I like to think I have a wide taste in music, and can get something out of almost every genre and style. I do draw the line at ‘modern’ jazz, however. My view is – and I show my age by borrowing a phrase from the 1957 Wolfenden Report – that it should be permissible only between consenting adults, and very definitely in private. So, no Crime Fiction set around an alto sax player who plays thirty-five minute solos (sadly, he’s not fictional, but he is certainly committing a crime.)
I do love Operas, though – at least those written up to the death of Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (who would be just as wonderful even if he didn’t have six christian names.) I would add the personal caveat that for me it is sometimes better heard than seen, as stage productions can sometimes demand too much suspension of disbelief. Our chosen book, then, is Spur Of The Moment by David Linzee, and it is set around the St Louis Opera company as they prepare a performance of Bizet’s wonderful, preposterous, exhilarating four-act classic, Carmen.
The central character in the book is Renata Radleigh, an English mezzo-soprano who is employed by the St Louis Opera to sing the relatively minor role of Mercédès. Her brother, fellow ex-pat David, is also employed by the SLO, but his task is to tout far and wide for commercial sponsorship.
When a key company patron Helen Stromberg-Brand is found brutally murdered, the police suspect David Radleigh and arrest him. His motive? It seems that Helen – nicknamed Sturm und Drang – and her husband were on the verge of cancelling a huge donation. Could they have argued? Did David lose his temper with the headstrong woman?
But there could be another motive. Helen Stromberg-Brand was a national celebrity, at least in the field of pharmaceutical research. She and her team were on the threshold of patenting a revolutionary drug to combat urinary tract infection in women. In partnership with the charismatic billionaire Keith Bryson – who has the casual dress sense, long hair and boyish charm of Richard Branson – Helen’s unit at the Adams University Medical Centre were about to find even greater fame and riches. Now she lies in the police mortuary, her head shattered by a heavy glass bowl.
Renata is not the world’s most loving sister, but she refuses to accept that David could have killed Sturm und Drang, if only because he is far too wet and wimpy for murder. Together with a former reporter, Peter Lombardo, she thinks the lady’s demise was less to do with the SLO, and more to do with the cut-throat world of drug patenting.
David Linzee has himself been a ‘supernumary’ – basically the opera equivalent of a spear carrier – and he enjoys several digs at the way an opera company in a mid-sized city is run. I particularly enjoyed his jibes at the ubiquitous need for sponsorship. Linzee (right) explains that the SLO has to make sure that literally every brick in the building has corporate support. Thus we have the Peter J Calvocoressi Administration Building, the Charles Macnamara III Auditorium and – best of all – the Endeavour Rent-a-Car Endowed Artist. In this case it’s Amy Song, the woman playing Carmen.
By the time Renata and Peter think they have unraveled the mystery of who killed the formidable Mrs Stromberg-Brand, the unorthodox stage set of the Carmen production experiences a malfunction. A giant playing card land on the heroine’s head. An all-points-bulletin is issued for the only actress who can replace the stricken Ms Song – none other than our very own Renata Radleigh. Renata takes the stage in triumph, but before the distraught Don José can plunge his stage dagger into Carmen’s heart, a real killer pre-empts the drama at the bull-fighting arena.
If anything, the plot of Spur Of The Moment is even more unlikely than the full blooded passion and drama taking place on stage between the doomed gypsy girl and her battling lovers, but what the tabloid press might call THE SHENANIGANS IN SEVILLE make a wonderful backdrop for this beautifully written and sharply funny murder mystery. A tad cosy, perhaps? Maybe, but when something is as well written as this, you won’t hear me complaining. A final word, if I may. Try to get to a production of Bizet’s masterpiece as soon as you can. Why the hurry? Well, it stands to reason, surely? Not only was Bizet not Spanish, his opera may well come to be classified as ‘cultural appropriation’ as well as making harmful stereotypes of people from Seville, women who make cigars, gypsies, policemen and bullfighters. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Spur Of The Moment is published by Coffeetown Press and is available here.
You can catch up with the previous parts of this series by clicking the links.