Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

Having enjoyed one of Joseph O’Connor’s earlier novels, Ghost Light, about the relationship between the playwright John Millington Synge and the actress Molly Allgood, I was looking forward to reading his newest book, Shadowplay, which was shortlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Like Ghost Light, this book explores the lives of several real historical figures from the literary and theatrical worlds – in this case, the Irish author Bram Stoker and the English stage actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

Bram Stoker, of course, is best known for his 1897 novel Dracula, which is written in an epistolary style and O’Connor uses a similar format in Shadowplay, telling the story through a series of imagined diary entries, letters and transcripts of recordings. Beginning with his life in Dublin and marriage to Florence Balcombe, the novel takes us through Stoker’s meeting with the great Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving and his move to London to become the manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre. Stoker’s involvement with Irving and the Lyceum leads to a friendship with Ellen Terry, the leading actress of her time, and the relationship between these three characters forms the heart of the novel.

While much of Stoker’s time is taken up with managing the theatre and trying to deal with Irving’s eccentricities, sudden rages and heavy drinking, he also continues to work on his own career as an author. Sadly he won’t achieve the fame he deserves until after his death, but in Shadowplay we see him drawing on his experiences and the people and places around him to put together the various parts of the novel that will become Dracula. I should point out, though, that this book is a work of fiction and Joseph O’Connor finds some very creative ways to weave Dracula allusions into the plot. They are not necessarily things that influenced the real Stoker, but I thought it was fascinating and cleverly done. Jonathan Harker appears, and Mina, although not quite in the way you might expect, a visit to an asylum inspires the creation of the insect-eating Renfield, and with Jack the Ripper haunting the streets of London at that time, it’s easy to see why themes of death and darkness wouldn’t be far from an aspiring author’s mind.

Despite all the interesting ideas explored in this novel, I can’t really say that I loved it. I thought the format and structure of the book made it feel slightly disjointed; a more conventional narrative would have worked better for me and would have made it easier for me to connect with the characters and become more fully asbsorbed in their stories. Still, this is an entertaining and very imaginative novel and I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about Bram Stoker, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry!

Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E and MA Radford

Dean Street Press have recently brought an intriguing selection of Golden Age crime novels back into print, including several by husband and wife writing team E and MA (Edwin and Mona Augusta) Radford. This book – and the other two Radford titles which have just been reissued, Murder Jigsaw and Murder Isn’t Cricket – all feature Harry Manson, a detective and forensic scientist who works at Scotland Yard’s Crime Research Laboratory.

Who Killed Dick Whittington?, published in 1947, has a theatrical setting and takes place during the Christmas season. The Henri de Benyat theatre company are performing Dick Whittington at the Pavilion in Burlington-on-Sea and, in the tradition of all good British pantomimes, the hero is played by a woman. Her name is Norma de Grey and to say she is not popular with the rest of the cast would be an understatement. When she is killed with a lethal dose of prussic acid one night while on stage in the role of Dick, suspicion falls on the actor playing her Cat – but when the Cat is also found poisoned, it seems that someone else must have been responsible.

Doctor Manson is called in to investigate, but as well as the Dick Whittington poisonings he is also busy with another case, this one involving a series of suspicious fires which have possibly been caused deliberately as part of an insurance fraud. At first the two cases seem entirely separate, but eventually links begin to emerge between the two. Manson uses a range of scientific methods to carry out his investigations and I thought this aspect of the book was fascinating. As it was written in the 1940s, there were obviously fewer, less sophisticated techniques available to Manson than there would be to modern day scientists, but I was still impressed by how much he was able to discover by, for example, weighing the ash found at the fire scenes or analysing the hairs inside the Cat costume.

I also found the details of theatrical life interesting. Apparently Mona Radford had been an actress herself and this does come through in the novel, which shows a deep understanding of everything involved in rehearsing and staging a pantomime, including the things that go on behind the scenes! When a book is written by a pair or team of writers, I am always curious to know how they broke down the writing duties amongst themselves. Well, according to the introduction to this new edition:

The plot was usually developed by Mona and added to by Edwin during the writing. According to Edwin, the formula was: “She kills them off, and I find out how she done it.”

Another thing I liked about this book was the way the authors make it clear that they have tried to give the reader all the clues needed to be able to identify the culprit. There are several ‘Interludes’ at certain points in the novel which are addressed directly to the reader, asking us to put together what we have learned so far and solve various aspects of the mystery. I obviously wouldn’t make a good detective as I still wasn’t able to work any of it out despite the hints, but I was happy to wait until Doctor Manson revealed the truth at the end of the book.

I thought this was a very entertaining mystery by two authors I had never come across before. I’m interested in reading more books by E and MA Radford now.

Thanks to Dean Street Press for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Savage Brood by Martha Rofheart

Having read two of Martha Rofheart’s other books, Lionheart and Burning Sappho (about Richard I and the poet Sappho, respectively), I decided to try her 1978 novel The Savage Brood next. It sounded different from the others, being a multi-generational family saga and concentrating on fictional characters rather than real historical ones. I liked it enough to finish it but, as I so often find with this kind of book, the earlier sections were the best and I struggled to stay interested as the action moved closer towards the modern day.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Savage family, who have a long history as actors of one sort or another. It is divided into three sections which are set in different periods and work almost as self-contained novellas. We begin in Tudor England where we meet one branch of the family, a group of travelling players who make their living moving from town to town in a horse-drawn wagon and putting on performances for the local people. Finding English law too restrictive, the troupe move to Italy where, under the patronage of Cosimo I de’ Medici, they learn the skills of Commedia dell’Arte.

After a short ‘interval’, the story then jumps forward to 1752 where some of the Italian Savages (or Savaggi, as they have become known in the intervening years), return to London’s Drury Lane to work with the great English actor and producer, David Garrick. Garrick identifies young Miranda Savage as a special talent, but loses her when she moves to America – just in time for the Revolution.

There’s another interval and then we skip forward again, this time to San Francisco in 1906. The Savages have now made a name for themselves as vaudeville entertainers, but this form of theatre is in its final days as the first silent films begin to make their appearance. This section of the novel takes us right through both world wars and follows the careers of comic actor Sammy Savage, showboat musician Solange Sauvage, and Hollywood star JP Savage.

As I said, the first two sections were the most enjoyable, at least in my opinion. The third dragged on for too long, and except for the wartime parts, when the action moves to France for a while, I found the storyline much less interesting. The characters were unlikeable and self-obsessed, lacking the charisma of some of their earlier ancestors and little more than stereotypes of early Hollywood stars. By contrast, I loved the eighteenth century section and was particularly fond of Miranda Savage’s cousin Beau, who rises from humble beginnings to become a stage and fashion icon. Taken as a whole, though, I found the saga of the Savages unconvincing, with too many chance encounters between people who turn out to be distant Savage cousins.

Although Rofheart does acknowledge that women couldn’t act on stage in England until the Restoration, she does depict some of her sixteenth century female characters as acting with a travelling troupe. I didn’t think women were allowed to perform at all during that period (apart from in Italy), so that bothered me while I was reading, although I have since discovered a book on Women Players in England, 1500–1660, which suggests that women may have had more opportunities to act in sixteenth century England than I had imagined, at least on an amateur basis. I really don’t know enough about the subject to comment any further on Rofheart’s historical accuracy.

Despite the problems I had with The Savage Brood, I think it will be a fascinating read for anyone interested in the theatre, incorporating almost every type of acting you can think of – Commedia dell’Arte, Shakespeare, vaudeville, film and more – set against a backdrop of major historical events. I’m not really in any hurry to read the rest of Martha Rofheart’s books, but if anyone has read The Alexandrian, Cry God for Glendower and Fortune Made His Sword I would like to know if you enjoyed them and if you think they’re better than this one?