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Funny about murder

BC author mines her time at iconic British hotel for murder mystery stories.

May 24th, 2023

Prudence Emery worked as a publicist at the Savoy Hotel in London, England from 1968 - 1973.

In the second Priscilla Tempest Mystery series installment, the plucky heroine is a murder suspect but can’t provide an alibi as she’d spent the night with a Canadian prime minister. Dark scenarios are alleviated by laugh out loud moments.

by John Moore

For obvious reasons most murder mysteries are long on terror and short on humour other than the deadpan gallows variety exemplified by old Raymond Chandler novels. There have been novels, TV series and films featuring witty or comical detectives and even amusing killers (the film version of the board game Clue, Sleuth, American Psycho and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, etc.), but they tend to satirize familiar situations of the genre so broadly that they end up in Parody, (next door to Purgatory on Google Maps). It’s rare to find a novel like Scandal at the Savoy (D&M $19.95), co-authored by Prudence Emery and Ron Base, that can maintain suspense and genuine interest in the characters while delivering Laugh Out Loud moments every four or five pages.

Publicity, 1960s-style. Prudence Emery in London, the model for Priscilla Tempest.

Like the first novel in this series, Death at the Savoy (D&M, 2022), this too is set in the prestigious Savoy Hotel during the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and brilliantly evokes the period when A-list celebrities and international politicians, not just pop-stars, still needed the validation of being “seen” in London, not B-List burgs like New York or Los Angeles. Priscilla Tempest is a young Canadian woman in charge of public relations for the grande dame of London hostelries. Saddled with a moniker more appropriate to the heroine of a bodice-ripping novel set in a faux-historical England, (another bit of authorial tongue-in-cheek), Priscilla becomes a real damsel in distress when her already demanding job is complicated by the murder of a showgirl appearing in the Savoy’s cabaret headlined by aging British film siren, Diana Dors.

Younger readers may have to redline their search engines looking up all the Sixties stars who make cameo and walk-on appearances, but the history lesson will be rewarding. Those who remember the Sixties will cackle with satisfaction at the fictional resurrection of so many global celebrities whose careers proved it’s possible to be famous for more than fifteen minutes. Among them is Canada’s youthful bachelor Prime Minister, Pierre Eliot Trudeau, who sweeps Priscilla out of a star-studded Savoy cocktail reception and out of her Mary Quant mini-dress for a five-star one night stand.

For any Savoy employee, creeping out of a guest’s suite early in the morning is a career-ending move, but unemployment quickly becomes the least of her worries when the strangled corpse of showgirl Skye Kane is discovered in a dressing room at the hotel. Priscilla tells Scotland Yard detectives that during the party, in the Ladies room, she met Skye, who had been slapped and threatened with death by notoriously short-fused American theatrical producer, David Merrick.

Before he married, Prime Minister Trudeau was a noted lady’s man in the late 60s.

From that plot point, Scandal at the Savoy becomes a deliciously dark farce exposing the sleazy underside of the glamorous Carnaby Street-designed facade London showed to the world. It was a milieu in which celebrity gangsters like the notorious Kray Twins mingled with pop stars, famous actors, Members of Parliament and Commonwealth Prime Ministers with predictable results; blackmail, scandal and what Scotland Yard calls “suspicious deaths.”

As in the film True Romance, supporting actors steal this show. The trio of Savoy regulars, playwright Noel Coward and actors Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, resemble the three witches in MacBeth if their dialogue had been re-written by Oscar Wilde. At the initial cocktail party, one of them refers to the despised Merrick as ‘the Abominable Showman’ and the quips just keep on coming. Not content to play the role of Chorus in the play, they get stuck right in to aid their friend Priscilla, tailing gangsters through the means streets of London’s rough East End in Olivier’s Bentley and helping her rescue Diana Dors from the Kray twins. No more spoilers…you’ll have to read the book.

Nanaimo-born Prudence Emery worked for many years as the press and public relations officer for the Savoy Hotel. She’s now happily mining her memories of that career in collaboration with Ron Base, the Milton, Ontario. novelist who has authored his own series of Sanibel Sunset mystery novels, many set on the Florida islands of Sanibel and Captiva. One of the principal charms of the mystery genre is that murder provides authors and their fictional investigators with a moral pretext to expose the ‘best’ people on their worst behaviour. Prudence Emery and Ron Base have come up with a new twist on the old formula that’s five-star all the way to the last morsel.

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