Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Play's the Thing: Book Review of Vincent O'Neil's Death Troupe

Death Troupe by Vincent H. O'Neil

Despite Hamlet's assertion, most stories about plays and actors bore me silly. The often over-the-top histrionics, outsized egos and edgy nerves of the characters wear out my patience long before the mystery is solved. Do performers actually behave that dramatically in real life? Never mind, forget I asked. So I was surprised to find myself buying Vincent H. O'Neil's Death Troupe late one night immediately after reading the sample.

In this book, the play's the thing indeed, and impresario and director Jerome Barron of Jerome Barron Players has developed an unusual twist on community-based theatre. He contracts with communities to write and perform a unique mystery play set locally and using local legends and stories in the plot. His writers arrive months before the performance and live openly in the community, absorbing the local atmosphere and soliciting stories and suggestions from residents as they write the play. Other staff arrive on irregular schedules, surreptitiously planting clues to the mystery that are hotly debated on the website forum the troupe maintains. The actors rehearse several different endings, and no one but the director knows which one will finally be used. This secrecy has been so successful that Barron has never had to honor his standing pledge to refund the price of the tickets to every patron if a majority can guess whodunnit before the last act of the single performance.

Jack Glynn had been the first writer for the troupe, leaving only when fellow writer Ryan Berencourt stole his lover, actress Allison Green. He returned home to Arizona and managed to sell a script to Hollywood for a hefty amount of money. Two years later, Ryan apparently commits suicide following a performance in California that resulted in the suicide of a real descendant of the murderer Ryan wrote into his play. Jack returns for Ryan's funeral and is persuaded by Barron to finish writing the new play in progress despite the misgivings of private investigator Wade Parker, the troupe's front man, who is suspicious of Ryan's "suicide."

February in the town of Schuyler Mills, New York, is quite a shock for an Arizona boy. Unable to run for exercise, Jack takes lessons in cross-country skiing from Kelly Sykes, the township's public relations agent, who is assigned to introduce him around and show him the ropes. Setting off one afternoon on a brief solo trek, Jack gets lost following a trail sign that points the wrong way. When a fastener on one of his new skis inexplicably breaks, he nearly freezes to death floundering for miles through two feet of virgin snow. PI Wade believes that the ski was deliberately damaged and the trail signs turned. But who would want to kill Jack, and why?

The first "clue" to appear for the performance is the realistic severed head of a dummy floating in an ice fishing hole. Jack is astonished; Barron hadn't informed him beforehand and doesn't normally plant grisly clues. The troupe's website denies responsibility, but the residents love it, and pass the gruesome trophy around for weeks. As other creative and relevant clues appear, only some of which the troupe has planted, Jack worries that someone may have hacked the play on his computer. To confuse the issue, he secretly commissions a pair of ice sculpture clues that magically appear in the center of town overnight. Again, the residents wholeheartedly embrace and expand on the clues, creating a veritable ice sculpture garden.

Characterization was a little generic and the motive for the crimes seemed farfetched and weak, but the complexity of implementing the unique performance of this traveling magic mystery show and the town's good-humored participation more than made up for these flaws. The setting and minor characters were well-developed and Jack is an engaging, quick-thinking protagonist who I hope will become more three-dimensional in subsequent books. The clues, both real and false, were wonders of imaginative showmanship. For the impresario, "all the world's a stage," and Barron's particular genius is to capitalize and improvise on that. I heartily wish his troupe were coming to my town, and look forward to the next adventures in this engaging new series.


  1. Thank you so very much for this marvelous review! You really put a lot of time into this, both the insightful words and the excellent photos, and I will certainly be taking your recommendations into account as I write the next installment. Thanks again!

    Vincent H. O'Neil

    1. Vincent, thanks for your gracious comments. Your story line was so original that it blew me away and kept me reading far too late one night! How in the world did you ever think of it?

    2. I'm sure you've heard this answer before, but the idea came straight from the research. I knew very little about theater and started with The Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals and worked my way up from there. At some point between The Idiot's Guide and the memoirs of some outstanding directors and playwrights, I thought of a high-end troupe that naturally couldn't be together year-round, and that led to the notion of the one show a year, each year in a different town acting company. The rest fell into place when I asked what would make a town invite them (the answer was the wager) and what would hold their attention in the months before the show (the answer was the live-in playwright and the clue distribution).

      And I'm SO pleased you found the actors and director interesting but not over-the-top because, like you, I just don't think too many of them are like that in real life. And if they are, they probably don't attract the loyalty I wanted to show between Barron and the members of the Troupe.

    3. That must be what makes you an author; starting from an unlikely source and letting your imagination wander from there. The interaction with the residents and the sense of place were strong elements, as was the troupe's loyalty to their magic man. It was delightful. Now write another one!

  2. You got it! Although I am currently writing a military sci-fi novel . . . :)