Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Murder Plays an Ugly Scene - L.A.G. Strong
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.
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.
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.