(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Anne Morice began her mystery-writing career with Death in the Grand Manor (1970), and she wrote eight more novels in which Tessa’s acting career remains a mere device to explain her insight into character. In Nursery Tea and Poison (1975), Tessa visits her godmother, Serena Hargrave, at her cottage in Herefordshire and discovers the murderess of Nannie to be Serena’s “truculent” daughter Primrose. A particularly vivid scene, indicative of Morice’s knowledge of set design, depicts Serena clutching a carving knife, Tessa listening to a Bob Newhart monologue on the gramophone, and Primrose vanishing. For Death of a Wedding Guest (1976), Roakes Common, her cousin Toby’s home, becomes the setting for the wedding of Toby’s daughter Ellen. Her mother, Irene, who deserted her and Toby years before, returns for the wedding, only to be murdered because she has witnessed a hit-and-run accident committed by the mother-dominated Phillip, once Ellen’s boyfriend. Portraying Tessa between acting assignments and in the midst of friends and relatives, these early mysteries establish Morice as an author of mysteries of manners.

Murder in Mimicry

With Murder in Mimicry (1977), Morice moves the theater to center stage, using a theatrical milieu for this novel set in Washington, D.C. In it, she introduces two characters who will appear in several mysteries: Lorraine Beasely, an assertive and untidy friend with whom Tessa stays in Georgetown, and Henry Thurloe, a successful lawyer who will become Lorraine’s fifth husband. Beginning before Tessa departs from England for the United States, the novel opens with Tessa and Robin having just finished a celebration lunch in honor of their fifth wedding anniversary and his promotion to chief detective inspector. At the conclusion, Robin joins Tessa and Toby at dinner as they discuss highlights of the solved case. Morice maintains this pattern, in which the mysteries begin and end with conversations between Tessa and at least one of the men in her life.

This narrative style emphasizing conversation reveals Morice’s indebtedness to Rex Stout, whom she identified as her favorite author. Tessa shares Archie Goodwin’s narrative facility, attention to detail, and psychological expertise. Morice particularly admired Stout’s realistic description. She explained, “I still believe if I walk down 35th Street, I’ll find Wolfe’s townhouse, and if I look up, I’ll see his orchids growing on the roof.” In addition, she paid homage to Nero Wolfe by transferring many of his qualities to Toby: his reclusive nature, fondness for food, and abrasive manner. Even her decision to write mysteries of manners might have been influenced by Stout, who declared Jane Austen the greatest writer and Emma (1815) a masterpiece.

With the setting of Murder in Mimicry in the United States, Tessa begins to interject comments on the writing process itself. She and Toby speculate on creating a traditional detective story using her cohorts in the theatrical company as characters. Engaging in banter, the cousins create motives for murdering Gilbert, the supercilious star of Toby’s comedy, Host of Pleasures, currently appearing in Washington, D.C. Speaking of the “anti-Gilbert motif,” Tessa and Toby discuss the “classic pattern,” inserting names of her fellow thespians.

Death in the Round

Death in the Round (1980) contains more reflective commentary. Tessa evaluates the plays of Jamie Crowther, the author of the work in which she comes to the Rotunda Theatre to appear: “They neither were nor aimed to be in any way memorable or profound, but the formula was unbeatable: tautly constructed plots, sharp characterization, an innate sense of the theatre and the magic gift of being able to make people...

(The entire section is 1581 words.)