The Dressing Room Murder by J.S. Fletcher – a classic 1931 murder mystery republished by Oreon at The Oleander Press
The Dressing Room Murder by J.S. Fletcher
Theatrical murder mysteries are always a hit with me, and this 1931 novel recently republished by Oreon at the Oleander Press is a terrific read in the fine traditions of alibis and much more. Joseph Smith Fletcher wrote many detective stories (including The Yorkshire Moorland Mystery which I have reviewed) and this one is satisfyingly complex and introduces some excellent characters. Set in a small Yorkshire town, the fictional Hatherford, the action of the novel revolves around the town’s central theatre and a bloody murder which takes place in the main dressing room. Not that there is brutality or excessive gore, this novel stays true to the Golden Age pattern of puzzle rather than violence. The puzzle is elegant and well developed, as secret entrances, a small town’s worth of suspects plus a theatre company and adherents and a very specific time of murder is established. The two main detectives, Marston the Chief Constable, and Detective Sergeant Stell, are determined, well connected and occasionally inspired, but not infallible as various leads emerge and must be discounted. I enjoyed this story of a community beset by the murder of a man who has just returned to the area after a long absence and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
The novel opens with Marston and two other town worthies enjoying a drink in the Hyacinth club. The urgent message is relayed to Marston that Sir John Riversley, actor manager of a visiting theatre company, has been found murdered in his dressing room at the Theatre Royal, just before his performance as Hamlet. While the police officer is a relative newcomer to the district, he is quickly informed that Riversley was born and brought up in the town, and that this engagement of his players marks his first return since his career has taken off so spectacularly on a worldwide basis. The weapon is in situ, the actor’s own rapier plunged into his back while he sat at his dressing table. His traumatised dresser and the stage door guardian reveal that the actor was a creature of habit and had only arrived at the theatre a short time before, leaving a small window of opportunity for his attacker. While such a person had not used the stage door to enter and exit, anyone with knowledge of the theatre would have known of other ways to access the dressing room. As Marston and Stell begin to investigate, it seems that there are those with a motive to dispatch the actor, ranging from some in his own Company to a distressed fan from the other side of the world. It also emerges that there may well be those who bear the famous man a long standing hatred from his youth in the town, especially as Yorkshire people are apparently good at bearing grudges. As potential suspects emerge, there seems to be several leads, but alibis, defences and so many other aspects of the matter must be worked through, not least the victim’s own secretive behaviour in the hours leading up to the attack. Can Marston and Stell solve this mystery before anyone else is put in danger?
This is a well written mystery which kept me guessing until the end with its layers of clues and leads. The setting is well used, with vivid accounts of locals and those connected with the theatre company. This is in many ways a classic mystery containing so many elements of the Golden Age of detective fiction, and I recommend this reprint as a really good read from the time and representing the genre so well.