In the 1980s, St. Martin's Press started a new line of mysteries -- mysteries set in the past in which real historical figures acted as the detectives. That sounded like fun, and it would give me a chance to write about some of my favorite people, the singers from the Metropolitan Opera's second Golden Age.
Of course I wanted to choose the biggest star of them all to be my sleuth. But even if I worked at it, I don't think I could come up with a more unlikely detective than Enrico Caruso. Caruso was a bit of a scaredy-cat, and he was too devoted to high living and good times to undertake anything as painstaking as a murder investigation. So how could I turn this lovable, larger-than-life figure into a detective?
The answer was obvious. Make it a comic novel.
I chose as the book's focal point the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West at the Met in 1910. In the story, a small-time impresario is murdered, and all the evidence points to Puccini. Caruso is outraged that the composer should fall under suspicion and sets out to prove his friend innocent. Undeterred by objectivity or patience, the tenor proceeds to make a thorough pest of himself backstage with his poking and prying and asking of impertinent questions.
This book gave me a chance to parody a convention of old-timey mysteries, that is, the scene in which the detective calls everyone together and proceeds to spell out who done it and how. Caruso summons everyone to the stage of the Metropolitan and leads them through the twists and turns of his own particular brand of logic -- to an utterly false conclusion. After all his effort, he gets it wrong. (I'd wanted to write that scene for years.)
Alas, I had to cheat on factual accuracy a little to make the story work. For instance, Puccini never did learn to speak English. His communicating with his American stage director (David Belasco) was all done through an interpreter. But you can see how clumsy that would be in a novel, to have so much of the dialogue filtered through a third person. So I gave Puccini an extensive enough understanding of English for him to get by without the aid of a translator.
But the picture of the times is as accurate as I could make it. I checked to see when "taximetre cabs" first appeared on the streets of New York, that sort of thing. And I immersed myself completely in the grand and glorious pre-war days of the Metropolitan Opera, the likes of which we will never see again.
1. Pittsburgh Preview:
2. Houston Chronicle:
3. Publisher's Weekly:
4. The Pittsburgh Press:
N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1984, ISBN 0-312-11328-5
Page created June 27, 1995; last updated June 8, 2000.