Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Murder Plays an Ugly Scene - L.A.G. Strong

Emmeline Vane is the tough as nails founder and principal of the Kean-Macready Stage School. With a reputation for bullying students and staff she is far from everyone's favorite. Few tears are shed when her corpse is found in a recording booth located backstage of the school's theater. That she was apparently murdered during the school's annual student pageant does, however, shock not only the student actors but many of the staff. Adding to the mystery is the fact that Miss Vane is found both strangled and stabbed, an ornate dagger found sticking out of her shoulder. Did the killer try and fail with the dagger then resort to strangling? Were there two attempts on her life? How was it all done with no one seeing who entered the booth?

The original title of this book is Othello's Occupation (1945) which also serves as the title of the odd little one act the students were performing when Miss Vane met her long overdue demise. The play tells the story of a tenor with a remarkable singing voice who is auditioning for the role of Othello in Verdi's operatic version of the Shakespearean tragedy. The play does not require that the actor cast as the tenor sing, but Miss Vane, a musical enthusiast, wrote a special scene that would allow her to play a recording of a minor Italian tenor singing an aria from Verdi's Otello. She insisted that she alone operate the gramophone in the recording booth. She would be therefore be in the recording room alone during the play's performance. Inspector Ellis Mackay thinks it gave inspiration to a rather devious and daring killer who gave Miss Vane a fatal lesson in her hour upon the stage.

Mackay who debuted in the intriguing All Fall Down (1944), an impossible crime mystery about a bibliophilic malcontent who is crushed under a towering fallen bookcase in his locked study, makes his second appearance here. He is an unorthodox policeman with a sardonic sense of humor and a keen understanding of human nature, idiosyncratic personality types are his forte. When dealing with the students, especially, he shows his compassionate side in catering his questions to each. He succeeds in putting at ease the nervous and insecure Adrian, paradoxically the best actor in the school. When the excellently named Evadne Jebb, a sickeningly egocentric and vicious gossip dares to imply that she was responsible for Miss Vane's death so that she can once again be the center of attention Mackay treats her with near contempt and lectures her on how her selfishness is a danger to the entire school. Though he manages to penetrate the hidden inner lives of these complex young people they also manage to keep several secrets among themselves and conspire to withhold information from the policeman. Their whispered and furtive scenes nearly lead to another unnecessary death.

In the course of the investigation and largely due to the use of a rare recording Inspector Mackay reveals his private passion -- he is an amateur composer and record collector. Mackay's interest in musical composition and his extensive knowledge of classical music helps him identify two separate recordings of the aria Miss Vane used in the play. In one of the most original set pieces in the book he proves, with the help of "ear-witnesses," that the record used in the performance was not the one Miss Vane had in her possession and previously used in rehearsals. So why the switch and what happened to the other record? Mackay's reputation as an audiophile proves to be his fatal flaw, one that affects his entire team and nearly bungles the case. He later admits his embarrassment in missing the obvious solution to a not so puzzling puzzle.

Mackay suffers no fools and has an irreverent streak in him that recalls the flippancy of Beatrice Bradley. At the same time, he seems to be as wise as the Dalai Lama; his insights while not deeply profound are nonetheless compassionate and sometimes poignant. His unusual hobby involving music in all its forms – here given stronger focus and integral to the final solution of the baffling mystery – makes him all the more appealing. But it is his unbridled concern for the students that make this entry in the series perhaps the finest of the lot.

Strong, like Gladys Mitchell, has an obvious love of young people, their talents, their dreams, their foibles and struggles when faced with violent crime that forces them to grow up quickly. Some learn how to adapt and mature like Violet and Adrian, others like the vile Evadne and her sycophantic crony Petronella descend into childish game playing that endangers the safety of all involved. The author allows Mackay to see both good and bad in all the students and Mackay does his best to teach them how to be better people, not just better students, an issue the faculty has managed to overlook in the doling out of an education.

L.A.G. Strong only dabbled in the mystery genre. He is primarily known for his work as a poet, novelist, and short story writer in which he also experimented with crime and even supernatural themes. His list of non-genre novels far outweighs his detective fiction works – or "police diversions" as he dubbed them – which number only six. But in Ellis Mackay he has fashioned one of the most interesting police detectives in mystery fiction from the late 40s and early 50s. I only wish there had been more of Mackay; a mere four novels is short change for such an original, lively and human character.

Inspector Ellis Mackay appears in:
All Fall Down (1944)
Othello's Occupation (1945)
    [aka Murder Plays an Ugly Scene]
Which I Never (1950)
Treason in the Egg (1958)

Other Detective Fiction by L.A.G. Strong
Slocombe Dies (1942)
Odd Man In (1946) - short story collection

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE:  Nearly finished with my required eight books for the "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. This marks my seventh and fits the category A Mystery By Any Other Name  for books with alternate titles.


  1. John, you never fail to surprise with your choice of forgotten and/or overlooked mysteries by writers I can scarcely admit to having heard of. Here's another that goes right into my list of authors to watch out for.

    1. Strong's eerie and weird short stories are just as good as this very fine detective novel. Sometimes writers not primiarly known for being mystery writers turn out some of the best examples in the entire genre. These are truly underappreciated books.

      A review of one of his story collections (Doyle's Rock) is planned in the future. I will also be reviewing the last two Mackay books in the bibliography list above.

    2. "Unappreciated books," yes, those are the kind of books I'm on the lookout for usually on the internet.

  2. There you go again...dangling delightful sounding detective novels in front of me. That I'm going to lust after and have to look high and low for. Both Murder Plays an Ugly Scene/Othello's Occupation (stage school!) and All Fall Down (impossible crime! malcontent bibliophile! towering bookcase as murder weapon!) sound wonderful.

    1. All Fall Down should be easier to find. My local branch of the library had it and I read a few years ago. It's still there and you might be able to get it via interlibrary loan. Mackay is much more biting with his dry humor in the first book. He's considerably toned down in this one. I think the overall story is much better in ...Ugly Scene. The characters here are rather complex, so varied, in some cases very odd, and seem very modern for the 1940s. So far this is my favorite Mackay book.