Monday, March 9, 2020

MOONLIGHTERS: Queena Mario, A Diva Kills (on Paper)

For the handful of people who read the last “Moonlighters” article on an actress who dabbled on the side as a mystery writer (Dulcie Gray) you may have thought I started up this feature and promptly abandoned it because the promise of the next installment on a literature professor turned mystery writer never materialized. Did I abandon the idea altogether? (you may be wondering). I say unto you, “Taint true, kiddos!” Today marks the return of “Moonlighters” and I hope to make this a monthly or bimonthly feature for the rest of the year.

Today we have the opera singer Queena Mario, well-loved lyric soprano who performed with five different opera companies and was with the illustrious Metropolitan Opera from 1922 to 1938. While still working as a singer in 1934 she wrote her first of a trio of mystery novels. All three, none too surprisingly, are set in the world of opera with plots revolving around such familiar works as I Pagliacci, Samson & Delilah and Gounod’s version of the Faust story.

I’ve only read her first book and judging from the less than kind reviews of her other two mystery novels it’s probably better to stop right there. Murder in the Opera House (1934) is ably plotted and energetically written with a truly original murder method directly tied to the world of opera and theater. For that reason I would recommend the book to those enjoy vintage detective fiction for its bizarre and outre plot elements. But the characters, unfortunately, left me wanting; they tend to come from a dusty trunk of cliched stereotypes.

Editha Fleischer & Queena Mario in Hansel & Gretel
Metropolitan Opera, Dec 25, 1931
That Mario performed in the Met’s production of I Pagliacci in March 1934 is no coincidence when you discover that the plot of her novel features a dual production of that opera along with Cavalleria Rusticana, both one act operas and both often presented together in a double bill. Are any of these characters modelled on the actual cast members of Leoncavallo’s opera, one wonders? I certainly hope not. Mario’s fictional cast is as temperamental and hot-headed as any cast of opera singers you could imagine in their worst possible stereotypes. From the vindictive and passionate Consuelo Elvado who plays the doomed Nedda in the opera and the victim in the murder mystery to the ludicrously jealous and dictatorial conductor Luigi Velucci, a short-statured egomaniac, sort of a Napoleon of Time …uh, Tempo.

Our detective duo are made up of Carey Van Horn, "the world's greatest criminal psychologist" and Manhattan D.A. Merrick Townsend.  This is their only appearance in her books (the other two have amateur detectives) and they make a good team. But to fill up the pages we are saddled with a love story subplot between Van Horn and Diana Pearson, a character who is not at all a suspect in the crime but who has a slightly suspicious nature related to something else entirely. The entire subplot is a distraction and when Van Horn is with Diana he tends to become embarrassingly boyish.

When Mario sticks with her theater background, her impassioned singers, the efficient stage crew, and focusses on the detective work the book is a mild success. As a debut detective novel from a woman not known for her fiction writing (although she had been a journalist prior to studying singing) Murder in the Opera House is an admirable piece of entertainment. Mario does well with planting her clues, trying her best to throw in a few red herrings, but it is painfully obvious by the middle of the book who the culprit is. As soon as Van Horn discovers one key piece of evidence the game is up. Additionally, her valiant attempt to make the murder an impossible crime -- a shooting that occurs during a performance in front of an audience with no sign of the weapon anywhere on stage or in the wings -- does not quite live up to the reader's expectations.

The most intriguing feature of this theatrical mystery novel is the focus on the backstage world. Specifically, Mario gives us a literal bird’s eye view of how an opera is run. There are two key scenes that take place on the catwalks high above the stage amid the terraced ledges of the fly system and the maze of booms from which the lighting instruments are hung. Very rarely has any mystery writer allowed a reader such a detailed tour into the arcane area of stage management and lighting design. Lighting cues and technical effects are crucial to understanding how the murder was committed. The murder weapon itself is utterly bizarre and incredibly ingenious for a novel of any age, let alone our beloved Golden Age. Something similar may have been employed in more modern theater mysteries, but I am sure that this is a first time it was employed in all of detective fiction.

Queena Mario (1896-1951) was born in Akron, OH to James Tillotson, who was a Civil War drummer boy, and Rose Sinathinos. She grew up in Plainfield, NJ and moved to New York as a young adult to write newspaper columns for The Telegram, The Evening World and The Sun. She wrote under her own name Queena Tillotson and a house name, "Florence Bryan," for a column called "Talks with Your Children." While working as a journalist she saved her money and began taking singing lessons. After being twice turned down by the Met she was hired by Fortune Gallo for his San Carlo Opera Company. She made her professional debut with that company in Tales of Hoffman on Sept 4, 1918. She chose to perform under Queena Mario by shortening her middle name Marion.

She went on to sing with Scotti Opera Company and Ravinia Opera Company travelling across the united States with the former. Finally, on Thanksgiving Day in 1922 she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Micaela in Carmen. She also performed for six seasons with San Francisco Opera and sang at the renowned Paris Opera House in 1925. For details on her career in San Francisco see this article and the SF Opera blog. According to her New York Times obituary: "She achieved her greatest popularity as Gretel in Hansel and Gretel and it was as Gretel she bade goodbye to the Metropolitan in a special afternoon performance on Dec 26, 1938." A bit of trivia: the Met's 1931 production of Hansel and Gretel featuring Mario in her first Met performance of her signature role was the first live radio broadcast of a Met opera.

The Times goes on to note: "Beginning in 1931 she taught for three years at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. She also taught voice and operatic acting at the Julliard Graduate School, and for some years conducted her own private studio."

In addition to Murder at the Opera House Mario's mystery novels include Murder Meets Mephisto (1942) , and Death Drops Delilah (1944). Isaac Anderson, mystery novel reviewer for The New York Times was taken with her debut saying "... she is able to make the setting and the people of the opera fairly convincing, but she is not so successful in her delineation of the other characters in the book. [The book] not a great detective story, but it has its exciting moments." Neither of the later two mysteries was as favorably reviewed as her debut. Below are capsule reviews I took from old editions of "The Criminal Record," the mystery novel column that appeared in The Saturday Review for over three decades.

And for true opera buffs here's Queena Mario performing a Pucchini aria during an NBC 1932 radio show: 


  1. I do love a mystery set in an opera house -there aren't nearly enough of them. The book doesn't seem easy to get hold of.

    1. Because of this post all copies offered online were sold within three days! I was blown away by yet another mad rush to snag a scarce murder mystery as a direct result of my writing. Pays to be early around here. If interested you can still find copies of Murder Meets Mephisto and Death Drops Delilah though it seems that they are weaker efforts than her debut. I'm interested in the second one (...Mephisto), but I think I'll avoid her last.

  2. Thank you for this post!!! This is my great aunt and it is wonderful to learn all this amazing information about her.