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by Christine Poulson
St Martin's Minotaur, May 2005
240 pages
ISBN: 0312340745

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

As a direct result of the premature delivery of daughter Grace, Cassandra James has become involved with a theatrical production of East Lynne. The star of the show, Melissa Meadow, had a premature baby at the same time as Cassandra; Melissa and Cassandra bonded in that way people do when connected by the same crisis at the same time.

Cassandra has rewritten much of the stilted dialogue for the play and in the process has come to know many of the cast and crew in a similar sort of way. Anyone who has ever worked in theater, amateur or professional, knows the kind of almost incestuously familial camaraderie that grows around any production.

Just a few days before opening night, Cassandra's significant other and the father of Grace has to leave for LA on business. This causes some tension; Stephen is concerned about finances while Cassandra is more worried about juggling Grace, pre-opening problems, and the like. One of the problems is Cassandra's first ex-husband, who just happens to be in town and interested in seeing her. Is he looking to pick up the pieces of the life they used to have?

Another problem has to do with Melissa. She received an anonymous poem, which she shared with Cassandra but not with her husband and director, Kevin. The poem is by Byron, the signature connected with Tarot. Melissa is a little perturbed, but not overly so. Cassandra doesn't think much of it until Melissa disappears, leaving behind baby Agnes.

Once the police are brought into the investigation, the back stories begin to surface. Kevin and Melissa aren't quite as happy as they seemed to be. Kevin had had a one-night-stand (or was it a six-month affair?) with another member of the cast, Belinda. Melissa had lied to Kevin about previous romantic entanglements; Kevin likes to think all his women are virgins when he meets them.

In the meantime, the show must go on. A replacement must be found for Melissa's role at the very last minute. If Kevin is arrested, that's another mess to be dealt with. And so forth and so on.

STAGE FRIGHT vividly captures the petty intrigues, tortuous politics, and tangled relationships endemic to theater groups everywhere. The mystery is well plotted. I didn't figure out the ending, although I could have had I been paying close enough attention as I read along.

The setting is lovely, and Poulson does a great job of bringing it to the forefront when it's necessary and relegating it to scenery when it's not. Some of the characters are cliches, but it's hard to write about theater without running into people who are cliches, so I don't fault Poulson for this. STAGE FRIGHT is the second in the Cambridge Mystery series. Although I haven't read MURDER IS ACADEMIC, STAGE FRIGHT shows no signs of sophomore slump. If you like academic cozies with a British flair, you'll enjoy STAGE FRIGHT.

Reviewed by P. J. Coldren, September 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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