Episode #103 | First Aired: January 29, 2008
“Mysteries are about life and death; conflict, confrontation, resolution,” says mystery writer Stuart Kaminsky. The documentary “Murder, They Wrote” offers all that and more, giving viewers a rousing rehearsal-to-performances look at the first International Mystery Writers’ Festival, held in Owensboro, Kentucky in June 2007.
The goal of the festival, organized and sponsored by Owenboro’s RiverPark Center, was to discover some new great mysteries and to stage them live. The lure of prizes and Angie Awards (named for actress Angela Lansbury of the classic TV series Murder, She Wrote) attracted more than a thousand script submissions, from master mystery writers such as Kaminsky as well as promising newcomers. Mystery fans from all 50 states and Canada came to Owensboro to watch as talented producers, directors, actors, theater designers, and technicians brought the winning works to life—and death—onstage.
“Murder, They Wrote” presents highlights of preparations and performances of five of the festival’s plays—offering, like the festival itself, a veritable smorgasbord of suspense. There’s the familiar television gumshoe Columbo, battling wits with a murderous record producer in the play “Columbo Takes the Rap.” That play was written by William Link, creator of the Columbo television series (as well as other TV mystery hits such as Murder, She Wrote and Mannix).
Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave was the setting for the historical thriller “Death by Darkness.” Kentuckian Elizabeth Orndorff wrote the play specifically as a festival entry—and it ended up being voted by audience members as the best new play (and its author the most promising new writer).
“Final Curtain,” written by the late Ed McBain, starred Gary Sandy (of WKRP in Cincinnati fame) in a twist-filled dark-and-stormy night plot. “Panic,” by Minnesota writer Joseph Goodrich, is a tale of blackmail and betrayal in 1960s Paris. In “Widdershins,” by Don Nigro, a family disappears, leaving only one mysterious clue behind—the word “widdershins” written on a piece of paper.
“Murder, They Wrote” also features scenes from Kaminsky’s screenplay “Books,” which was performed radio theater-style at the festival. The story of a bank robber who ends up in a bookstore features actor/magician Harry Anderson and Phil Proctor of the comedy troupe Firesign Theatre. Guy Mendes, producer/director of “Murder, They Wrote,” also interviewed writers, actors, and directors at the festival as well as RiverPark Center President/CEO Zev Buffman, a Tony-nominated Broadway producer known for productions such as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
What Thickens a Plot? Festival’s Winning Playwright Shares Clues
“I think no matter what you’re writing, you can’t go wrong if you concentrate on the characters and let the story come out through them,” says Elizabeth Orndorff. “If you know your characters, they will talk to you.” That approach to mystery writing certainly worked for Orndorff. Even though it was the first whodunit this Danville, KY resident had written, her play “Death by Darkness” was chosen Best New Play at the 2007 International Mystery Writers’ Festival, and Orndorff was named Most Promising New Writer.
Among the captivating characters who spoke to Orndorff as she created “Death by Darkness” are two real historical figures: Stephen Bishop, an African-American slave who explored and led tours of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave in the 19th century, and British novelist Charles Dickens. The play is set deep within the passages of the cave, where fact and fiction meld in a tale of murder and revenge.
Orndorff, who had written novels, short stories, and a couple of shorter plays as well as advertising copy before she entered the festival competition, wrote “Death by Darkness” specifically for the festival. “I thought that for $10,000 [the Best New Play prize], it was worth a try,” she says.
She knew that she wanted to set her play in the past. “I have no knowledge or interest in the forensic aspect of mysteries.” And she thought that since the festival was being held in Owensboro, it would be fun to set the play somewhere in Kentucky.
“My son came to visit, and they had stopped at Mammoth Cave on the way,” she said. “He started talking about the character of Stephen Bishop,” she recalls. Orndorff’s imagination took off. The cave itself offered a “locked room” feel, and when she learned that one famous rumored visitor, Charles Dickens, hated America and slavery, “That gave me conflict to work with,” she says.
In her extensive research—“one of my favorite parts of writing,”—Orndorff was never able to confirm that Dickens actually visited Mammoth Cave. The national park had no indication he was ever there, although an 1880s history of an inn near the park alleged that he had been a registered guest in the mid-1800s. In Dickens’ own book about his travels, he wrote about visiting Louisville, but made no mention of Mammoth Cave.
“So I asked myself, if he did visit the cave, ‘What could have happened there that was so horrible that he never wanted to mention it again?’” Orndorff says. And key elements of the plot for “Death by Darkness”—a murder occurs and Dickens is accused—began to take shape.
In writing the play, one of her biggest challenges was finding the structure for suspense. “You have to figure out what kind of information to let out at what point. At the end of Act One, you want to leave them hanging.” She turned for help to books on playwriting—one of her favorites is “Naked Playwriting” by William Missouri Downs and Robin U. Russin—and kept listening to her characters. Writing the play took about a month.
Orndorff says she was thrilled with everything about the staging of the play and has since written another mystery for the stage, this one a comedy.
For those tempted to try their hand at writing a mystery for the stage, she recommends, “Start going to plays. And read mysteries, although in my opinion reading them is not as good as seeing them.” Orndorff said she grew up reading Agatha Christie mysteries, although she got away from the genre as it became more violent and police procedure-oriented.
She adds that the International Mystery Writers’ Festival itself is a great experience for would-be mystery writers. “We met people from all over the country…. So go to Owensboro.”
Inspired by Stephen Bishop
The story of the slave who became famous as a guide and explorer at Mammoth Cave inspired not only “Death by Darkness” but also an award-winning book of poetry by Kentuckian Davis McCombs.
The story of slave and Mammoth Cave guide Stephen Bishop has served as inspiration for at least two literary works: Elizabeth Orndorff’s prize-winning play “Death by Darkness” and Davis McCombs’ book of poetry “Ultima Thule.”
Davis McCombs spent several years as a park ranger at Mammoth Cave, exploring the same dark passages Bishop explored in the mid-19th century. In his preface to “Ultima Thule,” McCombs introduces facts about Bishop, “the slave of Dr. John Croghan, owner of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave from 1839 to 1849.” Bishop was a cave guide until his death in 1857, and he is credited with discovering miles of passageways. The book also includes a reproduction of a map of the cave made by Bishop and published in 1845.
“Ultima Thule” is organized in three sections. The opening section is in Bishop’s voice. In the other two sections, McCombs explores the history of the cave and the world both above and below ground in his own voice, sharing with Bishop a love for and fascination with this geological wonder. In his introduction to the book, poet W.S. Merwin writes, “In the poems in Bishop’s voice McCombs gives us a language that is, necessarily, his own, and in doing it plainly and without emphasis he creates a haunting, echoing distance, a sound from some unidentifiable place.”
“Ultima Thule” was the 2000 winner of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. Learn more about McCombs at the NEA Writers’ Corner and about the history and culture of Mammoth Cave and Stephen Bishop at the Mammoth Cave web site.