she has an audition for one of 1983’s promising new Broadway plays, Term of Trial. There are just two catches. The first is that Josh won’t be auditioning for a role as such but for the part of the leading lady’s understudy (albeit with a minor role thrown in as a sweetener) and the second is that the leading lady is the steadfastly banal Harriet Weldon.
In most respects, the production is a happy one, with a good script, a talented director, solid finances, juicy roles and even a showmance or two. The consistent sour note is Weldon, abrasive and manifestly unsuited for her role but unassailable because she is married to the money, Harold Tewes. Tewes is in most ways a conscientious and considerate man but nobody cares to test him where his wife is concerned.
To anyone familiar with cozies, Harriet’s death on page 54 should come as no surprise. At first glance her demise appears to be thanks to misadventure, a fatal head-injury caused by the combination of a fall and blood-thinning medication Harriet was taking. The grains of sand Detective-Sergeant Phillip Gerrard notes tell a different story; someone used a handy sandbag to hit Harriet and then staged the scene.
Unfortunately for Josh, not only did she have a motive to want Harriet gone – they had just argued and Josh expected to get fired over it – but she also had access to the means as well as opportunity, because Josh was in her dressing room, next to Harriet’s, about the time Harriet was dealt the fatal blow. Josh knows that she is innocent but why should Gerrard believe her? The only sane answer is to start looking for the killer herself.
As it turns out, not only is Gerrard not inclined to take the easiest answer1 to the puzzle of who killed Harriet Weldon but investigation soon reveals that Josh is hardly alone as a suspect. If someone had set out to assemble a cast and crew made up almost entirely of people who might want Harriet Weldon dead, they could not have done better than the actual cast and crew of Term of Trial and a surprisingly large fraction of the cast and crew could have killed Weldon during the window of opportunity2.
Open Road Media was kind enough to supply the genesis of this series in Dentinger’s bio:
After making her stage debut in Joe Papp’s production of Pericles at the Delacorte Theatre, [Jane Dentinger] acted off Broadway in All My Sons at the Roundabout Theatre and in Jack Heifner’s Vanities for ages.
By the time Vanities finally closed, there were a lot of people she wanted to kill, and hence, she wrote her debut mystery, Murder on Cue, on a grant of sorts from the New York State Department of Labor.
The moral here is that annoying a mystery writer is an excellent way to get a starring role as the Asshole Victim of their next book. Act accordingly.
Cozies have a particular form and theater cozies are even more well-defined by the shared setting; someone familiar with the Charles Paris books would find Josh very different from Charles but despite the fact Charles is in the UK and Josh the US, the world they live in very similar. You may think isolated country estates and small villages are hell-scapes of carnage and slaughter but they appear to be as nothing compared to your average acting troupe.
Brevity forces efficiency in scene setting and characterization; Josh and Gerrard get development but many of the minor characters are familiar types, although I have to say I take great exception to the idea that an untalented actor could get a role simply because of who they know. Dentinger does some nice misdirection from time to time and also comes up with a murder method I never would have thought of.
Now a period piece, this has aged well. At just 180 pages it is now a bit brief for the modern market but I found the economy imposed by the length refreshing, a nice contract to the meandering messes I often find myself labouring through. I am little puzzled that it took me until 2011 to discover Dentinger’s books since these would have been right up my alley when they were first published and my booksellers generally knew my tastes well.
Murder on Cue was followed by five more Jocelyn O’Roarke mysteries. In order of publication they are First Hit of the Season, Death Mask, Dead Pan, The Queen Is Dead and Who Dropped Peter Pan. All of them are currently available from Open Road Media.
A note about the cover: that was the largest image I could find of the cover of the edition I read. Sorry.
- Jane did once send me a police procedural where the lead cops did always go with whichever answer involved the least amount of paperwork. It was not a comedy and actually disturbingly plausible. What was worse was the text did not seem at all critical of the detectives’ approach.
- Even the stage manager cannot be Tempest Tost out of consideration because the time of Weldon’s death and the fact that they have an understudy means Weldon’s part can be recast quickly.