A Conversation with Katherine Hall Page

The Body in the Casket brings together two passions of mine: traditional country house murder mysteries and Broadway musicals. Many months ago as the idea for this book was percolating in my mind the big question was how to stage the book. A house party—or as the British called them during Edwardian times, “a Saturday to Monday”—would supply the country house part and the host, a legendary Broadway musical producer, Max Dane, was soon conjured up to bring in the Great White Way.

Here’s the invitation:

Dane is turning 70 and the invitees have all been involved in his only failure, Heaven or Hell—his last until the production he’s envisioning for this birthday bash twenty years later. Of course Faith Fairchild enters the scene to cater the weekend, but also—as Max puts it—for her “sleuthing ability.” One of his guests plans to kill him and it’s Faith’s job to find out before the deed is done. The reason he is sure is made clear in the beginning of the book and yes, a casket plays a part, as does a Playbill, the distinctive program booklet handed out by ushers at theatrical performances

I’m sitting at my desk with a stack of those Playbills next to me. Although Max Dane’s musicals are off stage in this book, Broadway has happily been in my mind throughout. Living in northern New Jersey, not far from Manhattan, meant growing up with theater in my family. My parents had friends who were professionals and went to on and off Broadway performances often. When we were old enough, we did too.

I wish I had the Playbill from the very first production I saw: Gertrude Lawrence, the famous British actress, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, a matinee in 1952. The musical, which opened in 1951, had taken Broadway by storm. Rex Harrison turned down the role of the king and Yul Brynner, who would forever be associated with it, was cast. I was quite a little girl, but remember the two of them whirling about the stage to “Shall We Dance”, Lawrence’s hoop-skirted silk gown shimmering brightly in the spotlight. The other memory that is still so clear all these years later is of the vibrant colors—the costumes and the sets. The songs must have made an impression as well, but so many were hits that I can’t be sure whether I am recalling the original experience or the repetitions, (Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s “song” while courting was “People Will Think We’re in Love”!). Sadly, Gertrude Lawrence died of cancer unexpectedly in September 1952 and Deborah Kerr played Anna in the film. As a first stage memory, nothing could ever equal Lawrence’s elegant, vibrant figure in Brynner’s arms.

My mother, Alice, and her sister Ruth loved musicals. We used to tease my aunt because she wore out the record of Carousel, playing it so much she had to buy a new one. We grew up knowing the lyrics to all the classic musicals. Looking over at my Playbills there’s Robert Preston and Barbara Cook in The Music Man, Joel Grey in Stop The World—I want To Get Off (directed by Anthony Newley), Nancy Kwan in Flower Drum Song and many more. We would take our chances going from Broadway box office to box office on a Saturday morning—we couldn’t go wrong!

Starting when my cousin John and I were twelve, our mothers allowed us to go into the city on our own. While musicals were all well and good, we thought of ourselves as “serious” theatergoers. Richard Burton’s Hamlet—I still get shivers. Albee’s Tiny Alice with John Gielgud and Irene Worth, The Deputy with Emlyn Williams and a very young Jeremy Brett! Colleen Dewhurst as Miss Amelia Evans in Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café. Just now looking at that Playbill, I notice that the artist Leonard Baskin did the cover. And inside those covers, besides reading about the play and the cast, it is and was almost as much fun to look at the ads—“Does She or Doesn’t She?”, “Give her L’Aimant…before someone else does,” and listings for restaurants long gone. We always ate at one of the Automats—the best macaroni and cheese ever created or the baked beans in the little green pot.

In The Body in the Casket, I try to convey some of the excitement of live theater—in this case, however, “live” turns deadly!

You can read more about The Body in the Casket, the 24th book in the “Faith Fairchild” mystery series.

The inimitable Faith Fairchild returns in a chilling New England whodunit, inspired by the best Agatha Christie mysteries and with hints of the timeless board game Clue.

For most of her adult life, resourceful caterer Faith Fairchild has called the sleepy Massachusetts village of Aleford home. While the native New Yorker has come to know the region well, she isn’t familiar with Havencrest, a privileged enclave, until the owner of Rowan House, a secluded sprawling Arts and Crafts mansion, calls her about catering a weekend house party.

Producer/director of a string of hit musicals, Max Dane—a Broadway legend—is throwing a lavish party to celebrate his seventieth birthday. At the house as they discuss the event, Faith’s client makes a startling confession. “I didn’t hire you for your cooking skills, fine as they may be, but for your sleuthing ability. You see, one of the guests wants to kill me.”

Faith’s only clue is an ominous birthday gift the man received the week before—an empty casket sent anonymously containing a twenty-year-old Playbill from Max’s last, and only failed, production—Heaven or Hell. Consequently, Max has drawn his guest list for the party from the cast and crew. As the guests begin to arrive one by one, and an ice storm brews overhead, Faith must keep one eye on the menu and the other on her host to prevent his birthday bash from becoming his final curtain call.

Full of delectable recipes, brooding atmosphere, and Faith’s signature biting wit, The Body in the Casket is a delightful thriller that echoes the beloved mysteries of Agatha Christie and classic films such as “Murder by Death” and “Deathtrap.”

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About the author
Katherine Hall Page is the author of twenty-three previous Faith Fairchild mysteries, the first of which received the Agatha Award for best first mystery. The Body in the Snowdrift was honored with the Agatha Award for best novel of 2006. Page also won an Agatha for her short story “The Would-Be Widower.” The recipient of the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement, she has also been nominated for the Edgar, the Mary Higgins Clark, the Maine Literary, and the Macavity Awards. She lives in Massachusetts and Maine with her husband. Visit Katherine at katherine-hall-page.org.

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