Murder Most Popular

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What is about murder that so enthralls us?

Curiosity, probably. ‘Not so much about the actual act—which is usually nasty and decidedly rude—but about whodunit and why.

The whodunit genre is relatively new in literature. With Shakespeare and those who followed to the mid-1800s, murder was there, but we never had to wonder—or try to figure out—the who or the why. In 1860, Wilkie Collins gave us The Woman in White, after which no one could get enough ghost stories.  But there was no detective work required. The ghost dunnit.

It wasn’t until the two Masters came along that society became hooked on murder mysteries. ‘The Masters’ being, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. There’s no way of settling the argument of whose stories are better, but it was Christie who created what has become history’s most cherished, and most durable, whodunit.

In 1947, as a gift for Queen Mary’s 80th birthday, Christie wrote a 30-minute BBC radio play called Three Blind Mice. It was well received, so Christie stuffed it with jokes, added characters, turned it into a full stage play and called it The Mousetrap. The play opened in Nottingham in October 1952, briefly toured the north of England and then was booked into St Martin’s Theatre. Christie thought it might last six months. Richard Attenborough played Sergeant Trotter; his wife Sheila Sims played Mollie Ralston (they took a 10% profit-participation, a move which Attenborough later called the wisest business decision he ever made.)

In 1955, after two SRO years, Attenborough left. Takings plummeted, the theatre gave the production notice to quit, and that created what is now called ‘The Mousetrap Effect’, i.e. when people heard it was closing, they flocked to performances. The play stayed.

By 1958, The Mousetrap was the longest-running play in British history. By the mid-‘70s, it was the longest-running play in theatrical history—anywhere.

mouse2On December 16, 2001, The Mousetrap celebrated its 50th anniversary. By that time, its lines had been spoken by 297 actors, some of whom are in the Guinness Book of Records: David Raven was named ‘Most Durable Actor’ after he completed 4575 performances as Major Metcalf; the late Nancy Seabrooke set her record by spending 15 years as a Mousetrap understudy.

The Mousetrap is about a group of strangers who find themselves snowbound in a country inn, Monkswell Manor. There is a blizzard without; within, they are subjected to terrors at every turn. It’s funny, it’s fun, it’s harmless and, to traditionalists, it’s a charming fragment of a lost dramatic age of polite, witty dialogue and clean humour. But to many modern critics, some of whom have spent their careers campaigning to have it shut down, The Mousetrap is tiresome folly—and it’s got the gall to take up a coveted venue in London’s West End.

Tough. The Mousetrap is more than a tourist attraction—it’s an institution, and it’s not going anywhere. In 2000, the set was finally replaced. Although it doesn’t yet have a wind machine—an old canvas drum and elbow grease still create the sound of the blizzard. Miss Christie would find this most amusing, I suspect.

 

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

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Detective for a Day

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‘Ever want to be a homicide detective? A Columbo, Poirot or Marple? Just for a Day?

What about Holmes for a day? As great as the others were/are, no one can compare to Sherlock.

A man has been murdered, in a house that had been securely locked. You inspect the exterior. One wall bears a rose-filled trellis. You see an undamaged trellis filled with roses. Sherlock Holmes, however, inspects the individual roses. He finds five crushed blooms, at 14” intervals. He deduces that one suspect, a slight adolescent boy, has climbed the trellis to break into the house.

A horse has vanished. It is jet black, with a white diamond on its forehead. There hasn’t been time for the thief to leave the vicinity. The horse must be nearby, but where? Only Sherlock thinks to take a wet cloth and rub the heads of all dark horses in the stable. He figures, correctly, that the white diamond on the ‘missing’ horse has been covered with charcoal.

Such was the analytical skill of Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of all time. An eccentric, talented genius addicted to science, precision and detail. He is probably the most famous detective of all time, and has been portrayed by dozens of actors, most brilliantly by the late Jeremy Brett. Holmes’ memory is still kept alive by international sleuth/fan clubs, whose members meet regularly, all over the world, including on London’s Baker Street, to discuss his life and work.

You can really annoy these people, of course, by pointing out that Sherlock Holmes was not real. He was the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scottish physician whose interests lay more with politics and military manoeuvres than with detective fiction but who, nevertheless, became one of the most famous authors of the English language.

holmes2Now, you can make like Sherlock and meet Arthur—sort of. After you solve your own Victorian murder mystery—sort of.

Check your local museum listings for Sherlock Holmes & the Croydon Clock Tower Mystery. This is a museum exhibit that communicates with you while you participate, rather than observe. You’ll walk through eight rooms, each the set of a different location. You’ll read hand-written police notes, listen to sound tracks of police interviews, hear hansom cabs passing, street vendors calling, fog horns wailing. You’ll smell telltale odours, and poke around parlours and bedrooms, finding bits of evidence (including many red herrings). You must use your powers of observation and deduction, though, while you learn the scientific method of problem-solving. After an hour of sleuthing, you’ll end up in the study of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who answers your questions and helps you solve the murder.

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To give you a leg up, here’s a tip from old Arthur—er, Sherlock: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

 

Blitz Magazine, May 2001

Robbie Burns & Harry Flashman: They Loved Their Ladies

Blitz Magazine, January 2008

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I’ve begun to re-read The Flashman Papers. For those of you who have yet to make the discovery, this is George MacDonald Fraser’s 12-novel series documenting the life and career of the illustrious Victorian soldier Harry Paget Flashman, who describes himself as  “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady.” For all his political incorrectness (or, perhaps, because of it),  Flashman will remain fiction’s favourite poltroon, opportunist and party boy.

Flashman never met a woman he wouldn’t sleep with. After his first misadventure in the British army, he is posted to Scotland and billeted with the Morrisons of Paisley. Where he meets their daughter Elspeth, whom he deflowers and is forced to marry. He describes their first meeting as follows: “She was beautiful, fair-haired, blue-eyed and pink-cheeked, and she smiled at me with the open, simple smile of the truly stupid.”

I am, however, writing this on Robbie Burns Day, which is when Scottish people remember The Bard, a brilliant poet now revered as an angel. Whether or not he was, he and Flashman do have a few things in common: Both loved women, both couldn’t get enough of women, and what they wrote/said about their woman would today land them in court, facing paternity suits and actions for libel, slander and anything else lawyers could cook up.

Burns delighted in recording his feelings about women—all women. And he had loads of them. There were several Annes and Annas, various Jeans, Megs and Peggys. And Delia, Sylvia, Eliza, Nell, Hannah. There were several Mary’s and Mary Anne’s, a couple of Bonnie’s, plus Eppie Adair, Eppie Macnab and Polly Stewart. And Lizzie, Chloris, Phemie and Nancy. And Phillis and Leslie, Afton & Tibby. A couple of Katy’s and one Clarinda, who was (temporarily) Mistress of his soul.

Burns also loved other men’s women: Lady Onlie, Mrs. Oswald, Mrs. Riddell, Montgomery’s Peggy, the Captain’s Lady and Mrs. Kemble. And there were women with whom he was on a more formal footing—Miss Burnet, Miss Davies, Miss Ainslie, Miss Fontenelle, Miss Cruickshank, Miss Ferrier, Miss Graham of Fintry, Miss Isabella Macleod and Miss Logan.

There were women whose full names he didn’t manage to get although, doubtless, he loved them anyway: The Country Lass, the Bonnie Lass of Albany, Meg of the Mill, the Lass of Ballochmyle, the Lass of  Ecclefechan, the Lass of Cessnock, the Lass of Inverness and the Lass That Made the Bed.

He loved whole groups of women—the Belles at Mochlynn and the Lasses of Tarbolton, for example. And if he really couldn’t identify a woman, he wrote about her anyway, pointing out that she had blue eyes or brown, flowing rich, yellow or white locks, lips wet with dew and heaving breasts.

burnsFraser died a couple of weeks ago, and will be remembered as a writer who gave his readers hours of enjoyment, through a perfectly-rendered character who romps through meticulously-researched and -recorded historical events. And now that MacDonald has left us, Flashman is gone too. His followers now sigh, and chuckle.

Burns, who died in 1796 at the age of 37, left behind a rich literary legacy and inspired the great romantic poets who were to follow. (Flashman, one hopes, didn’t inspire anyone.) But Burns has never been allowed to leave us–you remember him every time you sing Auld Lang Syne. And, this week, wherever you are in the world, you could find yourself in the midst of a party where people are eating haggis and enjoying the bagpipes.

Both men, of course, left behind enough material to drive to distraction any hard-core feminist (but she would have to hide her smile).

If you come across a man who has an endless hankering for female companionship, and you want to understand him, you could think of Flashman, but perhaps it’s better to think of the more chivalrous and gentlemanly Burns and his own rationale:

As he wrote:

Tho women’s minds, like winter winds,

May shift and turn, an a that

The noblest breast adores them maist

A consequence I draw that.

Great love I bear to a the fair

Their humble slave, an a that

But lordly will, I hold it still

A mortal sin to thraw that.

Their tricks an craft have put me daft

They’ve taen me in, an a that

But clear your decks, an here’s the Sex

I like them for a that.

 

Raise your glass.

Here’s to Fraser, Flashman, Robbie and The Lassies.