1914, Broadway, clue in plain sight, David Belasco, feminism, historical fiction, Jane Prescott series, locked-room mystery, Mariah Fredericks, mystery, ragtime, sexual mores, the Four Hundred, theater folk, theatrical personalities, wit
Review: Death of a Showman, by Mariah Fredericks
Minotaur, 2021. 276 pp. $27
Jane Prescott, lady’s maid to wealthy socialite Mrs. Louise Tyler, has just returned from an exhausting trip to Europe in June 1914, during which they attended a wedding. Much to Jane’s dismay, the pros and cons of marriage are on her mind, considering that Leo Hirschfeld, a musician who might or might not have been courting her the previous summer, has married, after insisting he wouldn’t. Then too, the Tylers seem, well, maybe not unhappy with each other, but out of sorts. Bored, maybe.
No boredom allowed when Leo invites Mrs. Tyler to a rehearsal of a ragtime musical for which he’s written the score, and whose cast so happens to include his new bride. Mrs. Tyler has no idea she’s being cultivated as a potential investor in the show. But Jane, who wasn’t born yesterday, realizes that the flirtatious Leo, who can’t abide the idea that someone might resent him, especially if she has every reason to, hopes to get back into her good graces.
Naturally, she has no intention of joining Mrs. Tyler at the theater; just as obviously, she must, because her employer needs a chaperone, and Louise relies on her. Further, you know that one visit won’t be enough, so Mrs. Tyler begins regularly attending rehearsals, while Jane works backstage. She also has to sit through watching Leo’s better half, a voluptuous airhead whose only talent seems to be walking downstairs in a suggestive way. Mrs. Tyler really has no idea how much Jane puts up with for her sake.
Readers familiar with the Jane Prescott mystery series know that someone will soon wind up dead, and Jane will solve the crime. You don’t need a crystal ball (or the jacket flap) to guess that the victim will be Sidney Warburton, the show’s producer. A ruthless, exploitive tyrant who takes pride in seducing other men’s wives, Warburton gets shot in a bathroom stall at Rector’s restaurant during a cast party.
This backdrop may sound familiar for a mystery, but Fredericks makes it her own. Warburton’s not a pure monster; he’s helped many people, given them a chance in a cutthroat theatrical world. Not only does his generosity, however self-interested, flesh him out, it complicates the question of motive. Though just about every member of cast and crew has suffered his vitriol and humiliating behavior, he’s also their bread and butter; even, in cases, their rescuer.
Moreover, Fredericks knows her historical and theatrical ground, whether we’re talking about what the theater district looked like in 1914, or what went on there. To this theater historian and lifelong devotee, she’s conjured up what makes actors tick, the glamour and what lies behind it, and an unsophisticated public’s fear (and admiration) of the theater as institution and lifestyle. Several characters’ names or reputations evoke stars from the era. For those readers familiar with that theatrical age, see if you recognize a hint of David Belasco, a hack producer/director and playwright but technological innovator, in this description of Warburton’s theater:
Only seven years old, the Sidney Theater was equipped with the most modern advances — hydraulics, a lighting board, and set workshops on the lower floors with an elevator to carry the results up to the stage — as well as the most lavish of interior design. Its creator had said he wanted the audience to feel as if they were in someone’s home, and so they might, if that someone were a Vanderbilt. Glossy oak paneling shone as red-brown as a setter’s coat, alongside Tiffany stained glass and murals of the more titillating Greek myths.
I like Fredericks’s re-creation of Rector’s (a real place) and the cast-party murder scene, in which the killer must be present, yet plausibly escapes notice. It’s a clever blend of two mystery traditions, the locked room and the clue in plain sight. For further depth, always welcome, the author explores whether love is what it looks like, and whether you can separate it from physical passion. Along the way, the dialogue crackles with wit — I don’t recall laughing as much reading the other Jane Prescott mysteries — as you might expect from theater folk.
Accordingly, Fredericks has loosened Jane’s corset a notch, and though that makes sense for the story, I stumbled over that, remembering her from previous episodes as a more cautious, demure woman of her time. Another significant character reveals a different sort of shift, which feels contrived — a rare slip for the author. The unnecessary, perhaps deliberately misleading, prologue is at least short enough not to annoy too much. And though the narrative includes the approach of the European war, which makes sense, the mixture doesn’t always flow smoothly, nor are the details always historically accurate.
But Death of a Showman remains a delicious, poignant treat, and I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.