Friday, March 29, 2013

The Diva Got Dropped: Murder Ends the Song (1941), by Alfred Meyers (Part One)

The opera mystery that I can best recall having read previously is Photo-Finish (1980), by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982).  Murder Ends the Song, by Alfred Louis Meyers (1906-1963), preceded the Crime Queen's penultimate novel by four decades.  Did Dame Ngaio ever read Murder Ends the Song?  I have no idea, but there are sure similarities between the two tales.

Alfred Louis Meyers was a great opera buff, without a doubt.  At Notre Dame University, where he received a B.A. and an M.A. in English (his thesis was titled An American Paradox), Meyers was a prominent member of the Glee Club, and in 1937 he sang in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera, where he settled after the death of his father, a bank cashier in a small city in eastern Oregon (the son had worked "off and on in his father's bank," all the while "singing in any chorus that would use his talents").

Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940)
In Murder Ends the Song, published in 1941 at the tail end of the Golden Age of the detective novel, Meyers chronicles the murder of Marina Grazie, an imperious but past-her-prime coloratura soprano (the sort who "trills" a grat deal in bel canto operas) attempting a would-be comeback of sorts in Portland, Oregon.

Several times in the novel Meyers mentions the once renowned coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini (one of the true greats of this art form).

It's clear that Meyers' Marina Grazie is to some considerable extent modeled after the great Tetrazzini, who died at the age of 68, the year Meyers was writing his mystery.

You can find a great deal about Tetrazzini on the internet; here, for example, is an interesting recent piece on her in L'ideamagazine by Linda Ann Lo Schiavo, The Dangerous Arrangments of Luisa Tetrazzini.

The diva also got attention on San Francisco websites back in 2010, on the hundredth anniversary of her celebrated outdoor concert in the City by the Bay (a place she loved), staged just a few years after the great earthquake.  And, yes, the pasta dish tetrazzini is said to have been named after her!

In Murder Ends the Song the soprano aria Caro nome, from Verdi's Rigoletto, plays a great role (there's even a diagram of a page of the sheet music provided, along with an illustration of the title of the aria, found scrawled in blood on the mirror in Grazie's dressing room).  Here is a link to an old recording of Terazzini herself singing Caro nome.

Tetrazzini slays 'em in San Francisco

You may guess from all this that I liked Murder Ends the Song.  I did indeed.  Throughout the author handles classical devices with facility.

Eventually we end up with Marina Grazie and her entourage--along with tenor and amateur detective Tony Graine, his accompanist-sidekick Walter Sands ("Sandy") and a caretaking couple--stranded in the hulking old country mansion known as Lucifer's Pride, built many years before along the Columbia River Gorge by an eccentric millionaire as a would-be wedding present for Grazie (she broke it off, keeping his diamond). The mansion, you see, can only be reached by a ferry boat, which is promptly obliterated in an ice storm.

This old gambit, a variation of which is used by Ngaio Marsh in Photo-Finish (there she strands her house party on an island in New Zealand), is always fun.  Meyers also has a snappy pace and narration and additionally in the text supplies readers with, besides the Caro nome items mentioned above, a house plan and an illustration of a snowy footprint.  This is a book definitely in the style of such American mystery greats as Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer.

Death lurks in the gorge....

Does Murder Ends the Song live up to the works of the masters?  I will have more to say about that in Part Two!  I will also have more to say about Alfred Louis Meyers, who, it turns out, is connected to my family by marriage, if you go back far enough!  Alice Palmer, a sister of Meyers' six great grandfather John Palmer, was the third wife of my eight great grandfather Richard Buffington (1654-1748).  Like Raymond Chandler, whose family is also related to mine by marriage, our ancestors go back to Chester County, Pennsylvania at the time of William Penn.  Don't worry, though, I'll make every effort to remain objective with this review!


  1. Now that's a forgotten writer! Glad I'm not a betting man; I would've lost miserably. You've never read any other opera mysteries? Not even Helen Traubel's The Metropolitan Opera Murders? Well, actually Harold Masur's since he ghosted it. Edmund Crispin wrote a mystery about opera -- Swan Song. You must've read that one. What about Death on the High C's by Barnard? That was pretty darn good.

    Interesting Brush with Fame there, too.

  2. John, no, I've never read Metropolitan Opera Murders. However, I did read Swan Song. I've read about two-thirds of the Barnard books including most of the earlier ones, but not Death on the High C's!

    I've always remembered the Ngaio Marsh book, enjoyed that one quite a lot back in the 1990s.

    I'll have to detail the family relationship to Chandler. Like with Meyer, my immediate line connects with his by intermarriage of collateral relatives. So we're not actually related by blood, but I'll take it! That's two Golden Age period mystery writers now whose families go back to seventeenth-century Quaker Pennsylvania! I'm guessing Rex Stout would be a third, but haven't studied that one.

  3. Here's another question: Are there other Golden Age detective novels set in Oregon?

    1. Yes! Three of Kay Cleaver Strahan's Lynn Macdonald books: Footprints, October House, and The Merriweather Mystery.

      Also Hubin's Bibliography tells me these are set in Oregon: Walking Shadow by Lenore Glen Offord, Cats Have Tall Shadows by D. B. Olsen and Give Up the Body by Louis Trimble, among many others by lesser writers of whom I have never heard.

    2. I didn't realize that KCS. I think I have all her books, but I think you and TomCat have about reviewed them all!

      Didn't know Oregon was such a hotbed of Golden Age crime!

  4. Thanks so much for this! I have family from San Francisco and I didn't know most of this, or about Tetrazzini's connection to the city. (And dummy me, I hadn't thought of checking the web for recordings of her singing! Thanks!)
    Can't wait for Part 2!

    1. Youtube is great for that sort of thing! She also has two CDs in the Prima Voce series that are available. There will be some more about Meyer and San Francisco in Part Two.