After the events of Murder is Academic, & the birth of her daughter Grace, academic Cassandra James is on maternity leave from St Ethedreda’s College. She’s helping a local theatre group put on a production of East Lynne, an adaptation of one of the most popular sensation novels of the Victorian era. Cassandra is still unsure about the future of her relationship with Stephen & she’s relieved when he’s sent to the US on a business trip. Cassandra’s work on the script of the play has given her a focus & she’s also reunited with Melissa Meadow, the leading lady of the production who she’d first met in the maternity ward as they coped with their premature babies.
Melissa is married to Kevin Kingleigh, the director & leading actor of East Lynne. They’re renting Journey’s End, not far from Cassandra’s home, The Old Granary, in the Fen country outside Cambridge. Cassandra & Melissa had bonded over their shared experiences & when Melissa confides that she’s received an anonymous letter, Cassandra is surprised that she hasn’t told Kevin or the police. The letter is a poem by Byron & signed The King of Cups although the signature has been printed upside down. Melissa seems concerned & a bit fragile but the stress of combining motherhood with a demanding role as Lady Isabel in the play could explain that. Cassandra is shocked then when Melissa disappears, leaving her daughter, Agnes, behind.
The police can find no evidence of foul play or that Melissa may have left voluntarily but Cassandra can’t believe that Melissa would leave Agnes or Kevin as they’d seemed so happy. More practically, the show must go on & Melissa’s disappearance causes problems for the theatre group. Two documentary makers filming the rehearsals are finding that their project could prove more exciting than they could have hoped; the search for a new leading lady becomes urgent & then there’s the sightings of the theatre ghost lurking in the auditorium when young actress Belinda Roy is frightened by a shadowy figure sitting in the dress circle. Stan, the deputy stage manager, efficiently keeps the production on track as well as taking Cassandra in hand & organising her outfit for the first night but even she feels the tension as time goes on & Melissa doesn’t return. Cassandra is also disconcerted by the reappearance in her life of her first husband, Joe. Now a professor at an American university, he wants to catch up with Cassandra on a visit to Cambridge but he revives memories of their brief marriage that Cassandra finds difficult to resist.
Stage Fright is a very exciting mystery with the added attraction of the theatre background & Cassandra who is an engaging heroine. I’m also a fan of Victorian sensation fiction so the East Lynne discussions were also fun & relevant to the plot. Cassandra’s friendship with Melissa is grounded in their shared experiences in the maternity ward & Cassandra is glad to be working on the script for the play, to have something to keep her mind occupied while she gets used to motherhood. The closed circle of the theatre company can be friendly but also claustrophobic & Cassandra is soon questioning everyone’s motives & relationships. Kevin seems devastated by Melissa’s disappearance & a bit lost at being left to care for Agnes alone but is there something he’s hiding? While Cassandra worries about Melissa, she’s also helping Kevin to care for Agnes & getting used to being a mother herself. Joe’s reappearance while Stephen is away confuses Cassandra but eventually leads her to a decision about her future as she tries to work out the motive behind Melissa’s disappearance. I really enjoyed reading this again after nearly 15 years & I’m looking forward to reading Footfall, the third Cassandra James mystery.