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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On the Post-9/11 Plague

Blitz Magazine, November 2001

On September 9th, it was time to start another book. I randomly plucked one from a shelf and began to read. The book was The Plague, by Albert Camus. By September 12th, I realized that the choice was an eerie coincidence.

plagueThe Plague, published in 1947, is the story of a city visited by the bubonic plague, and of the psychological and functional changes forced upon the city’s people. However, the plague is only a symbol. What Camus was really writing about was the German occupation of France.

We are now the plague-stricken, with our affliction being terrorism and everything that created it. The parallels between the novel and what we are now experiencing, and what we will experience, are too numerous to cite—you’ll have to read the book. But in it, Camus touches on the media and writes about how, when journalists become bored with reporting the death tolls, and on the frustratingly-slow recovery process, they turn their society’s disaster into morbid entertainment. Their news becomes limited to the information supplied by the Prefect. In the time of crisis, they lose all credibility.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York, I’ve been sickened by the media/Hollywood treatment of it. The image of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center just had to be shown again. And again. And again. And again. The major news organizations used it as a logo. There were/are the Creative Writing 101 titles: ‘America Under Attack’, ‘Helping America Heal’, ‘America’s New War’. The White House joined in, with Dubya’s speechwriter making him say things like ‘Dead or Alive!’ then helped with the branding of it all with the incredibly ridiculous ‘Operation Infinite Justice’. Dateline is still busy wringing every last melodramatic ounce from the disaster. Advertisers are running promotions around it: ‘Buy an RV and we’ll give $100 to the New York relief effort!’, and ‘Buy a 2002 SUV and help keep America moving!’

Other truly nauseating examples were the special editions of the magazines. Those from Time and Newsweek were little more than collections of photographs taken on and around that horrible day. As what? Keepsakes for scrapbooks and photo albums, to be pasted in along with the baby pictures? On September 16th, Fox scheduled Independence Day for its Sunday night movie. On the already moronic Entertainment Tonight, the story from the odious Mary Hart was how ‘The Stars’ managed to get home from the Toronto Film Festival. Then she interviewed a producer, who unwittingly summed up all that’s wrong with Hollywood when he said: “This kind of thing is entertainment as long as it’s fantasy. Once it happens, it ceases to be entertainment.”

plague1In The Plague, the citizens struggle to live their lives normally, in denial, helplessly going through the motions, obedient to every edict from the Prefect. Dissenters are quashed.

The novel’s main characters are heroes; doctors and volunteers, who spend their days lancing the buboes on the bodies of the stricken, in hopes that release and disposal of the noxious fluid will help bring an end to the pernicious plague.

There is only one character who self-destructs—the profiteer. This man makes a lot of money by appealing to the base instincts that arise in people during times of crisis; once the plague has run its course, he loses his mind, his friends and his freedom.

Camus was writing about World War II, and we know that this type of situation, and its effects on any society, has been the same for centuries. But the nature of media has changed; its scope and capabilities have changed. One would hope that, with all this sophistication, the behaviour of those who work in all forms of media would change for the better. I’m not seeing it.