Outrageously funny at times, Caroline Graham’s highly accomplished murder mystery is far, far better than the TV adaptation (ITV) of it. Rich in suspects, the novel is set in fictional Causton, a small provincial town not far from London. This is a complex tale of jealousy and madness.
Here the confined settings are an amateur theatre, a famous stage play and two provincial towns. One is Causton near London, the other exists in playwright Peter Shaffer’s play and in reality: Salzburg in Austria. They all mirror each other and are used to great effect as background for a murder that, at first sniff, doesn’t appear to one at all, but merely an accident on stage.
These small empires are ruled by entirely different types of Big Fish. While Chief Inspector Barnaby rules the real world of provincial Causton, Harold the impresario rules Causton’s small theatre. On stage, we have Peter Shaffer’s villain Salieri and everybody’s favourite enfant terrible, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, battling for leadership of a very different, but equally restrictive world, the 18th century court of Emperor Joseph and Salzburg.
In a town with only a handful of shops, one bookshop and a couple of restaurants, it is hard to stand out, talented or not. We see young actors like Nicholas and Cully leave Causton for the world at large (Cambridge and London), just as Mozart eventually left Salzburg to seek his fortune abroad. The talented have a shot at eternal life. Hollow, meaning talentless or mediocre men and women, do not; all they can dream of is to become a Big Fish in a small pond. The jealousy this creates is the central theme.
Where the Worlds of Make-Believe and Reality collide
The plot revolves around a staging of playwright Peter Shaffer’s famous play, Amadeus, by Causton’s amateur dramatics society, of which Chief Inspector Barnaby’s wife Joyce is a long-standing member. Occasionally, Barnaby himself is drafted in to help with painting the scenery due to his skill with a paintbrush.
Having known all the suspects for more than a decade is initially advantageous in a murder investigation; however, Chief Inspector Barnaby soon realises that knowing suspects intimately can get in the way of objectivity and hamper an investigation considerably. Reality and make-belief soon collide, as history repeats itself and another “hollow” man finds death.
A Play within a Play
For those who don’t know Shaffer’s famous play “Amadeus”:
18th century composer Salieri, a life-long rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is so consumed with envy that he plots the young composer’s downfall and death. Salieri reigns in the fashionable society of Austria’s court, Schönbrunn, and in Salzburg, a provincial town at the Austrian/German border.
On the surface, the two composers are competing for the “Big Fish” position in Salzburg and at Emperor Joseph’s court, but what they are really competing for is a place in history.
By ruining Amadeus’ chances at Schönbrunn’s court, where the young man seeks a patron in Emperor Joseph, Salieri reduces his rival to abject poverty. The play also suggests that Salieri may have actually poisoned Mozart, explaining the composer’s mysterious illness and premature death at age 30.
Amadeus: the name means beloved by God. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s heavenly music gives the composer access to the realm of the Gods, and therefore eternity. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart drives the older man insane and ultimately, to suicide, as Salieri loses faith in God after a lifetime of devotion and a lifetime of mediocrity. Salieri’s music is only remembered today because of his involvement with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Historians still debate whether Salieri truly poisoned Mozart, or whether the older composer merely poisoned public opinion against Mozart.
Shaffer’s play is beautifully mirrored in the jealousies of the actors in Causton’s theatre, where everybody hopes to be either director, leading man or leading lady, never mind if they’ve got the talent for the job or not.
In the confined world of the amateur theatre (it only has 100 seats) Caroline Graham stages her whodunit like a play and mirrors Shaffer’s central theme and historical events in Salzburg in her own murder mystery.
Noises off stage in this context mean Salieri-style intrigues and gossip, which drive Caroline Graham’s plot.
Inspector Barnaby’s own brilliance is contrasted by his Sergeant’s inability to detect his way out of a coffee cup (another “hollow” man, who incidentally is also married to a “hollow” woman).
Barnaby is married to a once promising singer, Joyce, who gave up her career to be a policeman’s wife and mother to talented actress daughter Cully. Now middle-aged, Joyce is reduced to be “noises off” and performs walk-on parts in the amateur dramatics society. Her lovely voice has been switched off by marriage and convention, not malice, but her fate seems to mirror that of the young composer Mozart. Inspector Barnaby, ultimately also just a Big Fish in a small pond, effectively ended Joyce’s career in the big wide world.
The murder only happens after we have been introduced to the entire cast: the director, the leading man, the bit players and even the theatre cat – and when the “director’s cut” finally happens in the midst of first night performance nerves and stage fright jitters, everybody assumes it was an accident that an actor cut his throat on stage.
Except for Barnaby. He can see through the make-believe of painted scenery, unfamiliar lighting and fake stage directions (on stage and off).
At the close of the novel Barnaby strolls through the streets of Causton. For the first time he sees his little realm’s shortcomings properly and is disgusted by what he sees. But there’s hope; much may be “hollow” in Barnaby’s little world, but look closely and you’ll discover a divine spark lights up dark corners and occasionally produces a prodigy beloved by the Gods, in this case his daughter Cully and young actor-to-be Nicholas).
As in Sir Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”, the novel “Death of a Hollow Man” by Caroline Graham uses location to characterise not just the protagonists readers see “on stage”, but also those “off stage”. Throughout the novel the reader has the feeling there’s somebody waiting in the dark wings of the little theatre (and Causton) who pulls the strings. Ever so often, the reader is allowed to catch a glimpse, before change in lighting and direction hide this “off-stage” character from our glance again.
Some genres thrive on multiple locations, epic landscapes and hordes of characters. The fantasy and sci-fi genres spring to mind. Such novels deal with the “grand opera” of human existence, the philosophical questions that plague mankind.
Murder mysteries by contrast are intellectual puzzles which can only be solved by the reader, if the writer sets strict boundaries. They also typically look at just one aspect of the human condition: greed, sex, revenge, ambition or, in this case, professional jealousy. More “earthy” aspects, while fantasy and sci-fi look at the “lofty” (intellectual) side of humanity’s condition.
In this novel, the readers looks at the world under a microscope. This allows the writer to look at a very specific aspect of the human condition, that of mediocrity versus brilliance or talent. Since Agatha Christie decreed that a good whodunit shouldn’t really have more than a dozen characters driving the plot, murder mystery writers have mostly stuck to this formula. It is difficult to get to know a list of suspects, when the reader is presented with a veritable army of characters and an atlas full of locations.
In the urban sprawl of London, New York or Paris murders may be committed by murderers, who kill without reason, thus leaving no clue to identity and motive. Those types of murders are typically very difficult, if not impossible, to solve. It may take real life policemen and women years to discover the murderer.
Setting boundaries, such as a country mansion, a Midsomer hamlet, a 100-seater theatre or small provincial town, allows the writer to concentrate on that famous dozen and a very specific, perhaps even unusual aspect of the human condition.
Few of us will ever meet a Mozart, Picasso or Einstein – but many of us know a truly outstanding, talented person in our small circle of work colleagues and acquaintances, and so we can still relate to this novel and the underlying theme.
Choosing the right location is as important as the characters one invents to carry the plot of a particular piece of genre writing. Using that chosen location to represent more than mere painted scenery is where a novel turns from merely memorable to unforgettable.
I have used a few examples of crime novels or whodunits here to demonstrate how location is more than just a painted background on which to stage a “play”. Murder mysteries dissect a small sample of society. I chose the genre because I wanted to start “small” and follow up with the big picture, namely Alexander McCall Smith’s series of 44 Scotland Street stories, which are set in Edinburgh, but use the whole country as a means to muse about philosophical issues, historic changes, love and friendship, in other words, issues that affect all of humanity.