Places, Please

Perhaps because it's my first mystery novel, I still have a soft spot for The Fourth Wall.

I wanted to write a story about someone so dead set on revenge that killing his enemies would not satisfy him. He wants to see them suffer, horribly -- every day of their lives. So he embarks on a plan to strip them of what they hold most dear, to make them live with the anguish that comes from tremendous loss.

But I didn't tell the story from the revenger's point of view. Instead, the story is narrated by Abigail James, one of the people he victimizes. Abby is a successful playwright, and her new play has recently opened on Broadway. Almost from the very first the play is bedeviled by a series of mishaps until no one can go on thinking they are merely accidents. It's clear that someone is out to close the play.

Then whoever is behind the trouble crosses the line into murder, and it's the families of the cast members who are his target. The police do the best they can, but they don't know theater or the histories of the people involved in Abby's play -- where the motive for all the mayhem lies.

So Abby, actor Ian Cavanaugh, and stage manager Leo Gunn join forces to get to the bottom of the matter. Eventually they tease out the reason behind the vendetta...and take steps to put an end to it.

I spent a full year working on The Fourth Wall, taking my time with it, savoring the process of writing it. I gave most of the characters one trait in common -- a profound love of the theater. That allowed me to include explanations of how things work backstage and insert theater anecdotes here and there. I wanted theater itself to be as much a character in the story as Abby or any of the others.

Abby and Ian have joined Marian Larch's extended family and appear in the last three books of that series. Leo Gunn shows up briefly in two of them. Producer Gene Ramsay makes a return appearance in The Apostrophe Thief, and assistant stage manager Carla Banner figures in Fare Play. But it's Abby and Ian who form a permanent part of Marian Larch's world. That way, I don't have to let go of them.

In The Fourth Wall I started something that I've continued in every mystery novel I've written -- and that is the inclusion of one inside joke in each book. Just one. I'm going to tell you what it is in The Fourth Wall; it takes the form of a riddle.

Abby James leaves town, and her apartment on West 35th Street is trashed -- books and papers are destroyed, paint is splashed all over everything. A Mr. Goodwin who lives next door notices a broken window and calls the police. The police locate a witness, a Dr. Vollmer, who saw someone go in carrying cans of paint.

Question: Who is Abby's next-door neighbor? There are three clues in there, and the answer is at the bottom of this page.


"Barbara Paul's first crime novel...contains so many unpleasant, grisly deeds that one needs to explain quickly why this is such a promising debut. First, Paul, who has published science-fiction novels and short stories, is a good writer who exhibits astringent wit, style, and shrewd observation. Secondly, the horror, far from being sensational or gratuitous, is an integral part of the plot that has a maniacal murderer motivated by hate nurtured over the years. And, finally, Paul brings alive the world of backstage theater with a primer on acting styles, playwriting, direction, and the economics of Broadway runs and touring companies....Abigail is not an idiotic heroine who does stupid things on her own to stumble into danger. But only she and two maimed colleagues can sort out the motive from the past and then, as in an old revenge play, exact a terrible, fitting retribution."

The New York Times:
"In her quiet way [Paul] manages to achieve a good deal of tension as one waits to see where the maniac will strike next. The writing is solid and without gimmicks."

The Pittsburgh Press;
"The punishments meted out to the victims are unusual and actually are a result of the individual's character which the author has finely drawn. They all seem real actors, actresses, stage managers, directors, etc."

Publisher's Weekly:
"Paul's story is horrifying but lifted above sensationalism by disciplined telling and her astringent wit."

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979, ISBN 0-385-15638-3
N.Y.: Popular Library, 1980, ISBN 0-445-04625-2
Walton, MA: Thorndike Press, 1980, ISBN 0-89621-254-8
N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1987, ISBN 0-553-26413-3
London: Women's Press, 1988, ISBN 0-7043-4138

N.Y.: Felony & Mayhem, 2006, ISBN 1-933397-47-0

Movie Option:
Max Shulman, 1980

Who is Abby's next-door neighbor?
Nero Wolfe.

gun icon

Page created 28 June 1995; last updated 19 December 2006.