A Fatal First Night

Ella Shane Mystery #2

By Kathleen Marple Kalb


Author’s website: kathleenmarplekalb.com

Brought to you by Reviewer Daniele


Set in Gilded Age New York, Kathleen Marple Kalb’s adventurous new historical mystery series returns for its second installment starring the swashbuckling opera singer Ella Shane, an Irish-Jewish Lower East Side orphan who finds fame and fortune singing male trouser roles. But while her opera company’s latest premier manages to attract adoring crowds and rave reviews, it also attracts a killer who’s a real showstopper…

New York City, Fall 1899. Ahead-of-her-time coloratura mezzo Ella Shane has always known opening night to be a mess of missed cues and jittery nerves, especially when unveiling a new opera. Her production of The Princes in the Tower, based on the mysterious disappearance of Edward IV’s two sons during the Wars of the Roses in England, concludes its first performance to thunderous applause. It’s not until players take their bows that the worst kind of disaster strikes…

Flawless basso Albert Reuter is found lurched over a bloody body in his dressing room, seemingly taking inspiration from his role as the murderous Richard III. With a disturbing homicide case stealing the spotlight, Ella can’t be so certain Albert is the one who belongs behind bars…

Now, Ella must think on her feet while sorting out a wild series of puzzling mishaps and interlocking mysteries. Yet even when sided with her aristocratic beau, does this scrappy diva have the chops to upstage the true criminal, or will this be the last time she headlines a Broadway marquee?  (Goodreads)


A Fatal First Night, the second Ella Shane Mystery, caught my attention because it promised so many things I love…opera, the Gilded Age, and murder. 

Protagonist Ella might be a diva onstage but is definitely not offstage.  In this sophomore offering, she finds her opera company embroiled in another murder, this time the basso star of the show is found in his dressing room holding the murder weapon over a dead body.  Unable to believe Albert would commit the crime, she does what she can to clear his name.  Meanwhile, the show must go on, and she has more than just music on her mind when her Duke unexpectedly comes to town.

I’ll get this out right away – I do not consider this much of a cozy mystery.  There is barely any investigating and few clues and suspects.  In fact, there is much more time spent with a secondary plot concerning the trial of a woman accused of killing her husband.  It all feels like an afterthought and is quite disappointing, bringing my overall rating of the book down a notch.  The book’s emphasis is much more on Ella’s daily life and group of friends/coworkers/family.  This probably makes it more resemble real life, but it is not what I thought it would be.  Since there is no real investigation to propel the story forward, the book is easy to put aside.  The pace wanders a bit, and the minutiae of Ella’s days sometimes become repetitive.  

    Within these pages, readers find a story of making a family out of diverse friends, a slow-burning romance, and a young woman in a unique situation for her era.  A Fatal First Night touches on homosexuality, racism, religion, and challenging the traditional rolls of women and women’s rights…not so different from the issues we face today.  It is all handled with a light hand to maintain a cozy feel but taken seriously, and, thank goodness, never fully crosses over into being too preachy. 

The characters are all likable and diverse if a bit broadly drawn.  Everyone seems a bit too perfect. Perhaps by not having read the first book in the series I have missed a great deal of character development.  I appreciate Ella’s unique freedom as a successful, single woman in a time when women were essentially property and her struggle to find balance in her life.  I do particularly like the Duke and Ella’s cousin Tommy.

I liked A Fatal First Night just fine.  It is just not the murder mystery I had hoped it would be.  Recommended to fans of Gilded Age historical fiction and opera lovers.