There is a symbiotic relationship between Golden Age Detective Fiction and the Theatre. It is no coincidence that the longest continuous run of any theatre production is of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which is currently in its 64th year. The play is, like many of the 16 plays written by Christie, an adaptation of one of her short stories. Of course, Christie felt at liberty when reproducing her plots for the stage to play fast and loose with the original storyline so that knowledge of the novel or story – whodunnit, how and why may be of little help to the theatre-goer in predicting the dramatic conclusion in any of them. Indeed, that fore-knowledge may serve as an extra red herring for the unwary.
Christie is not, however, the Queen of Crime most steeped in the theatre. That honour falls more to Ngaio Marsh. Indeed, her OBE citation was “for services in connection with drama and literature in New Zealand”. She spent much of her professional life working as a theatre director and managing acting companies. This inside knowledge gives her stories set in the theatre an added realism. Like Dorothy L. Sayers in Murder Must Advertise, she is writing about a world in which she has worked and it shows.
When reading Marsh’s Enter A Murderer and Vintage Murder, both on the recommended reading list for this years Bodies From The Library conference, I was struck by how well suited the theatrical world is to provide a setting for detective fiction. There is a closed circle of potential suspects and sufficient scope for animosities and jealousies, petty, personal and professional, which can give a multitude of motives for murder, especially when mixed in with the artistic temperament and attendant hysteria and over-reaction to perceived slights.
I did note also that there was even the hierarchy of the characters – stars, character actors, aspiring actors that might be analogous to the wealthy upper and middle class inhabitants of the country house or village settings beloved of Golden Age authors and readers alike. The stage crew might then be seen as being the counterparts of the servants and working class.
Such an analysis would lead one to discount those anonymous stagehands as potential murderers when trying to puzzle out whodunnit but, to her credit, Marsh avoids this trap. Select members of the back-stage crew are given sufficient space in the narrative to be regarded as possible suspects with means to hand, motives established and opportunities identified.
By way of light relief, I also read the British Library Crime Classics newly republished edition of Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain. This also takes place in a theatrical setting and, like Enter A Murderer, features a murder occurring on stage before the theatre audience’s eyes. Melville was himself a playwright and broadcaster. He too uses that knowledge to add verisimilitude without over-doing it to the point where it obtrudes. Indeed, his book is a light-hearted comic read with the Scotland Yard detective proving less acute in his observations than Messrs Alleyn, Poirot or Whimsey might have been. Perhaps because he is playing largely for laughs, Dorothy L. Sayers was somewhat unsure how to treat this book in her review – should it be regarded as straight or not – with the result that she was less than enthusiastic, Melville does play heavily on stereotypes and, to a great extent, ignores the backstage crew (they are the hidden chorus of servant equivalents if this were a country house send up) in his field of suspects.
Which leads me to conclude that there is at least a case to be made for regarding theatre settings for Golden Age Detective Fiction as one of the classic settings or formulae alongside the country-house, the moving train and others. Certainly Marsh used it on several occasions besides the two mentioned already. All of which could get very post-modern and knowing if the story were then adapted for the theatre to create a play within a play. But with their constant references to “this is the sort of thing that only happens in cheap detective novels” the Golden Age Detective Fiction authors were already there with that meta-narrative.