Death on the Pier by Jamie West is West’s debut novel set almost 90 years ago on a Brighton Pier Theatre that longer exists.
West knows the intricacies of stage life better than most, having worked over the last 15 years backstage on countless shows in London’s West End including The Book of Mormon, Miss Saigon, Kinky Boots, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and currently Dear Evan Hansen. This, twinned with his fascination for ‘lost’ theatres, allows him to lovingly recreate The Palace Pier Theatre, Brighton in the pages of Death on the Pier.
Can you tell us more about “Death on the Pier”?
Renowned murder mystery playwright Bertie Carroll turns real life detective when his leading lady is shot and killed on stage, in full view of an unsuspecting audience.
Luckily he has been joined at the theatre by an old school friend, Chief Detective Hugh Chapman. Together they join forces to see if they can crack the case.
The book combines my love of the theatre and a good murder mystery set in the 1930s. It’s been an idea that I’ve been meaning to write for a few years now, but I’ve finally got round to doing it. I only wish I’d done it sooner! I’m already excited to see what this duo’s next adventure is going to be.
Does the book have a “theatre theme”?
Of course! The location for the murder is the Brighton’s “lost” Palace Pier Theatre. The murder is committed onstage, the suspects are all actors, my amateur detective is a playwright… I don’t think it can get more theatrical than that!
I also get to use my backstage knowledge to give people an insight into the workings of a 1930s theatre, which I think people have really enjoyed reading about.
What has influenced your writing?
I think it’s hard to work in the West End and not be inspired by the buildings we get to work in. In each venue, there will be names and dates of people who have worked on various shows over the years, written high above the stage and out of sight. There is a real sense of history to these theatres from the shows and the people who have passed through them before you.
I’m particularly interested in “lost” theatres. Some venues have been demolished and lost completely, others still exist but are now in use as cinemas, bingo halls or pubs. The idea of being able to research and recreate theatres that have been lost to history in my books was irresistible to me. I can’t wait to revive more theatres in future books.
We know you have an impressive theatre background. Can you tell us more about it?
I originally went to drama school with the intention of becoming lighting designer. However, in my final year, I began working on The Sound of Music in the Automation Department part-time. When I left, very luckily that turned into a full-time job.
The Automation Department is responsible for operating and maintaining the equipment that controls the motorised scenery on a production. I think it’s such a great balance of engineering and creativity that is required between maintaining the machinery and programming complex scene changes.
I’ve had the privilege of working on some great shows like Miss Saigon, The Book of Mormon and more recently Dear Evan Hansen.
Is the book based on people you have met?
There are no characters in the book that are based on any one person. But working backstage you get to hear your fair share of stories getting shared that catch your attention. Some of those have inevitably crept their way into the mouths of characters in the book!
Of course, there are some stereotypes that I have been able to play with. The old hand who has spent a lifetime playing the supporting roles and never the star turn, the overbearing lead actor, the young upstart who doesn’t seem to take things seriously enough for the veteran actors.
I hope that the performers I’ve worked with over the years don’t read into any of it too much!
What’s your favourite theatre “murder mystery show”?
There always seems to be a pretty good selection of murder mystery plays across the UK. Whether you’re into the most recent Peter James adaptation, a comedy-mystery like Cluedo, or a classic like the immersive Witness for the Prosecution, you’ll be able to find something you like at a theatre near you!
Murder mystery spans multiple genres as well. Musicals are at it with Curtains, drag queens are at it with Death Drop and the improvised comedy Murder She Didn’t Write miraculously invents a new one every night.
It would be very easy to pick The Mousetrap, which is currently in its 70th year and still going strong, but I have a soft spot for another Agatha Christie play: Spider’s Web.
I’m almost certain that this show, which I operated the lights for at my amateur dramatic society when I was 16, was my first introduction to the Queen of Crime. It’s very easy to draw a line from that play to my own theatre-set murder mystery nearly 20 years later!