By Helen McCloy
First published: US, Morrow, 1942
A first night audience thundering applause on one side of the curtain – death and confusion rampant on the other … and a cast faced with a hit but no run, and the damning evidence of a housefly and a canary…
When the curtain rises on the first act, the man is alive; when it descends, he is lying in the same position he has maintained throughout the act as the dying Vladimir, but he is dead. He has been murdered on stage and it seems obvious that one of three people must be guilty: Wanda Morley, fascinating but ruthless leading lady; Rodney Tait, transparently ingénue in a rôle too big for him; and Leonard Martin, the most finished and gifted actor in the cast. But all three disclaim any knowledge of the victim…
There are none of the ordinary clues, and each suspect is well trained in the art of concealing or counterfeiting emotion. The crime was committed in full view of audience and players, and yet no one can say who the murderer is, whom he has murdered, when he has done it, or why.
It looks very much like the perfect crime until Dr. Basil Willing, psychiatrist attached to the district attorney’s office, begins to investigate the peculiar behaviour of a pet canary and a housefly.
A young man is murdered during a revival of Sardou’s Fédora (1882) – a play written for the great Sarah Bernhardt, and which is remembered today, if at all, for Giordano’s opera (1898).
The tone is cool and sophisticated; characters are sharply and sympathetically observed; and one gets a good insight into theatre in 1940s New York. The solution may not be earth-shattering – there are only a handful of suspects – but the clueing is excellent.
In its quiet way, a triumph.