I was pleased and surprised to have read five books this month. Take a look at a fascinating book about Broadway bombs, intriguing mysteries and a fanciful scenario -- what if "Queen Elizabeth" escaped the palace? It's a real mix of mystery, fiction and non-fiction and all by authors new to me. First up is "Mrs. Queen Takes the Train."
Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
This delightful romp finds the Queen (yes, THE Queen) a bit bored and down, given all the issues going on with her family. The Royal Train may be decommissioned and she finds herself missing the Brittania, which is now a museum in Leith, Scotland. She decides to visit the Royal Mews and disappears from Buckingham Palace on her walk, causing great worry amongst her staff.
While at the Mews, it begins to rain and Rebecca, who works with the Queen's horses there, gives the queen her hoodie when a rainstorm pops up. But somehow, the queen is not recognized or permitted back through the private grounds of the palace, she ends up walking back on the London streets -- until she decides to take a detour that first takes her to the famed Paxton and Whitehead cheese shop, then King's Cross train station and, aboard a passenger train, up to Scotland.
As she makes new friends on the train, who do not recognize her, she is being tracked by Rebecca, the cheese shop merchant, a butler, an equerry, her dresser, and a lady in waiting, most of whom have no idea where she is going.
This lively book is great fun -- and it really does make one wonder what would happen if the queen did don a disguise and hit the rails.
The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji
In this homage to Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," author Ayatsuji sets up an intriguing mystery featuring a group of college students who are part of a mystery reading society who decide to visit a now-deserted island with a home where a grizzly murder once took place. One by one, the students are killed, some in similar ways to the original murder and others far differently.
Meanwhile, on land, two of their friends -- and a mysterious stranger -- are interested in the original murder. The two cases -- and the Christie story -- come together with a devilish twist that would do Dame Agatha proud.
Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs
This British Library Crime Classic focuses on the death of the town busybody, and there is no shortage of suspects. Is the murderer her brother, who might be cut out of her will? Her faithful servant and heir, Sarah, who now will be allowed to marry? A neighbor with whom she was seen having a spat? Or one of many other characters in this quaint village?
Detective Littlejohn is called in from Scotland Yard to assist the local constabulary and the case is cleverly presented with enough red herrings to fill a fish market! The descriptive passages are so lively that I'm pretty sure I'd recognize the busybody if I ran into her in the streets! A police sketch artist would kill for so much detail! (My only criticism: writing in so much dialect can take a while to adjust to!)
Second Act Trouble: Behind the Scenes of Broadway's Biggest Musical Bombs by Steven Suskin
Mary Tyler Moore as Holly Golightly in a musical of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." A musical based on "The Thin Man." A blockbuster star in a show that stays out on the road so long that even a reasonable Broadway run cost the producers millions? A temperamental actor as Henry VIII in a musical about the king and his wives? (Ironically, a different musical called "Six Wives" is now playing on Broadway with terrific reviews. Well, playing as much as Covid precautions allow.)
What could go wrong?
Plenty! In this fascinating behind the scenes book, editor Steven Suskind compiles essays by leading journalists and critics about twenty-five musicals that had great promise, either because of their esteemed writers and composers or because they had A-list stars. And every single one was either a critical or financial flop, some closing after one night, others limping along but losing millions.
If you've ever been curious about what happens when a script is bad, a star is temperamental or the director just isn't getting the right stuff from his actors, this book will fill you in. I discovered that many a musical (and no doubt non-musicals) might have plenty of hands in the pie -- well known names that are often uncredited and who might add new scenes or help rip out content that isn't working. And I learned a lot about the financial side of Broadway -- enough to know I'm not investing my retirement in the next big musical, no matter who writes it!
Murder in Chianti by Camilla Trinchieri
This is the first in a series of books featuring former NY detective Nico Doyle. After the death of his wife, Nico moves to Tuscany where his in-laws. In his new town he helps his wife's cousin in the family restaurant, has his own garden, invents recipes, adopts a dog and is living a quiet life.
But when he discovers a gruesome murder while walking, he is slowly drawn into the investigation. The dead man appears to not be a local, but as the case progresses, they discover he is no stranger to the area, having bedded some of the town's women two decades before and having left the town after being accused of theft. There are plenty with a motive for murder and the chase is on.
It's a good, solid mystery. The settings are lush, the characters well drawn. But the real treat? The fabulous descriptions of food prepared by Nico and the restaurant staff, I swear, it made me want to roast peppers and try the sauce he was creating, or at the very least, enjoy a fabulous Italian dinner with wonderful wine. It's somewhat reminiscent of Donna Leon's "Brunetti" mysteries (especially regarding the food) but with enough differences to make it a fun read on its own.