Friday, April 12, 2013

FFB: Death in the Limelight - A.E. Martin

A hypnotist's act goes haywire when one of the audience volunteers is stabbed in full view of spectators in the opening chapter of Death in the Limelight (1946), Australian mystery writer A.E. Martin's third detective novel. The story opens with this scene as described by the self-absorbed actor Egan Crane and then flashes back in time to introduce the rest of the cast.

We are taken on board a cruise ship recently docked in Sydney harbor and get to meet the cast of characters. Egan Crane, supercilious and full of himself, is an itinerant actor headed to the Colonna Theater hoping he can latch on to some acting work. Though he has grandiose ideas about his limited talent and keeps imagining great things fir himself he will have to settle for vaudeville work. Also on board are Bob Struthers (American) and Janie (Australian) , dance partners who likewise are headed for the Colonna in search of work. By chance they happen to meet Miriam Lindel who is immediately taken with the couple. Miriam is a retired actress and their charm and youth remind her of days gone by when she and he late husband used to re-enact the murder scene from Othello. She asks Bob and Janie about lodgings while in Sydney and when they say they haven't yet found a place she invites them to her home.

Eventually these two alternating stories intersect and we learn that Egan, Bob and Janie were all in the theater where the murder occurred during Herman Flaxman's hypnosis act. Bob and Janie were in the audience while Egan was one of the audience volunteers on stage with Flaxman. The story takes an interesting twist when Egan through sheer luck runs into his half-brother Henry and his wife Hetty and a few pages later learns that his sister lives nearby. Three guesses as to who the sister turns out to be. Bingo! It's Miriam, the loopy retired actress. And it is at Miriam's excessively Gothic home that the bulk of the novel takes place. Miriam at times reminded me of Miss Haversham with her morbid devotion to dear departed Lionel. Her overly protective, surly servant Dugald -- one of the best of the supporting characters -- is like a sassy male version of Mrs. Danvers. These two oddball characters along with other supporting players like Joe Parotti (nee Parsons), an eccentric who trains parrots, a knife thrower (again!) and his nymphet of a wife are highlights in a well told, lively and sometimes complicated plot.

Two wonderful scenes enhance the eerie mood that at times is reminiscent of the best Gothic novels. Bob witnesses Dugald carrying an apparently lifeless body down the stairs in the wee hours of the morning and Egan stumbles into a small theater discovering a full replica of the final scene of Othello including a gorgeous sleeping Desdemona in a curtained bed. But who is she? The same body Dugald carried down the stairs perhaps? All will be revealed, but not before another murder or two take place along with a few shocking and gruesome surprises.

The only fault in this book is Martin's rushed ending in which he attempts to tie up into a neat bundle the many extraneous threads of a complex plot. In a series of lengthy monologues delivered by the police inspector in charge of the investigation the reader is asked to swallow a bit much. After a number of ludicrous leaps in logic and several absurd assumptions Martin still manages to leave a few threads hanging.

A. E. Martin had extensive experience in theater as a magician's assistant, a stage performer, and spruiker (an Australian name for a carnival barker) which adds a dimension of authenticity to his mystery novels with entertainment backgrounds.  As with his other novels  Death in the Limelight also shows off Martin's macabre sense of humor and a predilection for Gothic settings and situations.

Previously reviewed on this blog is Sinners Never Die, Martin's debut novel which is a superior crime novel lauded by Anthony Boucher among many other critics.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: Marking down #5 out of the minimum of eight books required  for the  "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. The book fulfills the category Staging the Crime. Previous reviews for the challenge are listed below:

Murder is Academic: Murder from the Grave by Will Levinrew
Colorful Crime: The Woman in Purple Pajamas by Willis Kent
Jolly Old England: Murder in Blue by Clifford Witting
Scene of the Crime: The Mystery at Stowe by Vernon Loder


  1. This sounds really great and I've read very little mystery fiction from Australia so that alone makes it worthwhile - then you add some magic and it certainly sounds compelling - cheers mate.

  2. I have this vague feeling that I read this somewhere back in the mists of time. If I did (and am not half-remembering some other book--thanks, mid-life brain drain), I neglected to log it properly. But your vivid review definitely stirs up pleasant thoughts. Thanks for another great review!

  3. When I was done reading your review, I called every used bookstore in town to see if they had a copy. None of them did, but I have two of them on the lookout for it. Thanks for the review.