Unusually, let me begin by promising that there will be no spoilers in this post. While I can theoretically agree with Fraser’s argument that spoilers are about permanent consideration for the emotions of others, in practical terms I do tend to feel that beyond a certain point, the fault is on the spoiled rather than the spoilee, in that they have failed to keep up with a general cultural artifact. The Mousetrap represents something of a special case here, because it remains hidden in a kind of cultural blind-spot. It has been running continuously for 62-odd years in a very limited context, and so it may yet be years or decades before someone reading this has the chance to see it, and I don’t want to spoil it for them. I’m glad nobody spoiled it for me in a way that I wouldn’t be if someone told me the ending of a 1950s movie or book, partially because of the accessibility of a movie or book compared to a live performance.
There are two main ways that I think we need to engage with The Mousetrap. The first is as it advertises and represents itself: as a country-house whodunit. I have posted extensively about how to engage with this kind of work in a quite general way. The main tools I’ve discussed are the idea of the “Fair Play Mystery”, in which the audience is given an equal chance with the detective to solve the crime. I would need to check a copy of the manuscript to be sure, but I don’t think that this story quite plays fair, but equally, Clare intuited the right killer at the intermission when we still had an hour of detection to go.
Closely related to this idea of “Fair Play” is the “Golden Age” story, which brings with it a cultural location, and which is the basis of articles like George Grella’s “Murder And Manners”. I responded to Grella quite thoroughly in relation to P.G. Wodehouse. Grella wisely avoids invoking the term “Golden Age”, as more suggestive than informative, but he nevertheless presents a world in close accord with the implied nostalgia of any “Golden Age”. By this, I mean the innocent world before WWII. Grella’s partial schema of the “formal” detective novel spells out a cosy and well-structured culture where both the victim and the murderer are in some ways socially problematic.
This is more broadly summarised by Stephen Knight in his second volume, Crime and Detection 1800-the present as deriving from the idea of the Newgate Calendar tales of society spontaneously healing itself by expelling those who don’t belong. He discusses how there is no ambivalence about the location of guilt in proto-detective fiction. Those who do not plead for a spiritual absolution at the point of death are considered peculiarly committed to the devil’s work, rather than potentially innocent. His study is as much a study of the complexity of guilt as the method of detection, and he broadly charts a history showing increasing ambiguity about guilt’s location from the situation where doubt is impossible (Newgate Calendar) to where guilt is ubiquitous (strands of Hardboiled).
The Mousetrap seems to me to be poised at a moment of transition, where the location of guilt is on the verge of becoming ambiguous. The premise of the play, outlined in the first half hour of the play, is that a woman in London has been murdered because of her connection to a famous case from nearly a generation ago. Three children whose parents died were given by the state into the care of surrogate parents who beat them. The stated motive for the killer in the play is revenge upon the agents of that state decision.
This immediately changes the boundary conditions of criminality. The involvement of the state as an instrument of abuse, however unwitting, cuts directly at the cozy assumptions of the fiction from between the wars. In a practical sense, guilt in this story originates in the impersonal and imperfect operations of society, rather than with someone seeking to overturn societal norms. Of course, this kind of origin was already 30 years old in America by this time, but that moral change was accompanied by a host of other cultural and structural variations. On a smaller scale, the sanctity of the family as the primary social unit is still reinforced, Christie hasn’t completely changed her mind on that conservative cornerstone. The break-up of the natural family unit spurs the disaster.
Closely connected with this change in the boundary conditions is the abandonment of many Christie-staple plot points. There is no avuncular father (Poirot) or mother (Marple) figure watching over the characters and there is not the compulsion for what Grella and others characterise as the “Comedic” structure of courtship and marriage. The scale of activity is closely confined by the location of the story, and the drama is of a mostly small-scale domestic variety.
Yet, despite that loss of overall comedic shape, Christie has inserted a much higher-than-usual level of comedy into the play. We have not one, but two, explicitly clownish characters to provoke laughter, of which there is a fair helping. The logistics of the staging also means that there is a certain structural comedy in the comings-and-goings of the characters through the single set. At its extreme moments, it reminded me of a Scooby Doo chase, highlighting that Scooby Doo was looming quite near in the genre’s future.
Similarly, the style of acting struck me as very deliberately mannered. There was not much of an attempt at naturalism from the actors. Only the young detective sent to solve the crime seemed to be unaware of the “stagey” nature of the dialogue and the extremeness of his fellow actors’ performance. This is doubtless a result of the play’s lengthy run, as it preserves the methods and attitudes of bygone years.
These factors combined to help me see the play in a second light: as a satire. I’ve written in the past about the unintentional transmogrification of satire into its target, especially citing Jane Austen and The Princess Bride. The Mousetrap may well have undergone the reverse process, and because of its longevity in a relatively static form, become a satire of what it was originally an example. Would an audience in 1951 have taken it all more seriously? I think that’s probably true, and they would have had far fewer pastiches and parodies to use as an alternate mode of interpretation than we do. Whether it was originally a satire, or has become one, would depend largely on the interpretation of the pseudo-detective, who spouts all kinds of meta-textual cues, such as loving surprises and speculating that there will be a murder in advance of it occuring. These were played for laughs deliberately, but as written are not that far from serious prose by the more mystical Golden Age writers.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Mousetrap, not least because I think it represents a fascinating pivot point in the wider genre of detectives and specifically in the work of Christie. After 1951 I think you see her conservatism, with a little c, recede significantly, and her willingness to locate guilt in society and inside the natural family increases. I think it captures a moment of transition in one of the great authors of the 20th century. When you’re in London, go see it.