What happens when you take the central premise of loads of murder mysteries – a group of people who end up locked in a house as they start dying one by one – and replace that group with a group of actors/theatre people? Well, you get Act One, Scene One – Murder, the second novel in A.H. Richardson’s mystery novels starring Sir. Victor Hazlitt and actor Berry Beresford.
(From the Publisher): Talk about drama! To celebrate the opening of his new play, the playwright invites the entire cast to his mysteriously medieval mansion for a gala dinner. As the curtain rises on this festive feast, a scene of chaos occurs when the leading man is murdered. Who could have done it? And why? Old friends — Inspector Stan Burgess, Actor Berry Beresford, and Sir Victor Hazlitt — question an outlandish cast of frightened actors and household staff. The plot thickens with yet another murder occurs, and the intrigue continues until…
To say that this book is a mixed bag would be an understatement. On the whole, it’s still a mostly enjoyable read that provides an interesting twist on a monumentally overdone mystery trope (The one where a group of people is locked in a house as they are killed off one-by-one (Clue, And Then There Were None, etc)). Unfortunately, every problem I had with the first book in the series, Murder in Little Shendon, are very much still present in this one. Add to that a collection of chapter titles that are, at times, so hokey that they draw you right out of the story, a mystery that takes a quarter of the book to actually begin, a huge cast of characters full of unlikable people, and an unsolvable mystery, and you’ve got Act One, Scene One – Murder.
Here’s the thing: I wanted to like this book. I enjoyed the first one, grammatical issues aside, but this one just couldn’t grip me the way the first one did. I don’t know if it’s the fact that the pacing for the first quarter of the novel is so slow that it took me actual weeks to get through, the fact that I didn’t particularly enjoy any of the new characters, my increasingly busy offline life, or a combination of the three that made me so unreceptive to this book, but whatever the case, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the first one. It’s not a bad book at all. There are plenty of redeemable parts of the book. Particularly the spin on the setting. It’s a lot of fun following a group of actors who have gotten tangled up in the mystery, even if they aren’t particularly distinguishable from one another.
Like the first one, Act One, Scene One – Murder‘s strongest aspect is its character work. Again, Victor Hazlitt and Berry Beresford are easily the best parts of the novel. Unfortunately, they’re in this one a lot less than the first one, especially once the mystery is actually set in motion. So much time is spent with the acting troupe that the actual main characters of the story sort of fall by the wayside. This would almost be forgivable if the acting troupe was developed enough that the characters felt distinct and whole. But, that’s not the case. I read the whole book, and I still couldn’t tell you which character was named what and which backstory went with which character. Once the murder is revealed, I had to look at the book with a blank face as I tried to figure out which character it was.
Speaking of the murderer, the audience is completely unable to figure out who it is. Hazlitt, Beresford, and Inspector Burgess make some huge leaps in logic to end up at the solution, and it’s a shame. The only clues that point to the ultimate culprit are fairly minuscule and easily missed. And even if you do pick up on them, it’s nowhere near enough to actually point you in the direction of the culprit. By the time you reach the last chapter, you sit there genuinely having no idea who did it and once you find out who did it, you sit there just wondering how on earth Hazlitt, Beresford, and Burgess figured it out. (Spoiler: there’s basically a deus ex machina in the form of some research done by an outside party that connects the dots, but the audience isn’t privy to how that research is gathered, so we are forced to take it all at face value). Good mysteries only work when the audience is able to figure it out along with the detective, and Act One, Scene One – Murder fails in this regard.
So, what do I think of Act One, Scene One – Murder? Well, it’s disappointing. It’s not bad, or anything, but it’s a definite step down in quality from the first novel. There’s not as much character development or time spent with the main characters, the mystery takes forever to get started and isn’t actually solvable by the reader, and, while the twist of having the suspects all be actors is a nice touch, it doesn’t do enough to actually differentiate itself from the countless other mysteries that have this same premise. There are plenty of fun moments, and once the mystery actually gets started, the pacing does pick up. The book, like the first one, continues to be in dire need of a copyeditor as grammatical errors are littered throughout and it was sort of a slog for me to actually finish the book. It’s not a hard read or anything, I was just bored. If you really liked the first one or are really into any and all mystery novels – especially ones that feature premises similar to And Then There Were None, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. It is still a lot of fun and it’s enjoyable enough. It just wasn’t for me.
3 out of 5 wands
NOTE: I was provided a free review copy of the book from the publisher in return for a fair review.