Off to the Theatre with Murder is Absurd (1967) by Patricia McGerr

I’ve read two other novels by McGerr and each time I was engaged with her character work but fell foul of her experimental approach to structure – the novelty not living up to expectations when it came to the conclusions. Yet there always seems to have been enough in her work that I liked that I have kept on getting her books. So did I find a McGerr I could love? Read on to find out…

The book starts by introducing us to Mark Kendell and his wife Savannah Drake, who are both part of the acting profession. They have starred side by side for so many years. After a trip away Mark reads about his stepson, Kenny’s, new play, which is going to be put on that summer, entitled A Suburb of Elsinore. Shakespeare fans will know of course that this title alludes to Hamlet; a play in which a son writes and puts on a play to provoke a reaction from his stepfather, who he believes killed his father. This allusion unnerves Mark, as he fears family skeletons will be dragged out of the closet, as 17 years ago Kenny’s father died, when his wheelchair took him over a cliff edge. It was said to have been an accident, others suggested it was suicide, but was it something else? As if not, why should Mark be so worried? The title of McGerr’s story refers to the theatrical movement, theatre of the absurd; a style so completely opposed to Mark’s way of performing. Yet he inveigles his way into the production to keep an eye on his estranged stepson. Will Kenny’s play make it to opening night? What horrors will it reveal? Many of you will be making surmises as to where the plot is going, of what will happen to Mark and Kenny, yet McGerr switches plays and takes her story in a far less predictable direction…

Overall Thoughts

So in answer to my opening question… yes I did find a McGerr novel I could love and highly recommend, and not just as literary oddity.

First things first, the theatrical milieu of this piece is really well done. What no doubt helped was the fact that McGerr had friends who worked in the theatre industry, whom she thanks at the start of the book for their insights into the profession. Equally I enjoyed how McGerr wove in the element of two antithetical styles of theatre into the narrative. Mark is no one’s fan of the theatre of the absurd, at one point thinking to himself that, ‘I’m drowning in twaddle.’ At the start of the book, as Mark is trying to come to terms with the script, we get a more negative viewpoint on this form of theatre, with it being summed up as ‘Inanity, insanity, and profanity. Not to mention obscenity’ and Mark goes on to say that ‘these youngsters do seem addicted to lavatory language. That’s about the only area where their meaning comes through loud and clear, without disguises.’ In some ways his inability to interpret the script connects to his anxieties about trying to understand Kenny and how much he thinks he remembers. He wants a key of some kind to unlock the dialogue in the script so he can find the answer to his concerns.

McGerr’s characterisation skills have always been top-notch and this book is no different, in particular the depth of character she brings and how she uses first impressions to pull the wool over the readers eyes. In the past I have suffered disappointment with McGerr’s work because of experimental structuring devices which were ultimately dissatisfying from a mystery point of view and I think a fundamental reason why I enjoyed this book so much more than the others was because she didn’t include such a device. That does not mean she doesn’t have any surprises for the readers, but she is achieving her surprises through different means and these are means which deliver. You might call this novel one of suspense and I think McGerr is good at how she plays the tension levels; commencing with an initial rise, which then relaxes; a lull which makes you wonder what is going to put a spoke in the wheel and in the end it is a spoke you definitely don’t see coming. My only quibble would be is that the ending is a little too understated, given what has preceded it.

So in conclusion I would say I am pleased that I have persevered with McGerr’s work and I look forward to trying Fatal Fashion (1965), which I have in my TBR pile.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Actor/Actress

Calendar of Crime: February (6) Original Publication Month


  1. Having been a vocal – very vocal – McGerr fan for more than three decades, I’m glad that you’ve finally seen the light found a novel of hers to your taste. 🙂

    I agree with everything you say about this one and I’ll add it is the quintessential McGerr novel as the absence of any novelty aspect allows her to explore her favourite theme – power relations between people, be them relatives or colleagues or lovers – with even more acuteness than ever before. All of McGerr’s crime fiction deals with domineering persons crushing other people’s desires and individualities, and MIA is no exception.

    Since you seem to be more into her “straight” work than her “experimental” one, I think Fashion – which I have not read, but seems to belong in the former category – is a good place to continue your exploration of her writing, but you may also want to try Die Laughing and For Richer For Poorer Till Death which are in the same vein, the latter being the closest she ever got to write a Golden Age whodunit.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Having really enjoyed Die Laughing, I was looking at this as my next McGerr and I’m encouraged to see it written up so enthusiastically. Lord alone knows when I’ll get to it, but colour me excited for however distant that future date is…!

    Liked by 1 person

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