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."
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.