A Catskills resort’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet takes a wickedly ironic turn when the leading lady, Lauren Richmond, is first poisoned and then stabbed. Who would extinguish the life of such a beautiful young thespian? Who wouldn’t? Seems like just about everyone had a motive to pull the ropes on her final curtain call.
At the center of this Shakespearian tragedy is Charlotte Fairfax, formerly the costume mistress of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Upstate New York is a long way from the royal stage, but Charlotte is always the queen of her domain. As this small production’s costume designer, she has stitched her way into everyone’s lives, learning more than anyone could possibly imagine about the rise and fall of Lauren Richmond. But curiosity killed the cat. And it might well kill the costume designer.
Witty and wise work, Untimely Death , the first in Elizabeth J. Duncan’s charming cozy series, is sure to delight.
About the Author
Elizabeth J. Duncan is the author of the beloved Penny Brannigan mystery series set in North Wales. A former editor and broadcaster in England, Elizabeth is currently an instructor at the Humber School for Writers in Ontario, Canada.
Read an Excerpt
“Rupert! Car coming! Over here, you silly dog!”
A small dog with short legs and a happy grin bounded toward the woman holding a leather leash. “Good boy!” she said as she bent over, clipped the leash to his bright-red harness, and lovingly ruffled the fur behind his upright ears.
The woman, wearing a dark-green down jacket and wooly hat against a biting March wind, stood with her dog well back from the edge of the gravel driveway as a car driven by a middle-aged blonde woman swept past. Although the man in the passenger seat had his head turned away from her, Charlotte Fairfax recognized him as someone she’d hoped never to see again. Keep going; don’t stop , she thought.
When the car had passed, Charlotte breathed a sigh of relief, and she and her dog continued walking up the drive toward Jacobs Grand Hotel.
Although the grandness had disappeared a decade or two ago, some faded dignity remained. The white-stuccoed main house, with its windowed gables and a large room on either side of the entrance portico, had welcomed guests in search of rest and relaxation since 1956. In the early days, couples and individuals stayed in the hotel proper, and families were booked into the bungalows that dotted the grounds. Everyone gathered in the hotel dining room for meals; entertainment was provided day and night in various function rooms. Once bursting with warm hospitality, a sense of community, and a never-ending list of indoor and outdoor activities, the hotel was now quiet and still as it shook off the last of winter and waited for summer to come around once again.
Jacobs Grand Hotel isn’t hard to find. Drive along a gently curving blacktop road about one hundred miles north-northeast of New York City, and as the woods start closing in and the majestic Catskill Mountains emerge out of the mist, you come to a series of picturesque towns and villages. One of these is Walkers Ridge, a postcard-perfect community of about three thousand souls, proud of their hometown with its charming village green and white clapboard church, adorned by the finest pointed steeple outside New England.
It was here, on rural land a little ways out of town, that Esther and Joseph Jacobs chose to build their hotel.
Jacobs Grand Hotel flourished until the late 1970s, when a younger demographic with easy access to affordable international flights and a desire for globe-trotting independence sent it and many other all-inclusive, family-owned resorts in the Catskills into decline.
Many hotels mysteriously burned to the ground. Other properties in this land that time almost forgot were simply abandoned and reclaimed by nature, becoming eerie, overgrown reminders of long-ago afternoons filled with the excited shouts of children at tennis matches and pool parties. But the Jacobs family was one of a handful that managed to keep their business afloat.
Harvey Jacobs, grandson of Esther and Joseph and current owner of the hotel, credited his late mother with saving it. It had been her idea to hold a Shakespeare festival one summer; a large ground-floor function room near the kitchen had been converted into a small theater with a proscenium stage. Nearby storage rooms had been turned into dressing rooms, and somehow, it had all worked out.
As the festival established itself, it became the one important attraction that distinguished Jacobs Grand Hotel from all the others, and year after year, the guests kept coming, filling up the hotel bedrooms. Shakespeare, it seemed, was always in style.
There had been many lean years when it seemed doubtful they’d be able to carry on. But now, the Catskills, and Walkers Ridge in particular, were teetering on the brink of a revival, and Harvey Jacobs, third-generation hotelier, was convinced that if they could just make it through this seasonsummer theater here at the hotel and then autumn performances in Albanythey would turn the corner. They’d survived the recession of the late 1980s and the bank scandals of the new century, and they were almost home and dry.
He wasn’t as involved in the theater operation as his parents and grandmother had been. In fact, while the hotel technically owned the theater company, he usually left the day-to-day running of it to theater people.
The longest-serving theater employee was Charlotte Fairfax, a slim, attractive woman in her early forties with shoulder-length brown hair, bright hazel eyes, and high cheekbones, who’d joined the Catskills Shakespeare Theater Company as head of the one-woman wardrobe and costume department about ten years ago.
As an up-and-coming costume designer with the Royal Shakespeare Company of Stratford-upon-Avon, she’d come to New York City for several months when the RSC was in town performing a play based on a Charles Dickens novel. Because the play featured so many actors, each playing several characters and thereby necessitating many costume changes, several wardrobe people were required to work as dressers to ensure that the production went smoothly.
She loved her job and considered herself fortunate to have been chosen for the Broadway assignment. But when her romance with one of the company’s leading actors fell apart in the messiest way imaginable, she decided to remain behind in New York City when the company returned to Britain. Her career and her life had bottomed out, but she’d fought back and was grateful to Harvey Jacobs for giving her the chance to reestablish herself.
She wondered every now and then if she should have been more ambitious and worked on big Broadway productions like The Lion King or Cats , but she felt that her life was in a good place, and most of the time, she was content. The quiet life suited her. And besides, she’d grown up in an English village and knew that despite the outward appearance of dull tranquility, village life often hid long-held secrets and hearts of darkness.
Harvey Jacobs liked and trusted her. A few days ago, he’d told her that his nephew, Aaron, was taking a bit of time off from school and that starting next week, he would be working part-time with her in wardrobe and part-time as the stage manager under the supervision of the theater’s new director, Simon Dyer.
Charlotte and her beloved Rupert continued on their walk as the late afternoon sun washed the hotel in a gentle spring light. She loved the anticipation of this time of year, when the new cast members, most of them fresh from theater schools, arrived bursting with excitement for the season ahead, keen to start rehearsals, and all working toward the same goal of having the best opening night imaginable.
But this year was going to be different; changes were coming. She could just feel it.
Death was no stranger to Charlotte. In fact, you could say she’d played a rolemany times overin twelve suicides, seven murders, and nine deaths in combat. For her, it was all in a day’s work, because it was her job to make sure villains were dressed to kill and their victims were wearing clothes to die for.
And although she’d never been part of a real-life murder, that was about to change.
Charlotte had mixed feelings about having a part-time intern dumped on her this season. At the very least, she would have liked a say in the matter, but she was willing to keep an open mind and let him show her what he could do. If he was good, she’d be glad for the extra help. But if he wasn’t, she had better things to do than find busywork to keep a New York City boy out of trouble.
“All right, Aaron, hang your jacket here, and then we’ll go over the worksheet for today.”
Charlotte crossed her arms and waited while the young man did as he was told.
Smiling, he sauntered over and stood beside her. “Okay,” he said easily, folding his arms to mirror her stance. “Where would you like me to start?” In his early twenties, with dark curly hair and friendly brown eyes, he wasn’t handsome in a traditional sense, but he was good-looking in a pleasant, contemporary way, like the actor who plays the wisecracking best friend in a romantic comedy.
“Before we get started, let’s be clear about one thing. When you’re told to be here at nine a.m., that means nine a.m., or even better, eight fifty-five so you can get your coat off and be ready to go on time. Understood?”
“Understood. My bad. Won’t happen again.” A sparkling smile underscored his sincerity.
“Good. Now the second thing you need to remember is this: costume is character. So everything we do here is critical to the success of the play. Most actors will tell you that their character isn’t complete until they’re in costume. And do you know what part of the costume really pulls everything together?”
“The shoes. Know who told me that?”
Aaron shook his head.
“Sir Alec Guinness.”
Charlotte groaned. “Never mind. Let’s get to work. First, I’d best show you around. Follow me. We’ll start with wardrobe.”
She led him past the costume department’s worktable and a wall of shelves filled with end-of-bolt and remnant fabrics she’d bought deeply discounted or persuaded suppliers to donate to the theater company.
“Costume stock lives in here,” Charlotte said as they entered an adjacent room. Rows of clothes protected by plastic dry-cleaner bags hung from portable rails. Every hanger had a yellow tag tied to it. Aaron lifted one and read it out loud.
“ Merchant of Venice. Antonio, act one.” He moved to the next tag. “ Merchant of Venice. Bassanio, act one.”
“There are lots of ways to organize these garments. You can group by men’s and women’s and then break those groups down by age group, but I’ve found the easiest way to store them is like this, by play and act. If there’s a costume change within a scene, which happens rarely, you’ll see two costumes for the character, labeled appropriately. The costumes are alphabetical, by play and character, so if you pull one, mind you put it back in the same place. With my system, I can find any garment I need quickly.”
She placed her hand on the shoulder of a costume and adjusted its place ever so slightly on the rack.
“Our budget is small so we have to adapt existing costumes.” She shrugged. “Let out the waist, add a bit of trim here or a ruffle there. Whatever. We’re all about ‘make do and mend’ here. We can’t design and create new costumes from scratch for each production, unfortunately. Coming as you do from fashion-design school, I hope that won’t be too much of a disappointment.” She waved a hand down a row of costumes. “You can take a closer look at these later.”
“Your accent,” Aaron said. “You’re British, aren’t you?”
“I am. English. Norfolk born and bred. I’ve lived in America for a long time, but never quite managed to lose the accent.”
“Well, I like it. It suits you.”
“I’m glad you think so, because it’s the only one I’ve got!”
They returned to the main workroom, and Charlotte pointed out an elderly black sewing machine in the corner, next to a smaller worktable. “This is handy for keeping pattern pieces on,” Charlotte said, touching the table with her fingertips. “Because we’re such a small theater, we have to do everything ourselves, including the sewing, but that could be a very good thing for you. It’s always best to know every aspect of a business, and while you’re taking a bit of time off school, working here will keep your skills sharp.” As she bent over the machine to show him how to wind a bobbin, loud voices from the hall caught their attention.
“Don’t you think for one minute you’ve heard the last of this!” shouted a female voice to the sound of a slamming door.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Title: Untimely Death - Shakespeare in the Catskills Mystery 1 Author: Elizabeth J Duncan Published: 11-10-2015 Publisher: Crooked Lane Books Pages: 290 Genre: Mystery, Thrillers & Suspense Sub Genre: Women Sleuths; Cozy Mystery ISBN: 9781629531915 ASIN: B013X6KNKQ Reviewer: DelAnne Reviewed For: NetGalley Rating: 4 1/2 Stars . The summer theater season is preparing to begin at Jacobs Grand Hotel in the Catskill , the same place Charlotte Fairfax lives. Charlotte loves her job and has taken on an apprentice, Aaron, the nephew of the hotel owner. Shortly after rehearsals begin someone tries to end not only Lauren Richmond's career, but her life. When poisoning fails the move on to stabbing her to death. The question is who would want the beautiful lead actress dead? That is the question Charlotte Fairfax, British costume designer turned amateur sleuths, plans to find the answer to. Once she begins investigating she finds quite a few people had it in for the late Charlotte. Especially when the state police and her boyfriend, Ray Nicholson, who is also the chief of police, look to Aaron as the prime suspect. The problem centers around the fact that he knew Lauren from high school where her and her "cool" gang harassed his cousin into committing suicide. From the opening paragraphs you are pulled into the story and the action that abounds. There are plenty of clues to lead the reader to the culprit, but watch out for the red herrings that take you down the garden path. Fast pace with a charming traditional English pragmatic main character that has a unique quirkiness to her with solid supporting ones that make for an interesting read and people you want to see more of. a great read for any clean lighter mystery over. My rating is 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.
She should stick to her books set in Wales A disappointment!!!