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Written by Claire Cornwall
Cordelia Gray is the main character in the novel and every character or event is seen through her eyes. Cordelia is the sole proprietress of Pryde Detective Agency and alternates between confidence and self-doubt throughout the book. She is the daughter of a famous left wing scholar but did not know him herself as well as his fans and followers appear to have known him. She was educated at a convent school due to a clerical error that confused her with another girl who had the same name, but her classical education actually helps her more than her detective skill in the company of the other characters in the book. Clarissa is a friendly, likable young woman with a manner that instills faith in her abilities even from the shortest first meeting. She is also very honorable and worries very much that she has not done the job she was paid to do when Clarissa Lisle is murdered during her watch. She is a tough and resilient character who recognizes her own stress levels rising in time to do something to alleviate them. She is a good judge of character and a good listener which both help make her a very good detective.
Clarissa Lisle is an aging actress whose best career moments are behind her, not because of fading looks but because her nerves are becoming too frazzled and her neuroses too overwhelming to allow her to fully connect with her talent as a performer. Clarissa has been receiving poison pen quotations from an anonymous sender and has engaged Cordelia to investigate and to intercept any further letters that might put her in a frame of mind that makes performing in the upcoming "Duchess of Malfi" more difficult. Clarissa is spoiled and willful and believes the entire world revolves around her. She is very demanding and self-absorbed and thoroughly over-theatrical. She has been married multiple times and has an incandescence that makes men fall in love with her and even the ups and downs of her behavior do not make them fall out of love. Clarissa almost brings her demise on herself because her nature is to torment people for her own desires or wishes.
Sir George Ralston
Sir George is Clarissa Lyle's husband and loves her deeply in a reserved, old-school military manner. Straightforward and no-nonsense, he does not display much emotion and keeps his feelings hidden. It is Ralston who approaches Cordelia to protect his wife although it is easy to tell he thinks it is rather unnecessary. Ralston is a decorated and respected war hero who seems a strange match for a woman who is as theatrical as he is reserved.
Simon is Clarissa's step-son and after his father's death she became his legal guardian although their paths seldom cross as he is at boarding school, and during vacations lives at her London apartment whilst she travels. Simon is a good pianist but not as gifted as he needs to be for a career as a concert pianist although many observe he would make a goon accompanist to a singer or instrumental performer. He is shy and almost constantly embarrassed. He is aware that he is required to show off his musical skill when Clarissa wants him to impress her friends but this knowledge makes him nervous. He is quiet and somewhat of a loner. Although he murders Clarissa it is accidental and due to the fear and revulsion he felt at being sexually propositioned. Simon is a weak boy physically and emotionally but it is unclear if this is his nature or as a result of the numerous tragedies in his young life.
Roma is Clarissa's cousin and the two were raised together although their current relationship is strained by Roma's disintegrating relationship with a married man and her jealousy of Clarissa whom she views as a source of money. Roma is a communist and fills the upstairs space of the bookshop she owns with leftist literature that never sells and actually puts most customers off. She takes everything seriously and has a political comment for every occasion.
Ambrose is a best-selling novel list who was a tax exile during the peak of his literary career, and his fear of being discovered having failed to keep all the conditions of exile give him great motive for killing Clarissa's career. As the poison pen writer his goal is to unbalance her emotionally so that she is either unable to go onstage at all, or so preoccupied with the notes that her performance is terrible. Ambrose is intelligent with a macabre fascination with memorabilia associated with murder and death and he is also a respected authority on Victoriana. He is self-indulgent, rather spiteful and very theatrical.
Ivo is a renowned theater critic who was always a little to acerbic to become the public's favorite but who was admired nonetheless. He is present on Courcy Islamd to write a feature article about the old theater that Ambrose Gorringe has restored. Ivo is a good judge of character and less given to histrionics than fellow guests on Courcy but it is hard to tell if this has always been the case or whether he has become less given to drama since discovering he has a terminal illness. He is physically incapacitated but determined to participate as much as his body will allow; his mind is as sharp as ever and he is a good sounding board for Cordelia as she mulls over possible suspects in Clarissa's murder. Ivo is never really a suspect because of his physical condition.
Rosé Tolgarth "Tolly"
Tolly is Clarissa's dresser and assistant, a role she inherited from her mother who performed the same function for Clarissa's mother. She keeps her emotions very much in check and always seems to be on the defensive. She has good reason to hate Clarissa; Tolly had a child whom Clarissa prevented her from seeing before she does in the hospital, lying about a call from the doctor because she wanted Tolly to stay and help her at the theater rather than leave to be with her daughter. Tolly wrote the first batch of poison own notes.
Munster is Ambrose Gorringe's butler who is a huge man with great culinary skill. After the Second World War he changed his name from the German version to assimilate more easily. He is given to strange three day bouts of drunkenness that include abusive shouting and physical stumbling. Munster is found drowned in the swimming pool thought at first an accident but subsequently judged to be murder at the hand of Simon Leasing whom he had drunkenly accused of murder the night before.
Also in service at Courcy Island the character known as Mrs Munster turns out to not be as they were never married. She never reveals her true name to anyone on the island but is happy to be free from an abusive relationship now Munster has drowned.
Nicknamed "Red Rufus" because of his bright red hair, Grogan is investigating Clarissa Lisle's murder without either success or insight. He is not the type of investigator to read between the lines and is frustrated by what he sees as lying on the part of every suspect. He tends to judge on appearances which is why he dismisses Simon Lessing as a suspect. He is a policeman of experience rather than academics but is a hard worker and essentially fair in his dealings with people. He does not take Cordelia seriously as a private eye.
Young and ambitious, Buckley chose a career in the police force because it was where he could go the furthest in the shortest amount of time. He is frustrated to be working the case under Grogan as he feels more than ready to take the lead. He also has little time for Cordelia as a detective and tends to ignore her observations which in turn means that he misses the signs that point to the identity of the murderer.
Cordelia's secretary is nearing retirement,never married and reliant on her job at the detective agency as much to give her a reason to leave the house as for the wage. Cordelia feels an enormous responsibility to succeed in part because she knows Miss Maudsley is depending on her. She is fairly efficient with a reassuring manner and in Cordelia's absence proves surprisingly good at holding down the fort.
Bevis is a chorus dancer on the London stage who fills his offstage and unemployed time by working for Cordelia. He is a font of knowledge regarding theater and backstage gossip but less talented in matters of punctuality. He is the proud handyman responsible for putting up the detective agency nameplate at a crooked angle.
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