Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 677
This play, which has run consistently since its opening in 1952, exemplifies the characteristics that have brought Christie the admiration and loyalty of many and the condescending criticism of some. Like her other mysteries—on stage or in prose—The Mousetrap exhibits a tight plot with twists and surprises; characters who are not real people but types, sometimes masquerading as other types; a setting that is charmingly threatening; and a powerfully titillating atmosphere of menace created by this combination of elements.
It is necessary from the outset to acknowledge the criticism that Christie created two-dimensional metaphors rather than flesh-and-blood characters with whom one can identify. This is true to the extent that none of the characters in The Mousetrap or elsewhere in Christie’s detective writings demonstrates a capacity for growth or change. Mollie will continue to be cheerful and efficient, Paravicini will continue to irritate and alarm by virtue of his antics, and Mrs. Boyle is consistently pompous and irascible until the moment of her death. Poirot will not marry, Hastings will not become more intelligent, and Jane Marple will never see anything except through the lens of St. Mary Meade. They will not change because they do not have to. They are complete as they are—perfectly suited to the task their author has set them.
Because they are types one readily identifies as a part of the human comedy, one can enjoy them in a way that is not possible with characters whose three-dimensional humanity intrudes between oneself and one’s preconceptions. It is also far less painful to discover that the murderer was indeed someone whose type one likes or admires, because one has never approached that person closely and does not experience the cathartic sorrow or disappointment of a more realistic tragedy. It is worth commenting that playwrights of note, such as George Bernard Shaw, have often made use of the archetype to make social comment and/or simply to entertain.
For an audience prepared to be entertained and mentally challenged by the relationships and dynamics between character types, Christie unfolds the story of a murder in a setting as removed and unthreatening as that of a fairy tale. Monkswell Manor is a 1950’s survival of an England described by some of Christie’s critics as an England that disappeared long before she began writing about it.
It is an aspect of Christie’s genius that her nostalgic evocations or exotic settings are both interesting as a kind of travelogue in time or place and spookily stimulating. Monkswell Manor is no exception. One’s first perception is of an old estate, isolated by a heavy snow storm and somehow threatened by the murder announced over the radio. Immediately thereafter begins the parade of almost outrageously vivid characters who will be trapped together in a classic Christie setting, allowing no resolution but the uncovering of the murderer.
The final, crucial element in The Mousetrap, as in any Christie plot, is the riddling contest between the author and the audience. It is a foregone conclusion that—as in all Christie plots—any one of the characters may be the murderer, and one’s feelings of identification or sympathy must be regarded with suspicion. Christie delights in the masquerade—the double bluff and the simple bluff made to seem like a double bluff. The satisfaction of arriving at the solution of the puzzle before the author reveals it is like the satisfaction of completing a difficult, deceptive crossword puzzle. Coming to a false conclusion or no conclusion at all, however, is to appreciate the artistry of the author in deceiving one. In the first act, especially, Christie directs apparently casual movements and actions that tend to suggest a character’s need to avoid scrutiny or to observe someone else from an advantageous position.
Setting, characters, and plot combine in The Mousetrap to provide a pleasantly ominous and mentally challenging entertainment that, because of its insight into certain of contemporary society’s attitudes and opinions, also suggests social comment but does not require tortuous or uncomfortable reflection.