Anthony Shaffer Shaffer, Anthony - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shaffer, Anthony 1926–

A British novelist and dramatist, Shaffer collaborated with his twin brother Peter on several detective novels. He gained fame in his own name with the commercial success of his play Sleuth, a clever parody thriller which charmed audiences.

Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Withered Murder" Anthony and Peter Shaffer] attempt a formal detective story in the classic Grand Manner: murder on a stormbound island off the coast of Cornwall sternly solved by a flamboyantly eccentric Great Detective. Unfortunately the wit of Mr. Fathom, who admits that he is "the finest detective alive," is more rude than penetrating; his detection more lucky than astute; and the trick solution is both banal and preposterous. But the writing is often literally amusing; and even a minor specimen of the now rare classic form is welcome. (pp. 26-7)

Anthony Boucher, "Report on Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1956, pp. 26-7.∗

Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Sleuth"] is as clever as a wagonload of monkeys solving the crossword puzzle of The Times of London and as intricate as the Hampton Court Maze. It is good, neat, clean and bloody fun…. It is one of the most purely entertaining plays of many a season—an entrancing tale of detective-story mayhem with a touch of urbane intellectualism added for savor.

Mr. Shaffer's writing is delicious. It has a ponderous frivolity to it that sparkles like golf course sunshine on early-morning corpses. And even if you spot the twists, crinkles and decoys of Mr. Shaffer's plot (and with no undue modesty let me say I did—virtually from the very beginning of the second act) it is still enormously satisfying to have the brilliance of your deductions so satisfyingly confirmed. Mr. Shaffer is one of those rare, rare murder writers it is even a pleasure to see through.

Clive Barnes, "Stage: Shaffer's 'Sleuth'," in The New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 13, 1970, p. 25.

Henry Hewes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Anthony Shaffer] has labeled his play Sleuth "A New Thriller." This is highly accurate, for, although it provides all the suspense and melodramatic devices of a thriller, it is new in that it simultaneously spoofs the preposterousnesses of the form itself.

To begin with, the play is set in an English country house inhabited by Andrew Wyke, a snobbish writer of detective stories….

Shaffer brings the fiction world and the real world together with superb simplicity. Wyke invites into his lair a trusting young man named Milo Tindle, who has secretly been having an affair with Mrs. Wyke. Instead of playing by the rules of the game of life in which a sophisticated husband tends to avoid confrontation, the host startles his guest, who has just settled down with a drink, by casually telling him, "I understand you want to marry my wife." Now the decorums have been violated, and Wyke and Tindle find themselves locked in a game. What might a vindictive husband do to his wife's lover if this were all happening in a detective novel?

The ensuing action is marvelous cat-and-mouse byplay in which comedy and terror fluctuate. The comedy comes partly from Shaffer's banter, which is laced with such recondite words as "hebdomadal" and "ossiferous."… And within the bounds of humor there is merrily savage criticism of intellectual arrogance … and of various British institutions….

The first act of Sleuth is complete in itself, and when the curtain falls, one wonders what the author can possibly do for the rest of the evening. However, it is not until midway in the second act that we become fully aware of the author's design. Without laboring the point or even stating it directly, the play suggests that there is lethal danger in mixing rational game-playing with the always unpredictable irrationalities of live-living. Of course, the success of Sleuth depends not on its message but on its adopted style of manufactured suspense and macabre satire, which it sustains right through the final curtain.

Henry Hewes, "Two Can Play at a Game," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIII, No. 48, November 28, 1970, pp. 6, 12.

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sleuth is written with a certain literary coquetry which the innocent mistake for style. Apart from an initial incredibility in the story's premise—which the audience has to allow in order to have fun with what follows—the rest is clever enough for those who like the game.

There is some stage wit in the recipe, even a dab of social comment. It is suggested that detective stories and thrillers (all except this one, of course) appeal to the privileged of a heartless class society and are to a degree a sign of decadence. This is not to be taken seriously and no one in the audience pays it any mind: it is embroidery….

I am little interested in such toys as Sleuth. I do not in the least resent those who like to play with them, but I am a little miffed when reviewers rhapsodize about them. Is it possible that this is the sort of mumbo-jumbo they prefer above all else? (p. 573)

Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'Sleuth'," in The Nation (copyright 1970 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 211, No. 18, November 30, 1970, pp. 572-73.

Catharine R. Hughes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sleuth offers] a thoroughly entertaining and highly literate twist on that old warhorse, the theatrical murder mystery, not a whodunit, but a did-he (they)-do-it. And, thanks to the playwright's often delightful deviousness and a program note enjoining audiences, not to mention critics, from disclosing the plot, it borders on the unreviewable.

The plot I am not supposed to reveal involves a highly successful mystery writer … who invites his wife's lover … to his country house for a visit. "I understand you want to marry my wife," says Andrew Wyke. "Well, yes," says Milo Tindle, travel agent-lover, "with your permission, of course." Wyke then proceeds to play games. In fact, both play games, and both become enmeshed in a witty and intricate tour de force involving a faked burglary and … I can't go on, of course, without giving away the elaborate machinations and artifice of Shaffer's very funny, very erudite thriller. He combines both spoof and mystery genre, and plays it for all it's worth.

Catharine R. Hughes, "Broadway Hails Britannia," in America (© America Press, 1971; all rights reserved), Vol. 124, No. 2, January 16, 1971, pp. 46-8.∗

The Spectator

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sleuth] is dedicated to a number of fictional detectives, including Father Brown and Gideon Fell. They are all detectives in the high tradition—"great" detectives, not just ordinary coppers. Shaffer himself has said, however, that the contribution the play makes to the detective tradition lies essentially in its introduction of a working class character, Milo Tindle, on equal terms with the other main, upper-class, character, Andrew Wyke, the detective story writer. That cross class fertilisation, Shaffer says, was necessary to save the English detective story from becoming a country house set, one class-ridden, variety of crossword puzzle.

"Crime Compendium," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 231, No. 7508, October 6, 1973, p. 454.∗

Jules Glenn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Sleuth, Andrew Wyke, a mystery story writer, invites his wife's young lover, Milo Tindle, to his home in order to punish him for the affair. (p. 289)

The two characters in this play [engage] in an intense ambivalent relationship; extreme hate and profound affection alternately appear. Milo tries to take Andrew's wife from him, and Andrew retaliates cruelly in the first act. Thereafter, Milo repeatedly strikes back, identifying with and imitating his opponent as he tries to make things equal, 'to even the score'. Although he is first presented as a rather dull young man, Milo is transformed into a person capable of playing Andrew's intellectual game. As the play proceeds, the affection...

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Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Now, I am inclined to regard having-it-both-ways as one of the less admirable perversions, at any rate where drama is concerned. It worries me when a man exploits all the resources of the country-house thriller, with art and consummate cunning, and then rounds on me and rebukes me for having presumed to enjoy his efforts. How can he tell me that 'the detective story is the usual recreation of snobbish, outdated, life-hating, ignoble minds' when he plainly wants my outdated bum in his theatre seat, my ignoble money in his pocket, and my life-hating applause in his ears? Yet this was the message that rang out at the moral climax of Sleuth, and it is heard again, differently phrased, at the end of Murderer….

There are two main surprises [in Murderer], neither very surprising. There's also a lot of chat, mostly about murderers and murder, between Norman and wife, Norman and mistress, Norman and friendly, beer-drinking policeman. It is a long, desultory stroll down the Lustgarten, with, alas, very little happening in the shrubbery. Anthony may, once again, end by ticking me off for having enjoyed his attempts to titillate and thrill me; but I can't feel too guilty, because this time I did not enjoy them….

The truth is that Murderer has no more psychological than moral depth: it is just another thriller, and not a very good one. (pp. 393-94)

Benedict Nightingale, "Highbrowbeaten," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 89, No. 2296, March 21, 1975, pp. 393-94.∗