Ellen Hart was named the 2017 MWA Grand Master, the most distinguished lifetime achievement award offered in the mystery community.
Renowned theater director Cordelia Thorn is working to restore a historic theater in downtown Minneapolis that she and her actress sister, Octavia, recently bought. Cordelia has a vision for the playhouse's future, but the more she learns about the building, the more fascinated she becomes by its past. Nicknamed "The Old Deep and Dark" because of the Prohibition-era double murder that occurred in the basement-then a speakeasy-there are a wealth of secrets hidden inside its walls. And, to her shock and horror, Cordelia discovers that there is also one present-day body literally buried in a basement wall. Cordelia immediately calls on her best friend, P.I. Jane Lawless.
Although Jane is already in the thick of another investigation-she's embroiled in a well-known country-western singer's family scandal-she agrees to help Cordelia out on the side. But show-biz is a small world, and as Jane starts tracing the trails of two separate investigations, she's surprised to find they might not be as unconnected as she thought.
With The Old Deep and Dark, the latest installment in the award-winning Jane Lawless series, Ellen Hart has crafted another impeccably plotted, seamlessly written mystery.
The Old Deep and Dark is the Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery.
About the Author
ELLEN HART, named the 2017 Mystery Writers of America’s Grandmaster, is the author of more than thirty mysteries, many of them featuring private investigator Jane Lawless. Entertainment Weekly has called her “a top novelist in the cultishly popular gay mystery genre.” She has won multiple Minnesota Book Awards, and has been nominated twenty-three times for the Lambda Literary Award, winning six. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her partner of forty years.
Read an Excerpt
The Old Deep and Dark
By Ellen Hart
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Ellen Hart
All rights reserved.
He wasn't a boy. He hated it when people called him that, used the word as a way to define him, to minimize him. Okay, so technically, if that's what these judgmental jerks were aiming at, he wasn't a man yet either, but he was way beyond the boy stage. Kids didn't understand love, the romantic kind. The forever kind. He did. He hadn't told anyone close to him that he'd found the woman he was going to marry, mainly because they'd all laugh and tell him he was crazy. He didn't need small-minded, negative thinkers in his life.
Okay, so maybe there were a few hurdles. The age difference, for one. Not that it mattered. Love, as the poets said, would find a way. Kit was the most exquisite woman he'd ever seen. She was Catherine Deneuve, Candice Bergen, and Marilyn Monroe all rolled up into one perfect package, and someday, down on his knee, diamond ring tucked into a small black velvet box, he'd ask her to marry him. It made his stomach clutch and his heart race every time he thought about that moment, when he would make her his own.
Katherine—Kit—Haralson had been crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way at the state fair two years ago. Eighteen years old, right out of high school. He'd seen her sitting there at the butter-carving booth, posing for her sculpture. She'd been told to keep still, but it was hard with people calling out questions, shouting her name. When the fair was over, she was given the butter statue of herself to take home. He wasn't sure what a dairy farm, where she'd grown up, would do with all that excess butter, although the neighbors would probably ask to see it, so maybe it would be fun for a while—until it melted. After she'd been officially crowned, she'd traveled the state representing the dairy industry. She was a natural beauty, with golden hair and a perfect milk-white smile. And tonight, he was going to meet her for the first time. Since his palms were sweaty, he was definitely not going to shake her hand.
It would work like this: During intermission, he would sneak backstage. He assumed that when Kit started acting around town, it would only be a matter of time until she was cast in a play at this theater, a place he knew well. The dressing rooms were behind the stage. Getting to them would be a piece of cake. The hard part, as always, was the waiting.
Tonight, finally, that wait was over. Kit was luminous, acting her heart out. He followed her with eager eyes and when she left the stage, even if it was only for a moment, he felt an emptiness creep inside him. He sat in the dark, mesmerized, gazing up anxiously as the curtain came down and people around him thundered their applause. He thundered right along with them.
Intermission would last fifteen minutes.
Edging his way toward the front of the house as everyone else headed for the lobby, he slipped through a dark velvet curtain held together at the top by a series of safety pins and stood for a moment, watching the crew hustle furniture off the stage. The lead actors were given individual dressing rooms along a back wall. The building was ancient. While the lobby was nothing to brag about, the backstage area, smelling like an old moldy sponge, was a mass of peeling paint, dirty, scuffed floors, battered walls, and a general dankness that totally fascinated him. Thankfully, nobody gave him a second look as he walked briskly into the rear hallway. He bent down and peeked through the first keyhole. Nope. Wrong room. The skinny man inside had stripped to his undershirt and boxer shorts and was searching through a bunch of clothes draped over a chair. Gross.
Moving to the next door, he leaned in and squinted. "Score," he whispered. Kit, her golden hair swept back into a ponytail, was seated at the dressing table, the lightbulbs that surrounded an oversized mirror casting a hard light on her flawless features. Her red lips and white skin reminded him of his sister's porcelain doll. A bouquet of red roses tied with a ribbon spread across the table and claimed all her attention. She removed a tiny pink card, read the message, then smiled a moony smile.
"Hey, what are you doing there?" came a man's voice.
"Me?" He turned around.
Another man came along and grabbed the first man's arm. "We got a problem with the horse prop. Ten freakin' minutes before curtain and this thing goes and busts on me."
As quick as that, they were gone.
After rubbing his palms along his jeans to wipe off the sweat, he gave a soft rap on the door with one knuckle. When he received no response, he tried again. Thinking that his beautiful Kit was lost in reverie, he turned the doorknob and pushed the door slowly inward, all the while rehearsing his words with his eyes shut tight.
"Kit," he began, too frightened to even look at her. "You don't know me. My name is—" When he finally gathered enough nerve to force a smile and open his eyes, he gave an involuntary jerk. "Kit?" he said. This time he spoke her name as a question.
He inched forward. Turning full circle in the center of the room, he found no windows or doors. No closet. No trapdoor in the floor. There was nowhere to hide and no way in or out except for the door he'd just come through.
He searched the air around him for the magician's puff of smoke. There could be no other explanation for why the flowers, the ribbon, the card, and his beloved Kit, had vanished.CHAPTER 2
"The old deep and ... what?" said Cordelia, tossing her rinestone-encrusted reading glasses on the restored Chippendale card table she used as a desk. A giant woman and a giant desk, one with huge claw feet, were meant for each other. At least, that's how the antique dealer had sold it to her. As the part-owner and artistic director of the newest theater in Minneapolis—the Thorn Lester Playhouse—Cordelia required an office that reflected her personality and status. Gilded Age, while not a reflection of her bank account, seemed the perfect fit. It was also the general era in which the theater—originally an opera house—had been built.
Across from her sat the University of Minnesota's preeminent Minnesota historian, Archibald Van Arnam, a friend and avid theatergoer. He had, on his own time and at his own expense, offered to look into the history of the theater for her. He'd come to her office at the crack of dawn this morning—nearly ten A.M.—to give her his initial findings.
"Yes, yes," he said eagerly. "That's what they used to call this place. The Old Deep and Dark. Fascinating, isn't it? Fascinating."
Archibald, when excited, tended to repeat himself. He was a naturally pedantic man, used to speaking in front of large crowds of disinterested college kids, and thus primed to talk more loudly than was strictly necessary. He was in his early fifties, with the face of an embittered Roman emperor—or a hired thug—the body of a wrestler gone to seed, and a comb-over that was so pathetic, Cordelia couldn't imagine how he could look at himself in the mirror every morning and not dissolve in a fit of hysterics. His eyes were sharp, covered by dark-rimmed glasses, and his crooked teeth were stained from years of too much coffee and too many cigarettes. She'd known him socially as a younger man and figured that some women—at the very least, his three wives—had once found him attractive. He was an inveterate gossip and a natural raconteur—the last a skill that Cordelia felt was becoming endangered in today's Internet culture. In her opinion, Archibald was the perfect dinner guest, always arriving with several bottles of excellent wine, ever willing to entertain.
"Yes, it's interesting," she said, picking up her reading glasses and settling them back on her nose, "but even you have to admit, it's not exactly good news. 'Let's get tickets to the Old Deep and Dark for a show tonight, sweetums.' Virtually every staff meeting I've had this week has devolved into a conversation about branding and positioning our new theater. Do we really want to be the Old Deep and Dark?"
"Don't you want to know why it's called that?"
"I don't know," she said, one eyebrow arching. "Do I?"
"The original owner, Elijah Samuelson, the man who built the place in 1903, sold it in 1923. The new owners, Gilbert and Hilda King, intended to turn it into a vaudeville stage, but because of mismanagement, and some say Gilbert's gambling problems, they couldn't make a go of it. Remember, this was right around the beginning of Prohibition. Apparently, as the theater was on its way toward insolvency, Gilbert got involved with some unsavory types."
"Bootleggers, though you're probably right. They were likely connected. Lots of mob activity in the Twin Cities back then, you know. Anyway, Gilbert King—he started calling himself King Gilbert—only ran shows on weekends and spent the rest of his time developing a speakeasy. That's what kept him and Hilda afloat until the early thirties."
"Where was the speakeasy?"
"In the basement. People came in through a door along Fifth. They were hustled down a narrow back stairs."
The comment jogged Cordelia's memory. The basement of the theater was essentially unexplored territory. She'd been down there a few times with her sister to check out the rooms, many of them stuffed with old theater paraphernalia. Beyond heating, cooling, plumbing, and electrical concerns, and because extra storage space wasn't needed at the moment, she'd decreed that the basement renovation could wait until the upper floors had been completed. As she thought about it, she did recall seeing a rather beautiful Art Deco bar somewhere in the bowels of the building, but had assumed it was a shell, a prop created in a scene shop for a specific play.
The proscenium stage was located on the third floor of the main building. The costume shop, scene shop, electrical shop, and prop and costume storage rooms fit reasonably well on second. The main floor served as a small lobby, with elevators at the edges, and a ticket booth out front under a large marquee. A two-story addition had been added on to the east side of the building during the late forties. The first level contained two rental spaces, already taken by an independent general bookstore and an Italian deli. Theater offices were on the second.
"Where exactly was the speakeasy?" asked Cordelia, removing a nail file from her sack purse.
"The southwest corner of the main building. King Gilbert had it walled off from the rest of the basement. That is, except for a small door, which, at the moment, is unlocked."
"You've been down there?"
"I've been searching for old theater records. I assume you don't mind."
She waved the comment away. "And thus, because of the illegal nature of the speakeasy, the theater became known as the Old Deep and Dark?"
"No, the building wasn't called that until Gilbert and Hilda were murdered."
Her eyes widened. "Murdered?"
"It was 1933, the year Prohibition ended. Supposedly, King Gilbert got in over his head with the wrong guys. Those guys cornered him and Hilda behind the bar one night and blew them away. It was a fairly typical gangland shooting. One goon stood upstairs outside the door on Fifth, while two more crept down the stairs and opened fire with Thompson submachine guns. A couple of bystanders were wounded. Thankfully, both survived."
"Wonderful. Just ... exactly what I wanted to hear."
"I believe Gilbert was hit with at least fifteen rounds. Seven slugs passed through Hilda. What was left of them was buried at Lakewood a few days later." He adjusted his bifocals. "I'm afraid there's more."
"Of course there is."
"The building's haunted. For the past eighty years, folks have seen faint images of Gilbert and Hilda on the stairs, in the elevators, onstage during shows. They've heard voices and footsteps, creaking floorboards when nobody is around. Windows in the offices are found open in the middle of winter." Leaning closer to her, he dropped his voice. "Apparently, they don't get along."
"There's a lot of bickering. You've got a ghost light on the stage, right?"
"Of course. It's an actor's equity thing, a safety feature. It's not supposed to work for actual ghosts."
"Why are you smiling?" asked Archibald.
"Every theater should have a ghost," declared Cordelia. "It's tradition."
"Yes, well," he said, clearing his throat. "If you believe in that sort of thing."
"I believe in the romance of any given theater being haunted, but no, I don't believe in actual ghosts." Flipping past a couple of pages, he continued. "To move on with our mini-history tutorial. After Gilbert and Hilda died, the theater sat empty for many years. It was the Great Depression and nobody had the money to restart it. Eventually, two Chicago-based entrepreneurs bought the property for a song and turned it into a movie theater. They slapped a neon marquee on the front, added elevators in the front lobby, built the addition, and operated it until 1964, calling it the Downtowner. It was sold again in 1967. The third-floor movie theater was dismantled and the space was used as a general auditorium. It continued to deteriorate. A couple of theater groups rented it after that. One from 1975 to 1987. One from 1998 to 2006. It sat empty for the rest of the time."
"And then my sister and I bought it," said Cordelia, trying to hurry him along. She had another meeting scheduled for eleven and wanted to get some breakfast before it began.
"Speaking of your sister, where is Octavia?" asked Archibald, closing the folder. "I was hoping she might sit in on our discussion this morning."
"Italy," said Cordelia, repositioning her turquoise necklace across her impressive décolletage. She knew the necklace was gaudy, which was why she liked it. "She's trying to disentangle herself from husband number fifteen."
"Fifteen?" he repeated, looking shocked. "So many?"
"Well, eight? Twelve? I can't keep track. This one's a real bloodsucker, that's all I know."
"When will she be back?"
"Next month. Next week. Tomorrow. She is a will-o'-the-wisp until we start rehearsals."
"With a name like hers—so famous on the New York stage, in movies—"
"She obviously has the lead in our first production."
"And you'll direct."
It gave Cordelia a bad case of indigestion to even think about directing her sister. Not only was Octavia a black hole when it came to emotional handholding, she didn't take direction well. Since the renovations and the need to get the theater organization on firm footing had run into a few snags, the opening production couldn't be mounted until spring.
Archibald moved to the edge of his chair. "I've heard some scuttlebutt."
"You're thinking of offering one of the starring roles to Kit Deere."
Cordelia generally hated leaks, though in this case, since she'd been the one who'd leaked the story, she hoped the rumors would work in her favor by putting a little pressure on Kit to take the part. She was reasonably well known in the national theater community. Locally, however, she was nothing short of theatrical royalty. That and the fact she was married to country music singer Jordan Deere made her box office gold. "Have you heard from Kit or Jordan recently?"
"I hear from them all the time."
Another one of Archibald's more annoying traits was his tendency to collect people who fascinated him for one reason or another. On the other hand, since Cordelia was one of "the fascinating" he'd collected, she gave him points for taste. He'd started out his career as a Roman history scholar, but had realized in his midforties that there was more bang for his career buck if he switched his interests to Minnesota. He'd written the definitive volume on Minnesota theater history, devoting an entire chapter to Cordelia—and one to Kit.
"I've also heard you want to hire Booker Deere as the head set designer," said Archibald. "Any truth in that?"
"My lips are sealed," said Cordelia, rising from her chair, hoping Archibald would get the message and do the same.
"Am I being dismissed?"
In high heels, at nearly six foot three, she towered over him, though she wasn't interested in intimidation—at least, not this morning.
"One more question before I go," he said, shuffling papers back into the folder. "You're giving me full access to all areas of the building, right?"
She saw no reason to deny the request. "Everything but our current office space."
He smiled, tucked the folder under his arm. "I'd like to continue our little meetings, just to keep you abreast of what I'm learning."
Cordelia walked him to the door. "Just so that we're clear. You intend to write the text for the pamphlet that we'll use for publicity purposes, yes?"
"As long or short as you'd like."
"You'll need to talk with our marketing director, Marcus Yeboah."
"I have a meeting scheduled with him later today."
Excerpted from The Old Deep and Dark by Ellen Hart. Copyright © 2014 Ellen Hart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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