It has been a tough road thus far for the audacious Jocelyn “Josh” O’Roarke. Every time she feels like she’s moving up in the theater world, her life is derailed by a murder. Now, she is about to make her big move with her directorial debut Off-Broadway. Even better, it’s a revival of Major Barbara—a surefire hit. It seems nothing could go wrong—until stage veteran Burton Evans collapses on stage during a preview, apparently from a heart attack. As the director of the play, Josh must get to the truth. Despite Evans’s kindly exterior, he was hiding a history that gave several people motives for murder. Could he have been killed for his sizable inheritance? Perhaps someone objected to his testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s? Jocelyn O’Roarke needs answers if the curtain is ever to go up on her debut. Death Mask is the third book in the Jocelyn O’Roarke mystery series, which begins with Murder on Cue and First Hit of the Season.
About the Author
By the time Vanities finally closed, there were a lot of people she wanted to kill, and hence, she wrote her debut mystery, Murder on Cue, on a grant of sorts from the New York State Department of Labor. It was the first of six novels featuring actress Jocelyn O’Roarke, whom the New Yorker dubbed “an artsy Philip Marlowe.”
While writing her novels, Dentinger managed Murder Ink, a preeminent mystery bookstore in New York City, for eight years. In October of 1999, Dentinger became senior editor of the Mystery Guild Book Club. In 2005, she was made editor in chief, a position she held until December, 2013.
Read an Excerpt
A Jocelyn O'Roarke Mystery
By Jane Dentinger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Jane Dentinger
All rights reserved.
"'WELL YOU SEE, MY dear boy, when you are organizing civilization you have to make up your mind whether trouble and anxiety are good things or not. If you decide that they are, then, I take it, you simply don't organize civilization; and there you are, with trouble and anxiety enough to make us all angels! But if you decide the other way, you may as well go through with it. However, Stephen, our characters are safe here. A sufficient dose of anxiety is always provided by the fact that we may be blown to smithereens at any moment.'"
Sitting in the fifth row of the dark theatre, Jocelyn O'Roarke held her breath as she watched the scene progress. On her lap were a legal pad and pencil. Her left hand held an unlit cigarette. She'd been about to light it ten minutes earlier, but once the silver-haired actor onstage began speaking, she'd forgotten everything except the man with a voice like a golden bell and the glorious words that came tolling out.
A large hand fell on her right shoulder, and she rose a clear three inches off her seat.
"I know what you're thinking."
Jocelyn spun around to look up at her old friend and current production stage manager, Peter Morrance. "Jesus, Peter! Stop rolling in on little cat's feet. You're making me a wreck."
He gave her shoulder a kindly pat that his mischievous brown eyes belied. "No, you're making you a wreck, Josh. This is just too good to be true, and you can't stand it. Fear of success, old girl, fear of success, that's all. Maybe you should carry a block of wood in your pocket so you can keep knocking on it all day."
"Why should I when you're so handy? Now go away, Peter. I want to hear his big speech." Morrance ambled happily away.
Jocelyn returned her focus to the stage just as Jeff Harding said, "'What on earth is the true faith of an Armorer?
"'To give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them, without respect of persons or principles: to aristocrat and republican, to Nihilist and Tsar, to Capitalist and Socialist, to Protestant and Catholic, to burglar and policeman, to black man, white man and yellow man, to all sorts and conditions, all nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes and all crimes....'"
A gaggle of goose bumps rose up her spine and traveled down both arms despite her familiarity with both the speech and the actor speaking. It hadn't failed to happen once during the three weeks of rehearsals. For an instant she let her gaze drop to the newly printed poster lying on the seat beside her, just to reassure herself that she wasn't having a long and happy hallucination. But there it was in boldface print: "Major Barbara. Directed by Jocelyn O'Roarke." The cast was listed in alphabetical order except for a single name. That name and that name only went above the title and was the reason for all her joy. Because she, along with the public at large, had never expected to see it again —"Starring Frederick Revere"—at the top of the bill.
It had all started two months before at the Players Club during one of Frederick and Jocelyn's long-standing luncheons. Per usual, Revere had been trying to jolly her out of a chronic attack of the "blue meanies."
"And what ails m'lady today?" he asked, keeping one eye on the waiter pouring out his Bordeaux and the other on Jocelyn's untouched vichyssoise. "Love, work, or taxes?"
"Oh, God, take your pick," Jocelyn moaned, searching her soup for signs of enemy subs. "It's masochistic even to ask. Really, Freddie, why do you put up with me? I come here once a month and make like Andy Rooney."
"True. But the vital thing is you don't look like Andy Rooney. I can endure a lot for a pretty face."
Jocelyn smiled and tested the soup. "What a nice bullshitter you are.... Umm, this is good! Hand me a roll, love."
"That's better." He handed her the whole bread basket. "Now what's new and annoying on the Rialto?" He watched with satisfaction as Josh tore a roll in half and slathered it with butter. It was a good sign. In the course of their long friendship, Frederick had marked the three salient features of Jocelyn O'Roarke's character: her love of acting, which was equaled only by her hatred of show-biz pretense; her constant cynicism about people and things, which was a thin bluff for how deeply she cared; and her unspoken motto, While there's food, there's hope.
"Okay. Ready for the old saw about good news and bad news?" she asked, licking a dab of butter from her thumb. "The bad news is some hotshot developers are trying to buy the Burbage so they can tear it down and build a high rise.
"What? They can't do that! My God, it's unthinkable—profane! That theatre's a gem; it's a piece of history. Barrymore played there. Booth played there. I played there!"
Jocelyn patted his arm like a good nanny. "Shh, shh, shh. I know, darling, I know. But the good news is they've got a fight on their hands. The Ridley Company—you know they manage the Burbage now—they want to mount a major Shaw revival as a fund-raiser to save the place ... and, miracle of miracles, they want me to direct the opening production."
"Well, thank heavens." Frederick sighed with relief. "You had me worried for a—"
Jocelyn interrupted him with the wave of a hand. "The bad news is they can't get the backing for it without a major star. Now the Burbage isn't even a Broadway house, and major stars seldom venture below Forty-second Street, as you well know."
"What role are we talking about?"
"Undershaft, of course. You know I've always wanted to do Major Barbara. I can get Annie Morton to do Barbara and Jeff Harding to play opposite her. They're both hot, but they don't have enough drawing power to attract corporate backing, and we've gotta have that, Freddie, or we're dead. You know what Off-Broadway's like these days. You can't win for losin' since the cowboy on Pennsylvania Avenue cut the arts' funding. There's no way to make the weekly nut on ticket sales alone—even if the run sold out! Barbara's a big show to mount. And big business demands a big star."
"Damnation, there must be somebody! Undershaft's a sell-your-soul-for part—What about George C.?"
"Makin' a movie and doesn't want to work with 'a damned unknown director,' thank you very much."
"Ah! Likes this damned unknown director 'cause he saw that McClure one-act I did—but hasn't had a vacation in two years."
"Too bad—how about Gielgud?"
"Freddie, you're dreaming. Believe me, we've been over and over this for two weeks now. There just isn't anybody available."
A pall fell over the table as the waiter brought their entrees. Jocelyn tucked into her grilled sole, while Revere stared at his shell steak as if it were an unwanted guest. "Oh, come on, love. Don't let's ruin a lovely meal," she pleaded. "It's just the business."
Unhearing, Revere raised his eyes, rose from his plate and slowly traveled around the room. The dining hall of the Players Club was hung with handsome posters of landmark Broadway productions. Several of them bore his name, testament to a glorious career that had ended ten years ago with a golden and well-deserved retirement. Finally, he picked up his knife and cut sharply and precisely into his steak.
"Do you think I'd do?"
"Do for Undershaft? Oh, I know, I know, I'm not a big star—not by today's standards. But there is that curiosity value when an old war-horse comes out of the stables for one last run."
Jocelyn dropped her butter knife and didn't even notice that it broke her bread plate in half. "Think you'd do! God Almighty, Freddie, it would be the biggest thing to hit this town since—since steam heat! ... But you always said—"
"Yes, yes, I always hated that 'back by popular demand' nonsense. When one retires, one should mean it—and I did. But this is different. For one thing, it's a great opportunity for you—" Josh gulped so loudly it echoed. "Don't go soppy, my dear. There are more important factors. There's the Burbage, too. I owe a great deal to that theater."
Jocelyn nodded humbly. "I know. You did Shylock there."
"Well, yes, I did. But more to the point, Lydia designed the costumes. That's where we met, and that's where I proposed to her. And I don't think my wife would approve if I let it be yanked down by some robber barons without a fight, do you?"
"No, Frederick, I don't think she would," Jocelyn said, seeing the late Lydia Revere's piquant face before her with wrenching clarity.
"Fine." He gave a curt, professional nod. "Then that's settled."
And settled it was with amazing alacrity. Knowing, as she did from bitter experience, that launching a major revival was like trying to get an elephant airborne, even Jocelyn was stunned at how quickly the wheels began turning once she let it be known that Frederick Revere was interested in playing Undershaft. Almost overnight the corporate backing came through via Stegman & Sons, the city's premier investment bankers, and suddenly Dumbo was flying high. The advance publicity was enough to make a PR man weep real tears, ticket sales already were soaring, the cast, by and large, was top-notch, and Jocelyn was terrified.
Peter Morrance was right; it was just too good to be true. Ten years of professional vicissitudes had made Jocelyn a firm believer in Mr. Murphy's precept: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Lying awake in bed each night, she mentally scrutinized every facet of the production, trying to see where disaster lurked. But so far there was only one fly in her ointment—not even a fly, really, more of a June bug—and that was JoJo Daniels. JoJo, or Jonathan as he preferred to be called (though Jocelyn found it nearly impossible to do so), was, at the tender age of thirty-two, artistic director and resident enfant terrible of the Burbage Theater. The Shaw revival was his brainchild, and he had been instrumental in getting Josh involved. For this she was deeply grateful and extremely mistrustful.
During the eight years of their acquaintance, she had never known JoJo to give without getting back in spades. Other than a fine mounting of Major Barbara, she didn't know what kind of a return he expected on his investment. Of one thing she was certain: it wouldn't be in the form of sexual favors. JoJo, with his Peter Pan wardrobe, his Del Sarto body language, a holdover from his chorus-boy days, and his constant flow of pseudo-French phrases, was the kind of boy only his mother could love and vice versa. Though in a tipsy moment he had once confided to Jocelyn that it was damn hard these days "to find a man with your kind of balls, sweets." She had accepted the dubious compliment with good grace and great forbearance.
But then forbearance had always been the basis of all her dealings with JoJo. He was as annoying as he was gifted, by turns naive and cunning, dense and uncannily perceptive, the kind of successful idiot savant that only the theater can produce and nurture. For her part, Jocelyn was constantly torn between a high regard for his professional expertise—as a galvanizing force, no one in the business, not even Papp, could touch him—and an intense desire to kick him in the shins. It all made for a rather mercurial meeting of minds. On the good days, they functioned as a single unit. On the bad days, they made Albee's George and Martha look like a doting couple.
The first casting meeting had been one of their bad days. And Josh hadn't seen it coming. The meeting had consisted of JoJo, Josh, Peter Morrance, Stuart Slavin, the casting director from Hobbs & Slavin, and Aaron Fine, the company manager. Everyone was in high good humor, for Jocelyn had worked out a honey of a plan for doubling up on roles. Except for the leads—Barbara, Undershaft, and Cusins—all the other actors would play at least two parts. The plan had a twofold beauty: it would effectively cut back on salary expenses and, at the same time, attract a better class of talent to the minor roles because they would be given that hallowed chance that all actors yearn for, the chance to show their range. Plus, it was the kind of theatrical ploy that even hardened critics fell for, if done well. It even made the lachrymose Mr. Slavin hum like a honeybee in heat.
"Okay, one more time to make sure I've got it," he said. "The actress who plays Lady Britomart in Act One plays Rummy in Act Two, then goes back to Britomart for Act Three?"
"Right"—Josh nodded—"and we can probably get Angela Cross if for no other reason than she's had the hots for Freddie for nearly twenty years and will jump at the chance to play his wife."
"That's great." JoJo beamed. "Angela's très divine with accents."
"Yes, I know," Stuart agreed. "Now whoever does Lomax in One plays Bill Walker in Two, and then goes back to Lomax for Three?"
"That's brilliant, Josh, really. Very Two Faces of Eve."
"Thanks, JoJ—Jonathan. I'd like to use Alex Shore. He's young, but he's great with character stuff."
"The guy's a whiz with makeup, too," Peter put in to smiles and nods all around.
"Now we've got a three-way," Slavin went on. "An old guy to play the butler in One, Peter Shirley in Two, and Bilton in Three."
"Yeah, and it's tricky," Jocelyn said. "'Cause the butler and Bilton are essentially walk-ons, but Shirley is one of those small but key roles. Shaw's not big on pathos, but we need one good dose of it in Act Two to balance all the intellectualizing that's going on. That's why he put Peter Shirley there, a man who's been used up by the system and discarded. So we've gotta have somebody who knows how to make a moment. I was thinking of Ronald Horner. Remember his Polonius at Cir—"
Catching sight of JoJo, Jocelyn stopped abruptly. The formerly effervescent Mr. Daniels suddenly looked like a boy with a bad tummy ache. "Oh, gee, Josh, I just don't know. Ronnie can be awfully difficult sometimes."
"Only when he's working for scale," she retorted, obliquely referring to the time when JoJo hired no one who wouldn't agree to work for Equity minimum. "The man's credits stretch a mile, and he's never gotten a bad review."
"Now don't get me wrong," Jonathan said. "I like Horner."
"Good, 'cause I'm goddamned crazy about him," Jocelyn snapped.
"I just don't think he's right," JoJo continued, choosing to ignore her. "I absolutely agree with you, Shirley's a key role! I simply feel we'd be better off with someone like—like Burton Evans."
"Burton Evans?" Jocelyn rubbed her chin to keep her jaw from dropping and looked around the table for other reactions. Aaron Fine was furiously taking notes. Peter Morrance shrugged and gave her his "I'm just the stage manager" look, and Stuart Slavin was a dead ringer for Jack Lemmon on the brink of tears. Help was not in sight, but she wasn't about to admit defeat. "What is so frigging right about Burton Evans?"
JoJo's lips pursed at the sound of the "F" word as he scrambled through a pile of index cards. "Well, he is on our board of directors, you know. He's been very supportive, and he's ... he's very talented."
"Yeah, he's got a real gift for walking, talking, and not bumping into the furniture." Her hackles were rising, and there was nothing she could do to stop it even though she knew better. Into every show a little nepotism must fall. It was the nature of the game and always had been. But the blatant fact that every person in that room knew that Horner was ten times the actor that Burton Evans could ever be touched off an atavistic impulse in Jocelyn: the desire to be fair and cast the play on merit alone. It was an old and constantly lost cause.
"Oh, oh, now, Joceleen." Daniels pronounced her name with the French accent as he shook his head. "Don't be tacky. Burton's very sound, and I'm sure you can get a good performance out of him ... if you don't let your, uh, politics color your directing."
Excerpted from Death Mask by Jane Dentinger. Copyright © 1984 Jane Dentinger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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