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Backstage Stuff

Backstage Stuff

5.0 7
by Sharon Fiffer

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With a divorce looming, antiques picker and P.I. Jane Wheel has been spinning her wheels, unsure what to do with herself. She could use a good shove in the right direction, and while she may know this, she isn't about to admit it. Luckily, her best friend, Tim Lowry, has her interests at heart, and he has the perfect answer.

Not only does he have a mansion he


With a divorce looming, antiques picker and P.I. Jane Wheel has been spinning her wheels, unsure what to do with herself. She could use a good shove in the right direction, and while she may know this, she isn't about to admit it. Luckily, her best friend, Tim Lowry, has her interests at heart, and he has the perfect answer.

Not only does he have a mansion he needs help prepping for an estate sale, but he has unearthed an old play, a murder mystery, that he's dying to put on. The play would be just the thing to get Jane back on track—that is, if it weren't cursed. Thankfully, Tim isn't buying into any curse and pushes forward in spite of the ominous notes that keep showing up in the actors' scripts warning against a performance. It's only when the show's carpenter dies in a suspicious accident that Jane is convinced someone definitely doesn't want the show to go on and might be willing to kill to stop it.

Lively and intriguing as ever, Sharon Fiffer's Backstage Stuff is as much fun for the puzzling mystery as it is for sneak peek at all of the surprises that Jane has collected backstage for the big show.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Undeveloped characters and a shortage of antiques lore mar Fiffer's fifth Jane Wheel mystery (after 2009's Scary Stuff), one of the weaker entries in her otherwise light and enjoyable cozy series. On the verge of a divorce, antique-picker Jane welcomes the chance to work on an estate sale at the largest mansion in her hometown of Kankakee, Ill. She's also happy to "dress" the set for a production of a play, a murder mystery written by the house's late eccentric owner. When a heavy beam falls on Marvin Gladish, the carpenter for the theater troupe putting on the play, the police think Marv's death is accidental, but Jane suspects murder and once again turns sleuth. The less than suspenseful plot never gains much momentum, and a closing twist doesn't make the denouement any less predictable. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews

Anyone can get through a divorce when she has a nice murder to occupy her.

What's a girl to do when her marriage is foundering, her son is off on an archeological dig with her soon-to-be ex and garage sales, which used to be the highlight of her day, have lost their appeal? Jane Wheel, antiques forager and sometime detective (Scary Stuff,2009, etc.), is lucky to have Tim Lowry as her best friend. Tim nudges her off the couch to help him stage a play he's found while organizing the Kendell house sale for the heirs. The three-act melodrama, a stinker written 50 years ago by Freddy Kendell, loses one cast member to a broken leg and another to a falling beam. Almost as serious is the constant popping-up of Mr. Bumbles, a ventriloquist's dummy beloved by Freddy, and a series of notes signed "Bumbles" that promise dire consequences if the show goes on. In between soldiering through rehearsals and sorting through antiques in the Kendell house, Jane uncovers old playbills and versions of the script, all featuring members of Kendell's Theater Club, and surprisingly mentioning Jane's mother Nellie, who took part in the original production. One more will die before Jane, with her mentor Detective Oh's approval, resolves matters and begins her almost-divorced life with new enthusiasm.

Fiffer seems to be reworking her main characters, shifting their relationships and, in the case of Tim and Jane, making them more conventional and less amusing. Pity.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Jane Wheel Series , #7
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Backstage Stuff

By Sharon Fiffer

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Sharon Fiffer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-7472-1


Jane Wheel couldn't sleep.

Odd expression, she thought ... couldn't sleep.

She could sleep. She knew how to sleep. She was physically able to sleep.

Wasn't everyone?

It was just that this particular night, her eyes opened at three A.M. She closed them, trying to imagine a blank white canvas, a movie theater screen, anything that was empty and neutral and filled with promise. But as soon as she pictured a giant sheet of paper in front of her eyes, she began filling it with words and numbers. As quickly as she tried to erase the words that formed — separation ... invoice ... overdue ... divorce — other words took their place — failure ... emptiness ... ending ... loneliness.

"Forget it," she said out loud, and switched on the lamp next to her bed. This particular lamp wasn't designed to be placed on a nightstand. It was a modern Von Nessen desk lamp, white and graceful. It went with nothing else in her house. She bought it last month at a house sale, in the last hour, on the last day. It had been under piles of clothes in the basement, an odd outcast in a house full of dark Victorian furniture. At least that was all that was left when Jane wandered through the place at the end of the day. She lifted the lamp from its hiding place and held it up, knowing that it was not anything she needed or even wanted. She just knew it was beautiful. It was perfectly balanced, its white metal shade flaring decisively at just the right spot. The fifty-something couple — surely brother and sister, same nose and mouth, matching frowns — stationed with a cash box at the front door, tired out after two days of seeing their childhood home ravaged, savaged, and scavenged, shook their heads when they saw the lamp.

"Have you ever seen that before, Billy?"

He shook his head. "Maybe Mom bought it for you when you went to nursing school?"

"Nope. It wasn't in Dad's office, either. I've never seen it."

"It was in the basement," Jane had offered, trying to help them place it. She knew what that was like, trying to remember the story behind the object. "Under some clothes."

Billy shrugged, barely looking at Jane or the lamp. "How's two dollars?"

"Are you sure?" asked Jane, not wanting to take advantage of these sad people. "It might be a good one."

The woman shrugged and the man repeated, "Two," holding his fingers up like the peace sign.

Jane paid the money and when she carried the lamp out of the dark, sad house, she held it up and studied it. It was dirty but regal. A beautiful modern design that she knew must be the real thing. Quality modern design that her pal Tim would price in the hundreds.

But she didn't give the lamp to Tim to sell. She brought it home, into her bedroom, and cleared off the table next to her side of the bed. With one motion, she cleared the magazines and business cards and junk mail and catalogs and threw them all into a bag for recycling. She cleaned her lamp, looked it up on the Internet, and set it on the table, giving it the position of honor in a house full of objects, all of which had briefly held that place. She allowed her lamp to be the last thing she saw each night and the first thing she saw every morning. If objects could talk, could feel, could express themselves, Jane knew that all of the Bakelite, and thirties and forties kitchenalia, all of the mission-style oak and McCoy vases would have turned on this modern interloper. Objects, however, don't talk or express feelings or keep their owners from lonely sleepless nights. If one is lucky, they function in the way they are supposed to, and if one is even luckier, they look beautiful as they do it.

What was that sound? Jane heard a thrumming noise from somewhere in the house. Is that what had awakened her? A belt going out in the refrigerator motor?

Jane sat up a little straighter and picked up the notebook she had left lying next to her in the bed. On page one, she had begun to craft a budget, or what she called a budget. It was really just a list, random and arbitrary.

Nick's clothes. Nick's books. Nick's binoculars. Nick's backpack. Dog food. Heisey punch bowl. Did she count the punch bowl if she was going to send it to Muriel or her cousin, Miriam, to sell at their shop in Ohio? Of course not, that should be in a different list altogether. It didn't belong with haircuts, car insurance, shampoo, gasoline, toothpaste.

This was ridiculous. How could Jane have reached this stage in her adult life without understanding basic household finances? She wasn't an idiot. She had worked her way up the corporate ladder before the ladder had been moved, stranding her and the other members of her creative team. When Jane's biggest client switched his account to a new agency, Jane had been asked, politely, to pack up her things and go. It had been a blow, and at the time, Jane felt terrible — marooned on the island of the unemployed. She had been rejected, abandoned by the company she had been with for sixteen years. Even now, several years later, recalling the day she walked through the corridor of Rooney and Rooney for the last time, she felt the same embarrassment, anger, denial,

"Aren't those the stages of grief?" Jane asked Rita. Rita, a giant mass of a dog, was doing her best rug imitation next to Jane's bed, but perked up one ear when Jane addressed her.

How marooned had she been? Lost? Adrift? Not hardly. Her husband, Charley, was a tenured professor and she herself had been given a handsome severance package. After a decent mourning period consisting of sleeping late and eating a lot of bacon dipped in brown sugar, she began hitting the sales, early and regularly. She hadn't planned to find her second career as a picker. She didn't earn much at first, but over the past few years, she had turned over a few excellent pieces of furniture, one good painting, several pieces of jewelry, the odd bits of flotsam and jetsam from weekly sales and rummaging. And the pottery? It turned out that Jane had an eye for art pottery and could spot a good piece from across a basketball court–sized church basement hall. If she made a beeline and grabbed the possible Weller vase without losing her way or getting distracted at the linens table to peek into a promising box of buttons and rickrack, sniffing out Bakelite and decorative needle packages, she could grab a really good piece of American pottery for a few dollars.

"What is that?" Jane asked out loud. The buzzing had started again. Was the dehumidifier shorting out? Was the house about to burst into flames?

Jane swung her leg over the bed, digging her toes into Rita's back and allowing herself the moment of sheer pleasure that it gave her. Rita also allowed Jane her moment before creeping into the corner of the bedroom and turning to watch her mistress. Was she getting up for good or roaming the house? Wherever she landed, Rita would go and quietly keep watch.

Jane stood up, gathering her list-filled notebook, pens, and last Sunday's crossword. There was no reason to remain wide-eyed in bed. Better to be sleepy-eyed roaming the house. A loose sheet fell from her notebook. It was one of her rummage sale lists from last week.

Restaurant creamers, Depression glass shakers, wooden frames — primitive, handmade crocheted pot holders, mechanical pencils, pocket shrines, sterling religious medals, Chase, Homer Laughlin, Russel Wright, Raymor, old office supplies, yardsticks, folding rulers, sewing ...

Next to sewing Jane had sketched a pincushion that Muriel described — a wooden drawer topped with wire posts for thread spools and perched on top, like a second story, a pincushion covered in nappy velvet. Muriel ... or was it Miriam ... had a customer who collected pincushions. She had just missed one like this at an auction and now, like an itch she couldn't scratch, she wanted that particular example of cushion. Jane smiled. She had not found it yet, but she would. At the rummage sale last week, when she tried to follow this list, she hadn't found any of the cousins' items, but she had found two fabulous vases. And indeed, she had spotted them from the doorway when she entered the hall.

Tim Lowry, her friend, mentor, bossy know-it-all, threatened to put blinders on her.

"You have a gift, Jane. You can see the finish line, but you're that skittish horse, letting every other little thing distract you from the race. You need to go into a sale and zero in. Those silly little collections of Easter eggs or somebody's crystal bells that you feel compelled to pick up and daydream about add seconds to your race." Tim always shook his head, as if he were one of the owners of this sad little racehorse. "You could win, you know. You have the eye, the speed ... I've trained you to go in there and finish in the money."

Jane dropped her papers and pens next to her favorite chair in the kitchen. She pressed her ear to the refrigerator. Nothing. Jane wandered through the house. She paused to look at the small restaurant creamers tucked into a bookshelf in the living room. There were six ... enough to box up and send off to the ladies to sell. She had enjoyed them long enough. She turned around and scanned the room, trying to be a good, responsible picker. What else was ripe and ready to be sent off to market?

Being laid off had led to full-time picking and then, of course, there were the murders. She was good at solving them, too. Had she not been forced to leave her corporate job, would she have discovered her inner Nancy Drew? Would she have been racing around to garage sales, scrambling to find the best stuff until she stumbled over her neighbor's body? Would she have met Detective Oh?

Bottom line? When she was downsized, back before everyone was just fired, before whole departments were demolished, before firms dissolved and disappeared and the people she had known in the corporate world were wandering through interviews and a bizarro world of networking and refitting themselves for a marketplace they no longer recognized, Jane had support. She had Charley and Nick and Tim and even her parents, Don and Nellie in Kankakee, offering her a safe enough haven. And now she had Detective Bruce Oh, who believed in her and believed she had the talent to ... what was that talent he saw in her?

"You see the objects around people, Mrs. Wheel. You see the space they occupy and the negative space they leave. And where the two spaces intersect, you see the true nature of people and things." Yeah, Jane thought, he sees my talent for whatever that is.

Jane selected a volume from a Harper and Company Shakespeare collection. These books were in outstanding condition. Well over a hundred years old, but so well cared for. The Comedy of Errors. Seemed appropriate. The books had lived on her shelf for six months. If she sold these, the money would pay for the new sleeping bag she had bought Nick yesterday.

The soft burr, burr again. An aggravated purr? Had Nick brought home some animal and forgotten to tell her?

Jane had risen from the ashes of her advertising career to become Jane Wheel PPI, picker and private investigator. So a setback like getting downsized, the hurdle of finding new work, the bump in the road ... Jane was the proof that normally those flies in the ointment set you skittering off, albeit kicking and screaming, on a better path.

And now Charley had set up this new hurdle — had asked her for a divorce — should that be classified as a setback or would it be better described as a bump in the road? If this divorce were a fly in the ointment, it surely couldn't be a small buzzing insect struggling in a teaspoon; it would, at least, be movie actor Jeff Goldblum morphing into a hairy monster, struggling through a roomful of Jell-O. Jane made herself smile at that picture.

"Some detective I am," Jane said. "Can't even find a noise. Maybe it's in my head, maybe something has finally come loose for real. I am talking to myself, replaying old horror movies. Maybe it's a lightbulb, ready to blow ... damn it," she said, looking at the big schoolroom clock hanging in the kitchen: three forty-five. It wouldn't be light for another few hours, but Jane knew any chance for sleep was gone. Time to stop prowling through the house like a cat burglar, deciding what she could sell the fastest to pay this month's bills. Jane went back to the bedroom, grabbed her quilt, dragged it into the kitchen, and threw it into the big stuffed chair. The chair had been a great bargain but hadn't fit anywhere else in the house when Jane dragged it in, thinking its spot in the kitchen would be temporary. The first time she visited Jane's house, Nellie offered her daughter an unvarnished opinion.

"What the hell you want to put a living room chair in the kitchen for?" she had asked, sitting down in it. "It's going to get all dirty." From its spot in the corner, Nellie could watch Jane's every move in the kitchen. "Dry your glasses better than that, you're going to have spots," she said, putting her feet up on the small hassock. It was the only time Jane ever saw her mother sit down in a kitchen. The chair stayed.

Maybe Jane could nod off there. She curled up in her chair, placed her notebook on top of her laptop, which lay next to her newest device, a smartphone that Tim had bought for her. He had called it her aspirational device — Jane should aspire to learn to use it, to be as smart as it was. "It will keep you in constant touch," Tim had said, "with Nick and me and everyone." He had given Nick an identical phone and made sure that they both had international calling packages — a hefty chunk of time already prepaid. Jane smiled every time she looked at the pretty thing — not her style — but she could appreciate great design, and it made her sadly happy that Tim was concerned enough to place this object in her hands. To anyone peering in on Jane Wheel, this phone, in addition to the laptop, in her cozy kitchen corner created a misleading tableau. A peeping Tom would have seen a small disheveled woman, still youthful enough, wistfully pretty, wrapped in a blanket, holding a cup of something steamy, surrounded by her modern devices, quite likely ready to type out the great American novel.

Rather than writing fiction, which Jane would have made far less trite, far less cliché than the current nonfiction of her life, she was simply a woman who had been asked to make a proper budget. A list of household expenses was the actual phrase. She had to make this budget to give to her lawyer who would, in turn, present it to another lawyer. Jane Wheel was a woman with insomnia whose husband had asked her for a divorce and she was delaying the paperwork. It didn't get any more cliché than that, did it? No ... a legal separation. She had been told to differentiate. Jane and Charley were not getting a divorce. Yet ... not yet.

Remarkably, this turn of events, this legal separation, made Jane feel almost exactly as if she had been let go by Rooney and Rooney all over again. The major difference, Jane knew, was that when she had come home with personal things from her office in a paper sack, Charley had been there to dry her tears. This time, Charley phoned her from Central America, explaining that it was he who wouldn't be coming home. He had decided to pursue his passion, but he needed to do it alone, unfettered. It wasn't anything she had done, he hadn't seen it coming, he was sure it would work out. ... And, just like that, Jane was fired all over again.

So Jane, who had neglected all household chores to pursue stuff at auctions and flea markets, garage sales and rummage sales and who, more recently, had been on twenty-four-hour call for Detective Oh as an ersatz partner in his investigation business; Jane, who had happily packed Charley off to this dig and that site for months at a time, missing him, yes, but also cherishing her time alone, was the one who was left. Anyone who had paid attention, who had been keeping score in this marriage would have bet even money that Jane was the one who would snap the line, who would demand freedom to find the treasure and catch the bad guy. Who would have thought that Charley would do the unfettering?


Excerpted from Backstage Stuff by Sharon Fiffer. Copyright © 2010 Sharon Fiffer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sharon Fiffer collects buttons, Bakelite, pottery, vintage potholders, keys, locks, and other killer stuff. She is coeditor of the anthologies Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own, Body, and Family: American Writers Remember Their Own, and the author of six previous Jane Wheel mysteries as well as the nonfiction book Imagining America. She lives near Chicago, Illinois.

Sharon Fiffer collects buttons, Bakelite, pottery, vintage potholders, keys, locks, and more dead guy's stuff. The author of the Jane Wheel mysteries, including Killer Stuff and The Wrong Stuff, Sharon Fiffer has also co-edited the anthologies Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own, Body, and Family: American Writers Remember Their Own and written Imagining America.

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