Novel set in pre-war London and Guernsey
The Dark Side of Theatreland by Tom Mead
11th October 2023
THE DARK SIDE OF THEATRELAND by Tom Mead, author of The Murder Wheel
LONDON’S WEST END
The theatre is a place of heightened passions, of superstition, of tragedies and triumphs. That’s why it feels like such a natural setting for a murder mystery. Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of writing my new novel The Murder Wheel was indulging my inner stage-door Johnny by delving into the rich and macabre history of London’s West End.
The Murder Wheel is a locked-room mystery which sees the return of my series detective Joseph Spector. The primary setting is a fictional West End theatre called the Pomegranate, circa 1938, where a magic show is interrupted by murder. Physical descriptions of the theatre itself are derived from the Vaudeville on the Strand, plus the Noel Coward and the Duke of York’s on St. Martin’s Lane – all venues which I know well, and visit frequently. The Pomegranate featured tangentially in my first mystery, Death and the Conjuror, but this time around I made sure the worlds of illusion and theatre carry equal weight in the plot. This gave me a great excuse to explore the dark secrets of the West End.
Take the Adelphi Theatre, for instance, which stands a couple of doors away from the Vaudeville. For the morbidly curious, there is a plaque at its stage door which commemorates the murder of celebrated actor William Terriss. Terriss was brutally stabbed to death on that very spot in December 1897 by Richard Archer Prince, himself a failed actor whose alcoholism and mental instability had left him unemployable, and whose obsession with Terriss had turned to homicidal mania. Then there’s the Lyceum on nearby Wellington Street, where in 1888 Richard Mansfield gave a lead performance in a stage adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that was so horrifyingly convincing it made him a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders. Or the long-gone Gaiety Theatre on Aldwych, where Bright Young Thing Elvira Barney tripped the light fantastic in The Blue Kitten during the 1925-6 theatrical season – scarcely two miles from Knightsbridge’s William Mews, where she would eventually shoot her lover dead in one of London society’s most scandalous cause célèbres.
Meanwhile, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, is certainly among the most notorious for its storied past. It is after all the place where noted Irish actor Charles Macklin, famous for introducing “naturalism” to the 18th century stage, inadvertently killed fellow performer Thomas Hallam in a manner that is both gruesome and absurd: thrusting a cane through the man’s eye and into his brain, in an argument over a wig. It’s also where dancer Clara Vestris Webster met a horrendous fate when her dress caught fire mid-performance, leading to her death some days later at the age of 23. Among its purported ghosts are Dan Leno, whose beloved comic persona masked his personal demons, and whose melancholy spectre has been seen wandering the auditorium on multiple occasions.
Since I have a particular interest in magic, I’ve also relished the opportunity to examine its evolution from the perspective of the London stage. It’s awe-inspiring to consider the fact that legends like Harry Houdini and David Devant once trod those same boards to great acclaim. Moving beyond the West End, it’s where extraordinary characters made their indelible mark on the public imagination; where, for instance, John Henry Pepper introduced his legendary, revolutionary gimmick – Pepper’s Ghost – to the world in 1862, and P.T. Selbit performed the very first “sawing the woman in half” trick at the Finsbury Park Empire in 1921. It was also on the London stages that the bitter rivalry between illusionists Ching Ling Foo and the more famous Chung Ling Soo played out, culminating in Chung Ling Soo’s shocking death onstage mid-performance during a botched bullet catch trick at the Wood Green Empire in 1918.
The fictional Pomegranate is an amalgam of all these wonderful old theatres; a sort of cocktail of mystery, flamboyance, and ever-so-slightly faded glamour. I had great fun giving my imagination free rein, populating my stage set with colourful eccentrics and painting a lurid backdrop. First and foremost, The Murder Wheel is a mystery, written in the Golden Age style of legendary figures like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. As well as that, though, it’s an attempt to capture the sheer joy of the theatre, and to channel not only my love of the plays themselves, but also the stories, the rich histories, and of course the many, many ghosts.
‘The Murder Wheel’ by Tom Mead is published by Head of Zeus on 12th October at £20
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