Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Maskerade, Part II

It is genuinely disconcerting when a ghost uses too many exclamation points.

Summary

Agnes stays up late and notices André the organ player appearing right after she thought she saw the Ghost. She heads to bed only for Christine to bother her later in the night, frightened because her mirror is talking to her. Agnes goes to Christine’s room and does hear a voice coming from the mirror. Agnes responds with Christine’s voice and the voice from the mirror says it will teach her to sing as well as Perdita. Granny and Nanny learn the secret of Henry Slugg, who pretends to be Enrico Basilica because people are more impressed with things that come from far away. At breakfast, Christine tells Agnes she has an admirer, as she just received a new dress out of nowhere. Mrs. Plinge briefly sees Mr. Pounder the ratcatcher, who dies shortly after. Mr. Bucket is worried about what the Ghost might do next, and he and Salzella both fix on the chandelier—they decide to have someone guard it during the evening performance, but the Ghost wants Christine to play a major role as well, though she cannot sing. They call Agnes in to sing the part for her, to “ghost it,” as it were. Agnes knows that her only other option is to go home, so she agrees. Granny and Nanny arrive in Ankh-Morpork.

Nanny and Granny are set to stay at a house of ill-repute, which surprises Nanny very much because Granny knows what sort of place it is and seems unbothered. Agnes goes through the music with the choir master and shocks him by being so good. She has a brief flirtation with André and then runs into Christine again, who has decided that Agnes is her little pixie, the one her father said would help her achieve her great ambition. Agnes goes out to get the ingredients for poison after that (not that she would ever use them on Christine…), spots Nanny and Granny and quickly rushes back to the opera house for fear that they’ll take her home. Undershaft means to tell everyone that they have to let Agnes sing because opera is about voices, not what the singer looks like, but he’s killed by the Ghost. Nanny and Granny go to the publisher to see about Nanny getting royalties and Mr. Goatberger is fully aghast and sends them away. Granny and Nanny make their way to the opera house and Nanny convinces Granny to use their tickets (gifted by Mr. Slugg) to see the evening’s performance.

Granny focuses and can tell there’s something wrong with the building. She and Nanny go looking and come upon Box Eight, but in trying to get in, they run into Mrs. Plinge, who has a panic about upsetting the Ghost and all the goings on in the opera house. They work to calm her down, and send her home with Granny. The curtain comes down for the first act and as the company changes over for the second, they come across Dr. Undershaft’s body. Nanny dresses up in Mrs. Plinge’s clothes and starts moving about to see how everyone handles the murder and everything else going on. She finds Walter Plinge crying next to the dead body, and tells him that his mother’s gone home, which he’s upset by—she’s not supposed to walk home without him. Walter insists that the Ghost wouldn’t have killed Dr. Undershaft because he was a nice fellow. Nanny finds out from a stagehand that Agnes is going by Perdita again, and who Christine is. Mrs. Plinge tells Granny that people poke at her boy and hide his broom sometimes, but that she raised him to never be any trouble; he’ll sleep in the opera house if she doesn’t come for him to walk her home.

Right at Mrs. Plinge’s door, they get stopped by thieves, but a figure in black and red comes to the rescue and stops the men with a sword. Granny suggests that they patch the group up so they don’t bleed to death. Mr. Bucket is worried about the death and resolves to call the watch in tomorrow, but Salzella is more concerned with getting the production back on track for the evening. Nanny comes in and shows Agnes that she’s posing as a tea lady, and it seems as though Agnes might have to go on for Christine when the ingenue “valiantly” rallies. Nanny learns that it’s bad luck to whistle in the opera—in part due to the fact that they use whistle codes to shift scenery. Granny returns and Nanny fills her in on the murder, and how everyone believes it’s the Ghost. Granny doesn’t believe in ghosts that murder, though, and she knows that Mrs. Plinge is terrified of something, though she’s not sure what. Christine tells Agnes that she was singing a little too loud, and asks her to put all the flowers that came for her in water. When she goes downstairs to fetch the water, she hears an incredible tenor voice. She goes out onto the stage and almost trips over Walter, who has overfed Greebo. He tells her that he hears music coming out of the walls all the time.

Commentary

The setup that gets used for Agnes and Christine on stage is familiar to anyone who’s seen Singin’ in the Rain, but it is (as Pratchett knew too well) a method that has been employed often in real life. It got used in film for ages, particularly if an actor couldn’t sing that well, though the practice has fallen out of favor in recent decades. It’s been used in dancing too (think the famous audition in Flashdance.) In this instance, it’s being combined with another aspect of opera that was coming into vogue at the time—the transition to opera stars who were thin and younger, as opposed to selecting for the strongest voices alone.

Having these separate-but-similar issues combine makes the plot a little meatier in terms of the prejudice and upset you’re dealing with; there are many talented opera singers who lost work over the new physical expectations, and it’s as depressing as it is thoughtless on the part of the producers because opera is hard. It’s not just about finding folks who can carry a tune—the level of training and maintenance it takes to sing opera is considerable and ongoing. Moreover, it relies on a maturity of voice that actually does need some age behind it; your vocal range changes over time and expands if you exercise it regularly. You aren’t at any sort of peak as a young opera singer, it’s a skill that broadens with time, even if people do worry about hitting their peak and going downhill.

The joke around Walter is that he’s meant to invoke Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, who was played by Michael Crawford. Pratchett thought it was humorous that a guy known for playing comedy like that on British TV became the Phantom… who is, you know, super hot to a lot of people. It’s a little less bemusing to me because I know Crawford’s other work in musicals (if you’ve ever watched the terrible movie version of Hello, Dolly! he’s their Cornelius), and musical theatre often sees actors playing a wide range of types that are frequently ridiculous and sexy by turns. It does tip his hand a little in regard to the plot, however—if you know Crawford’s work, you can guess at where this might be going. I enjoyed that my first time around, though.

I didn’t really take as much note on my first read about this narrative around Agnes, specifically her being someone who can cope through things. It’s suggested at first that this is due to her size, that people think she can simply soak things up, but it’s suggested later without that tie. Now I’m struggling to remember if that’s a through line for Agnes’s character all the way around because that’s… an important one for women and afab folks. The level to which we’re expected just cope through things, far past our limit is An Experience. Everyone should be better to Agnes, is my point.

As a separate aside, I truly adore the fact that everything unnerving in this story comes with too much punctuation: Both the Ghost and Christine are noted for overusing it and putting others on edge with said use. It just puts me in mind of how often I try to decide how many exclamation points I can put in an email without coming off accidentally terrifying (or how few I can add without seeming furious for no reason?)…

Asides and little thoughts:

  • There’s an aside in this book about a woman named Colette with a fascinating pair of earrings, that are based on an eponymous woman and Discworld fan who made her own pair of earrings that she wore once to a book signing. Pratchett asked permission to use her likeness in the book, and she agreed, and the story is just so dang sweet, it really does get you every time. (For the full explanation, head over to L-space…)
  • I forgot that the slur for Romani people was used liberally in this one on account of it being part of the opera the company is performing. It’s always interesting to stumble across words that were still in common use, perhaps even more so when the book isn’t that old and you’re looking at a recent change.
  • The joke about suggesting that ballerinas stand on tiptoe to avoid wearing out their shoes is excellent.
  • …and I keep thinking about how Nanny’s scumble is referred to as “suicider.” How have I never attempted a fall cocktail with that name? I will be sure to remedy that this year (and give y’all the recipe if it turns out any good).

Pratchettisms:

It doesn’t matter what direction you go. Sometimes you just have to go.

Hate is a force of attraction. Hate is just love with its back turned.

Since his nerves were already strained, he responded by screaming back at her. This seemed to have the effect that usually a wet flannel or a slap was necessary to achieve. She stopped and gave him an affronted look.

“So that’s an opera house, is it?” said Granny. “Looks like someone built a great big box and glued the architecture on afterward.”

Granny snatched at her hat and did a crabwise run along the row, crushing some of the finest footwear in Ankh-Morpork under her thick Lancre soles.

Nanny’s philosophy of life was to do what seemed like a good idea at the time, and do it as hard as possible. It had never let her down.

She’d tried to memorize the plot earlier—although other members of the chorus had done their best to dissuade her, on the basis that you could either sing them or understand, but not both.

Good and Evil were quite superfluous when you’d grown up with a highly developed sense of Right and Wrong.

If music were the food of love, she was game for a sonata and chips at any time.

She could feel the auditorium in front of her, the huge empty space making the sound that velvet would make if it could snore.

Next week we’ll read up to “It’s made of apples. Well… mainly apples…”

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