For some reason that has always escaped me, mankind views murder as one of the funniest subjects around. Agatha Christie’s heirs will forever be rich on her royalties. Murder fascinates people, as witness the paper-back rack in any airport. There is a Vancouver man who paid half a fortune to purchase the bricks from the Chicago wall that formed the backdrop for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Wayne and Shuster made their reputation on the sketch about the dispatching of Julius
Caesar. Alfred Hitchcock built his career on the subject. It is natural, one supposes, that the idea for a fun weekend in the country should feature something that is regarded as comic: a simulated murder.
The excuse is a book hype, sprung from the antic imagination of Jack McClelland, the Toronto publisher who once wore a toga down Yonge Street in the freezing rain to promote one of his creations.
This time the hype is in aid of a new book by mystery writer Howard Engel,
Murder on Location. Engel, a mild-mannered type with feathery locks, is a radio producer at the CBC and in his spare time writes whodunits featuring Benny Cooperman, a Niagara detective with a liking for egg salad sandwiches. It is perfectly understandable, for anyone who has had to deal with CBC bureaucracy, why one of their bureaucrats would fashion murder plots in his idling hours.
The site is Niagara-on-the-Lake, a pleasant little tintype town that looks as if it is right out of a Currier & Ives card. The resort town, which resurrects the ghost of George Bernard Shaw each summer, is safely down the river away from the vulgarity of Niagara Falls. (Oscar Wilde on Niagara Falls: “The second-biggest disappointment in a bride’s life.”) The only promise is that someone will be murdered before the weekend is over. Considering McClelland’s choice of guests, this seems a fair possibility.
One must understand the essential
Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.
pattern of the Toronto Media Mafia: they kiss cheeks on greeting and party together continually, but underneath there are dark broodings and imagined slights, old feuds, bad blood and planned revenge. McClelland, for example, still seethes with suppressed rage that his onetime protégée, Anna Porter, has run off and started her own publishing house, nibbling away at some of his perceived authors. Everyone hates Julian Porter, who is handsome, chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission and putative premier of Ontario, because he has such a beautiful,
smart wife. Pierre Berton, who has an ego taller than a Klondike mountain, does not particularly like to share the spotlight with Farley Mowat, who no longer lifts his kilt at head tables but is always a threat to do so. The liberally minded Barbara Frum cannot stand the anti-Commie ravings of journalist Peter Worthington, who is finishing a manuscript tentatively called The Education of a Right-Wing Nut. The nonflamboyant Knowlton Nash knows that in the CBC celebrity pecking order Frum is a constant problem—and she has a more impeccably chosen wardrobe.
What better, for a fun weekend, than to gather all these clashing personalities in the comfortable old Prince of Wales Hotel, built in 1864 when they were still carrying muskets along the lake? McClelland is mainly a stirrer of trouble, a man hoping for one star guest to bop another in the nose in front of the fireplace. All the women writhe with agony over Posy Chisholm, a well-travelled socialite, because she wears dia-
monds like candy mints and has the hips of a 17-year-old. It is glitz and glitter, with enough leather pants to denude the Argentine pampas. It is not who is going to be murdered; it is who one would like to murder.
There is Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry, destined for Brian Mellowrooney’s cabinet, proof incarnate that the line between politics and showbiz is now completely fuzzed over. There is a real-life Niagara policeman, Roger Mable, who is six feet, 8V2 inches and 325 lb., and must travel in a special van on his tours to schools promoting traffic
safety because he cannot
fit into a police car, recruited as part of the plot, evidence that law enforcement and book promotion live safely together in the era of puffery. Murder is now a voyeuristic industry. There is a group in Vancouver that, in black-tied finery moving from house to house for each course, stages a simulated killing once a month for those bored with the stock exchange ticker and the takeover bids. Sam Blyth, the rich man’s travel agent, runs a weekend mystery train from Toronto to New York featuring six actors who set
up the murder, which the guests must solve. Just $465 per body. It was the TVwise Barbara Frum who advised McClelland to insist on black tie, and formal wear for the ladies, on the glitterati weekend, since it would look better on color television.
This is all to the good, playacting working out real frustrations. McClelland secretly would like to murder Anna Porter, since a protégée who has spurned a mentor can never be forgiven. Nash can never be the true star of The National so long as Barbara has all those expensive clothes on The Journal. Worthington keeps looking over his shoulder nervously all weekend, fearful that Barbara Amiel may arrive in her right-wing cleavage and split his monopoly in that field. In the end, the murderer is revealed as Engel, who pulls a pistol, races from the dining room, pursued by the gargantuan Const. Mable, and falls into the swimming pool. The good guy turns out to be the bad guy. Something like politics, actually.
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