Patrick Quentin, best known for the Peter Duluth puzzle mysteries, also penned outstanding detective novels from the 1930s through the 1960s under other pseudonyms, including Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge. Anthony Boucher wrote: “Quentin is particularly noted for the enviable polish and grace which make him one of the leading American fabricants of the murderous comedy of manners; but this surface smoothness conceals intricate and meticulous plot construction as faultless as that of Agatha Christie.”
Theater producer Peter Duluth is fresh out the sanitarium where he got sober; found his new love, Iris; and also happened to help catch a murderer. Now he’s dead set on staging his big comeback with a new play featuring his lady as the star.
Unfortunately, they end up in a broken-down theater where the rats keep company with ghosts, and where there hasn’t been a hit in years. Combined with the usual egos, divas, and personal demons, it will be a miracle if Peter can get the play off the ground.
But his seemingly cursed production turns deadly when an actor literally dies onstage, with another murder soon to follow—this is not a dress rehearsal. Now it’s up to Peter to shine a spotlight on a killer.
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We walked to the Dagonet Theater up Broadway, heading west at Forty-fourth where the Wrigley goldfish loomed, lurid and popeyed, above the International Casino. I was feeling dangerously pleased with myself. I'd been that way for exactly three months and two days, ever since the morning when Henry Prince's Troubled Waters had drifted into my office, and I knew I'd stumbled on the surest fire script the theater had struck since Rain.
We passed the Shubert, the Broadhurst, the St. James, all putting on a brave show of lights. There had been a time when the sight of a lighted theater had sent me off into an envious decline. That was over now. For all I cared every house in Manhattan could be plastered with Standing-Room- Only signs. Peter Duluth, Inc. was in production again with a swell play and a knock-out cast. I was headed for a big come-back in the show business which had tabbed me as the youngest has-been producer on record. I was going to town.
I was certain of it. I wasn't even crossing my fingers.
Iris's gloved hand rested on my sleeve. She was looking indecently beautiful with Asiatic furs and a trick hair cut. As usual, passers-by stared with a sort of inquisitive awe, trying to make up their minds whether or not she was Someone with an Autograph.
She said for the thirteenth time: "Peter, do I really have to make my sensational debut in the worst theater in Manhattan?"
I said for the fourteenth time: "You're very lucky to be making your allegedly sensational debut in any theater at all. No other producer in the world would have given a fat part to ..."
"... to an unbridled ex-debutante with no experience and nothing to recommend her except a certain amount of low cunning," completed Iris serenely. "You've said that before, darling. I don't think it's at all a nice thing to say to the girl you hope one day to make your lawful wedded wife."
She paused to brood over a domestic picture of the Lunts outside the St. James and then started forward again. "It isn't only me, darling. Gerald Gwynne says the Dagonet Theater's jinxed. And Mirabelle doesn't like it either. When she heard we'd been switched from the Vandolan, she hit the ceiling."
"What did she say?" I asked uneasily. It really mattered what Mirabelle Rue said.
Iris looked dreamy-eyed. "She said 'Hell.'"
"And Theo Ffoulkes was the same."
"Did she say 'Hell,' too?"
"She said: 'Typical of that damnable syndicate to switch us at the last minute into a blood mausoleum like the Dagonet.'"
I said: "What charming ladies I seem to have in my cast." Iris ignored that and began a cautious navigation of Eighth Avenue. The reassuring atmosphere of Shubert Alley didn't reach this far. We were moving into a region of dark stores and grudgingly lit restaurants where the Theater had no real foot-hold.
Although I wouldn't have admitted it to Iris, a little bug of uneasiness stirred in my mind. I didn't give one solitary damn for any old wives' tale about the Dagonet's jinx. I didn't give a damn that it had a bad location and an even worse reputation. But my whole personal history was staked on the success of Troubled Waters. If we went to town with it, I'd be solvent, I'd get back my lost self-respect, I'd be a person again with enough of myself to offer to make a fairly adequate husband for Iris. But, if anything, any little thing materialized to jimmy up the show, I'd probably be back at my recently and tentatively cured habit of putting away two quarts of rye a day; I'd be back again on the straight and very narrow path down hill. And I wouldn't have Iris. I'd made her swear she'd walk out on me if I ever started drinking again.
Now, as we threaded through the other pedestrians toward the Dagonet, that two-way future was frighteningly clear in my mind.
Iris was still looking like Cassandra about to prophesy the destruction of Troy. She said: "Darling, I don't want to be difficult, but isn't there anything we can do about the Dagonet?"
"Nothing," I said patiently. "The syndicate has the right to switch me into any of their houses. It's in the contract. So for pity's sake stop whining. Besides," I added with an attempt at brightness, "the Dagonet isn't so bad. It's large and it has a pedigree a yard long. Bernhardt played there."
"It's probably where she lost her leg," said Iris.
And, as she spoke, the Dagonet reared ahead of us, throwing an ornate portico over the sidewalk. Plump caryatids supported plump stone pillars. Torn posters on the billboards advertised some long-forgotten flop. The electric sign, shorn of bulbs, stared from a hundred empty eye-sockets.
It wasn't exactly a stimulating setting for the most vital and hazardous venture of my life.
I stared through the iron grille down the dreary alley which led to the stage door, feeling oddly nervous and wishing to hell I'd fought a bit more desperately to keep my lien on the stream-lined Vandolan, where we'd been rehearsing for three weeks.
We had just moved into the alley when an anxious voice behind me called: "Mr. Duluth."
I turned to see Lionel Comstock, an old-timer down on his luck, whom I'd hired for the one small part in the play. He was hovering outside the grille, his actor's face, beneath a black fedora, showing white and uneasy in the November darkness.
He asked hesitantly: "Are we really rehearsing here tonight — at the Dagonet?"
I looked at Iris, Iris looked at me. "Yes," I said.
Comstock was still peering through the grille as if he was reluctant to come inside. "I'm sorry, Mr. Duluth. When I was hired, I understood we were opening at the Vandolan. I don't think I could play here — not at the Dagonet."
"What have you got against it?" broke in Iris. "Is it the jinx?"
"No, its not the jinx." The old actor moistened pale lips with a paler tongue. "It's just that I played here once many years ago. Something happened. I swore then I'd never enter this theater again. I — I don't think I care to."
This cryptic statement made me unreasonably angry. Comstock meant nothing to the show and I could easily have replaced him. I almost told him to get the hell out and take his bogies with him. But I remembered he'd been sick and broke when I took him on. I didn't want him to throw away his bread and butter.
I said: "Stop crepe-hanging, Lionel, and come into rehearsal like a sensible human being. And, if you have got any dirt on the Dagonet, for God's sake keep it to yourself. I don't want the rest of the company rattled."
He didn't seem to pay any attention. He just stood there, his eyes remembering something nasty. Then abruptly he squared his sparse shoulders, tilted his chin in an Irving gesture and muttered:
"Perhaps it is best this way, after all. Perhaps if I go back to the Dagonet and am not afraid — I shall be able to lay her ghost."
He didn't say that to us. He was speaking to something inside himself. Pushing past me, he headed down the little alley and swung through the stage door.
Iris made a grimace and squeezed my arm. "Looks as if we're in for a cosy evening," she said.
Neither of us said anything else. There wasn't anything to say.
Most theaters are pretty depressing when they've been dark for some time. But the Dagonet was in even poorer shape than Eddie Troth, my optimistic stage manager, had led me to believe. As soon as we entered the stage door, the smell of dust and last year's make-up slapped us in the face. A few yellowing notices clung forlornly to the call board; there was a jagged coating of rust on the iron banisters which stretched up to stage level; even the doorman, standing on the threshold of his meager alcove, had a graveyard gauntness as if he had been snatched unwillingly from the nearest cemetery. He was clutching an old scrap-book against the front of his faded cardigan and staring curiously up the stairs after the disappearing figure of Lionel Comstock.
He blinked at us and extended a spectral hand. "The name's Mac," he offered. "Watched 'em come and go at the Dagonet forty years, I have." He patted the bulging scrapbook and displayed one or two teeth in what was probably intended for a smile. "Not a play's opened since '99 but I kept the notices."
I had visions of him gloating through the years as each successive flop added another raft of clippings to his grisly hoard. He seemed particularly suited to the Dagonet.
Having made sure that Eddie Troth had gotten him straight on the names of the company and all rehearsal details, I hurried after Iris up the stone steps to stage level where we ran into my stage manager propping a pane of glass against the wall of the star dressing-room and whistling "Home on the Range" cheerfully through his teeth.
Eddie Troth, a one-time Western cowboy, had come East to be a masseur. His first job had landed him in the Thespian Hospital, a specially endowed institution catering only to actors, and, after a few months massaging theatrical muscles, he'd got the Broadway bug. Now, instead of carpentering ligaments, he carpentered productions. And he did a damn good job of it.
That night he seemed the one person who could face the Dagonet with equanimity. He grinned his wide-open-spaces, Montana smile and announced that the set-up wasn't as bad as it looked. There were a lot of rats around and the glass panel in the swing-door leading to the stage was broken. But it wouldn't take him long to fix it up. Eddie loved fixing.
"How's the company taking it?" I asked apprehensively.
He scratched his lean jaw. "Well, you may get a bit of trouble at first. Know how funny actors are. But they've all of 'em been on the road now. They've struck plenty worse than the Dagonet in their time." He grinned. "Don't let them start anything, Mr. Duluth."
Which was presumably intended to reassure me. It didn't. I felt a growing conviction, fostered by Comstock's cuckoo behavior, that it wasn't going to be easy to stop the company starting anything.
It was in this defeatist mood that I gave my hat an arrogant tilt appropriate to a successful young producer-director and preceded Iris through the swing door with the broken panel onto the stage.
With the exception of my two leads, Mirabelle Rue and Conrad Wessler, the whole company was waiting for me. Old Comstock stood by himself, staring disconsolately out into the house. Theodora Ffoulkes, Gerald Gwynne, my very young juvenile, and Henry Prince, the author of Troubled Waters, were grouped in wintry silence under the proscenium arch. The stage was illuminated by a single working light whose beams played across the worn floor boards and the random assortment of property chairs and tables. Behind the dead footlights, the vast body of the house stretched, in tier upon tier of dust-covered seats, back into thick, musty darkness.
It was all very bleak.
I went over to the others and said aggressively: "Good evening, everyone. I know this is a lousy theater, but there's nothing I can do about it. So, for God's sake, don't anyone moan."
Theodora Ffoulkes, looking like a fashionable greyhound in slick English tweeds, turned on me a pair of alert brown eyes. "We aren't moaning darling. We're being bright and brave. I might almost be cheerful if it wasn't for the damnable draft." The English actress glanced at the broken panel in the door and shivered. "Unless you have any strenuous objections, Peter, I think I'll go backstage and find a dressing-room to huddle in until you're ready to start. I'm developing a narsty 'acking corf and I don't want to die on you before the opening night."
"Okay," I said. "I'll send Eddie up when Mirabelle and Wessler get here."
As Theo pushed briskly through the swing-door, Gerald Gwynne said: "Wessler's here already. It's only Mirabelle who hasn't shown up. Wessler's rooting around backstage."
And, as he spoke, the door opened again and my Austrian star loomed on the threshold, his huge shoulders stooped slightly to keep his head from hitting the lintel. One of his great hands was closed around a small clay figurine of a woman, holding it tenderly as if it were alive.
Conrad Wessler had taken to modeling in clay at a time when he was recovering from an airplane accident, when it looked as if his injuries would prevent him from ever acting again. It had been, I suppose, a sort of anodyne to help him forget his facial disfigurement and the fact that his beloved half- brother, Wolfgang von Brandt, had lost his reason as a result of this same accident. The two of them had made a spectacular escape from the tragedy of a Nazi Vienna, only to run into this personal tragedy on their arrival in the States. Now Wessler was well again and the scars on his face had been hidden by plastic surgery and a very Aryan beard. But he still kept up his modeling and was seldom to be seen without one of his little figures in his hands.
Somehow this made him appear even more impressive. With his enormous frame, his beard, his shock of blonde hair and the statuette between his fingers, he looked like a pagan god in the act of creating a protoplasmic Eve.
He came across the naked boards of the stage toward me. "Mr. Duluth," he said in his slow, uncertain English, "it ees true that we all the time in this Dagonet stay?"
I was getting rather tired of that question.
Wessler stared down at his little statue, which, intentionally or not, bore a curious resemblance to Mirabelle Rue. "Mr. Troth tells me the second dressing-room from the stage is for me."
"That's the usual custom in American theaters," I explained. "The female lead gets the first star dressing-room. Mirabelle will have it."
"So!" Wessler's lips were oddly stubborn. "Then I must against custom go. If we play in this theater, I take the dressing-room of Miss Rue, please." He paused, his blue eyes flickering. "I cannot be in the second dressing- room from the stage."
Ever since we started rehearsing, there had been an increasing and pointless antagonism between Wessler and Mirabelle Rue. I thought this was just another manifestation of the feud. Then suddenly it dawned on me that Wessler wasn't being temperamental. I could tell that from his eyes. I had the crazy impression he was scared — scared of something he had seen in the second dressing-room from the stage.
I asked uneasily: "Is anything wrong with your dressing-room?"
"Wrong? No, it is enough convenient. Miss Rue will be there comfortable. But I — I cannot go in that room again."
He added in a queer, subdued kind of voice: "It ees the mirror."
"The mirror!" someone echoed sharply.
I turned to see it was old Comstock who had spoken. He was gazing at Wessler, his mouth half-open. Then the door opened again on Theo Ffoulkes, returned from her excursion backstage.
I don't know why we all swung round to stare at her. There was nothing really out of the ordinary in her entrance. At a first glance she was the normal, matter-of-fact Theo Ffoulkes. And yet there was something about her, something subtly different which we all picked up and reacted to.
We stood there, in awkward silence, as she moved down the path of the working light toward us. She held out her hand to me for a cigarette. As I gave it to her, I saw that her slim, hard fingers were shaking.
"Children," she said very quietly, "be warned by Mother. Never, never go upstairs in the Dagonet Theater at night."
She laughed an unstable laugh that tilted off key. Apart from a mania for brewing tea at odd moments and a confirmed habit of falling in love with the wrong person, Theo was the sanest woman in the theater. I'd never seen her this way before.
"Peter," she said in that same alarmingly flat voice, "the Dagonet doesn't happen to be haunted, by any chance?"
I exchanged glances with Iris. "No ghost was specified on the lease," I said.
For a moment Theo just stood there, twisting the cigarette. Then she flicked ash onto the floor and stabbed at it with her toe. "Listen to a little story," she said. "I went upstairs to take a look at the dressing-rooms. I got to the first one on the top of the steps. The door was open but the light wasn't on. I went to the door and found a switch."
She looked straight at me, speaking very slowly.
"I snapped on the switch, Peter. It was the switch for the mirror — just the little lights around the dressing-table mirror. The rest of the room was dark. From where I stood by the door, I could tell no one was there. And yet, reflected in the mirror —" she paused — "reflected in the mirror, quite plainly, I saw a face."
Excerpted from "Puzzle for Players"
Copyright © 1966 Hugh C. Wheeler.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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