A disgraced architect struggles to clear his name in Belfoure’s third architecture-based thriller.
In 1900, Londoners flock to the gala opening of the new Britannia Empire Theatre. During a comedian’s routine, a balcony collapses, killing 14 and maiming countless others. Douglas Layton, a prominent architect who rose from humble roots to marry into the aristocracy, designed the Britannia and is blamed for the carnage. After serving five years in prison, Layton, divorced and barred from seeing his son, is adrift and a drunk. When he lands a job as scene painter for the Grand Imperial Theatre in Nottingham, he seizes this opportunity to reinvent himself. Under an assumed name, he wins the affections of the “artistes” whose backdrops he paints and the love of Cissie Mapes, who runs the theaters of the powerful MacMillan Empire syndicate, which turns out to have included the ill-fated Britannia. With trepidation, he soon accepts a transfer to MacMillan’s London circuit. Despite his new identity, his reputation as “The Butcher of the West End” has preceded him; he’s bedeviled by a builder whose career also ended with the Britannia job, a blackmailer, and at least two unseen attackers. But Layton’s architect’s eye is ever attuned to minor details, and when he notices plaster and mortar anomalies in two MacMillan venues, his digging unearths skeletons in each location. Telling clues point to the fact that those interred were his two former associates. Could they have been murdered because they realized the balcony defects were deliberately engineered? Layton sets about trying to learn who stood to gain from the Britannia collapse by researching possible ties linking the 14 casualties to the likeliest culprits—the MacMillan owners, the head of a rival syndicate, and the aggrieved builder. Once Belfoure embarks on this expansive fishing expedition, another structural failure looms: Since the suspects’ imputed motives conflict, a few of the deaths have to be coincidental—but which ones? It is a cul de sac from which Belfoure, himself an architect, cannot design a convincing exit.
The music hall décor and atmosphere help distract from the flawed whodunit.