POOR BUTTERFLY is the latest addition to Stuart Kaminsky’s series of period mysteries featuring detective Toby Peters. The time here is 1942 and the plot involves—as do all of the Peters books—a famous real-life figure, in this case conductor Leopold Stokowski. Kaminsky, a film scholar and the director of the film department at Florida State University, has set many of his Toby Peters mysteries in the Hollywood of the 1930’s and 1940’s with shamus Peters coming to the aid of such Hollywood stars as Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, and Mae West. This clever gimmick allows Kaminsky to explore the behind-the-scenes show business world that is Peters’ milieu.
For POOR BUTTERFLY, the focus shifts to the world of music— specifically grand opera—as Stokowski sends for Peters in an attempt to unravel the dangerous events plaguing the rehearsals of his San Francisco production of MADAME BUTTERFLY. A workman’s death, threatening notes, and fleeting appearances by a dark, caped figure form the heart of the mystery, and Peters’ list of suspects forms a varied cast of characters: the baritone-turned-company-manager, the beautiful soprano and the married tenor, the eccentric building caretaker, the manager’s stylish assistant, and the members of a fringe religious group picketing the production. Before the mystery is solved, Peters will find his own life in danger more than once.
The chief virtue of POOR BUTTERFLY is its version of the series’ central gimmick, the inclusion of Leopold Stokowski as a character. The scenes featuring the conductor, at work or as a player in the mystery itself, are among the book’s best. As a mystery, however, the novel is often lacking in suspense. Although there are several plot twists offered throughout the story, one of the key pieces of the puzzles will be apparent to the observant reader in the book’s opening pages—a disappointment for those who prefer their mysteries somewhat harder to crack.