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Critical Response to Christie's Play

(Drama for Students)

J. C. Trewin remarked in Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime that it often astonishes critics and theatre reviewers that after so many years on the London stage The Mousetrap "can still be acted before audiences with no idea of its development or climax." Not only critics but audiences have kept the secret of the whodonit and they have done so, Trewin argued, in tribute to Christie's work. Part of the appeal is in the reliability of the puzzle. Christie fans know they can rely on a solution that is plausible and yet one that completely escapes them until the play's conclusion. The least likely suspect is too often the murderer, or is he? It is the solving of that equation that keeps audiences guessing and coming back for more. And it is that complexity and familiarity that account for the play's longevity.

Trewin maintained that characterization was less important to Christie than action, that many of her characters were stereotypes who might have as readily been identified by numbers as by name. These stock characters might have easily been “transferred as needed, from plot to plot, hall to manor, court to vicarage ... they rarely had a life of their own." Perhaps to some degree that is true. Devoted readers of Christie will recognize Mrs. Boyles, Miss Casewell, Mollie, Giles, and Major Metcalf as familiar characters. But after more than a hundred novels, short stories, and plays, that familiarity is what readers and audiences are seeking. It is the accustomed that creates comfort and why Christie's work endures. But, I would agree that it is the plot, the action, the murder, and its solution that keeps the fan returning for more. It is the pleasure derived from solving the puzzle that keeps the audience in their seats.

Christie relied on narration and plot and eschewed the technology that is identified with so many other mystery writers. The Mousetrap employs no sliding panels or hidden staircases to enliven the action. There are no devices to create illusion; there are only the words and actions of ordinary people to offer clues. If, indeed, a murderer can be defined as ordinary. The lack of gadgets to distract the audience and Christie's reliance on a world of upper class gentry are two components that account for her longevity, according to Russell Fitzgibbon. In a chapter of his The Agatha Christie Companion that examines Christie's appeal, Fitzgibbon synthesized several critical responses to Christie. In one section, he examined criticism of Ian Fleming's use of technology. Christie's supporters argue that Fleming's use of technology is so quickly outmoded that his work is easily and quickly dated, and conclude that Christie, who ignored any technology more advanced than the radio, is timeless in her appeal. But Fleming's supporters counter with the assertion that Christie's work appears dated because she relies upon an antiquated setting and life-style that no longer exists in England, and consequently, the popularity of her work will inevitably decline.

In response to both these views, Fitzgibbon asserted that Fleming's technology is mechanical and impersonal, while Christie uses "the personalities, the emotions, and the general intangibles she found in the social world she knew so well." The lengthy theatrical run and enduring popularity of The Mousetrap would seem to support Fitzgibbon's argument, The comforts of the Victorian upper class may no longer exist in England, and this is especially true in the wake of World War II, but the public's need to escape to that earlier realm is apparently even greater today than it was in the 1920s when Christie first began to re-create that world.

It is the characters who deceive the audience and who provide the clues that enable the fans to solve the puzzle. As Trewin noted, the characters are often stock and interchangeable; but David Grossvogal maintained in Art in Crime Writing: Essays on Detective Fiction that it is their very reliability, their ordinariness that attracts Christie fans....

(The entire section is 4,489 words.)