Maggie, Do You Wanna Dance?*
There’s something about being on stage that can capture people’s imaginations. Whether it’s a variety show, dancers, or something else, the life of a performer can look awfully enticing. But it’s not an easy life. There’s the years of preparation, the travel, the endless rehearsals, and sometimes-strict limits on diet, free time, and so on. Still, there are people who are passionate about dancing, and devote themselves to it. That’s as true in crime fiction as it is anywhere else.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Hastings is on his way from France to London. On the train, he meets a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. He’s drawn to her but doesn’t think much of it. Then, he and Hercule Poirot are called back to France at the request of Paul Renauld, who has written to Poirot to ask for his help. By the time Poirot and Hastings arrive at the Renauld home, it’s too late: Paul Renauld has been murdered. Poirot and Hastings work (although not very cordially) with the local police to find the killer. Meanwhile, Hastings meets up with ‘Cinderella’ again, when she visits the scene of the murder. She claims she’s fascinated with murder cases, and Hastings shows her around – until she disappears. As it turns out, ‘Cinderella’ is a performer; together with her sister, she sings, dances, and does acrobatic feats. In fact, it’s through her agent that Poirot and Hastings find her. And it turns out that her acrobatic skills play a part in the novel.
Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces his sleuths Arthur Bryant and John May. In one plot thread of the book, we learn about the first case that Bryan and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit faced. In 1940 London, the Palace Theatre is hit with a bizarre string of tragedies. The first is the death of a dancer, Tanya Capistrania. She was to have a solo part in the theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus, but she was murdered before the show could open. Bryant and May are in the process of investigating that crime when another performer is killed by a stage prop. Other strange things happen, too. It takes time, but Bryant and May find out who’s responsible for what’s happened, and, more importantly, why.
Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch is a Melbourne-based former stripper turned PI. She sometimes does freelance stripping as she waits for her PI career to take root. In Peepshow, the first of the series, Simone’s best friend Chloe Wozniak asks for help. Chloe, who is also a stripper, works at a club called the Red Room. When the body of the club’s owner, Francisco ‘Frank’ Parisi, is pulled from a local bay, Chloe is suspected of his murder. She’d had a loud argument with him, and she admits to her anger. But she says she didn’t kill him and doesn’t want to be arrested. Simone agrees to see what she can do, and starts to look into the case. As she does, we learn what life is like for strip dancers and performers. It may look very exotic on stage, but behind the scenes? Not so much…
In Bev Robitai’s Body on the Stage, Dennis Dempster is at loose ends in his life, especially since his divorce from his wife. His sister Janice convinces him to get involved in the Regent Theatre’s upcoming production of Ladies Night. Dennis is reluctant to go, but he shows up, and ends up being placed on the backstage crew. One day, he meets Kathy, who owns a gym called Intensity. She’s training the dancers, so she’s been working with the show. Dennis is able to fix a computer problem for her, and in exchange, she shows him around the gym and offers to put together a workout program for him. Dennis could use getting into shape, so even though it’s very hard, he starts to train. Then, Cathy’s assistant goes missing and is later found dead. The police investigate, and it soon turns out that the murder victim was involved in several illegal ‘side businesses,’ any one of which could get him killed. As Cathy and Dennis work with the police to find out who the killer is, we also get a look at the hard work that dancers do to get ready for a show.
And then there’s Sarah Dunant’s Birth Marks, which introduces PI Hannah Wolfe. As a way of helping her start her business, Wolfe’s mentor sends her a new case. Augusta Patrick is a former dancer with high hopes for her protégée Carolyn Hamilton. Carolyn is a very talented dancer who’s got a very good chance at moving to the top. But Miss Patrick is worried, because she hasn’t heard from Carolyn in a while. Wolfe takes the case and starts asking questions and looking for any information she can find. Then, Carolyn’s body is pulled from the Thames. Now the missing person case has changed. At first, her death is put down to suicide. Miss Patrick wants Wolfe to leave the case alone, as she has found the answer to her question. But Wolfe isn’t so sure that this is a case of suicide, so she keeps asking questions. The trail takes her through several dance groups, and we learn what it’s like to try to get a dance career started. And in the end, we find out what happened to Carolyn Hamilton.
It can be exciting to watch dancers and performers on stage and imagine what it might be like to be one of them. Everything can look magical. But it’s not an easy life, and as crime fiction shows, it’s not always a safe one, either.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s At The Ballet.