When Sleuth premiered in London in 1970, it was called the play that critics could not review. Indeed, critics found it next to impossible to say anything about the subject of the play for fear of slipping up and revealing one of the many devious plot twists, and thus earning the wrath of those who had not yet seen it. Certainly Sleuth’s effectiveness depends to a large degree on its shocking plot devices. There is no denying, however, that the play’s two characters are more than two-dimensional plot foils. Both are strong, dynamic individuals who go far beyond the stereotypical stick figures found in plays which rely heavily on plot trickery as opposed to character development for their effectiveness. The language is especially lively and rich with witticisms, in keeping with the flamboyant nature of the characters themselves.
Sleuth was Anthony Shaffer’s first play. He had previously written detective novels with his brother Peter (also a successful playwright) under the pseudonym Peter Antony and worked on several television projects. Shaffer admitted that the inspiration for Sleuth came after learning that Agatha Christie, the undisputed queen of the parlor room style of murder mystery, was the most-published author in the world. Shaffer wanted both to send up Christie and the genre in which she excelled, and at the same time to use the elements inherent in this most popular genre. The result was an extremely commercially successful entertainment, a spellbinding crowd pleaser.
Like Sleuth, Shaffer’s other plays are playful and cunning variations on the traditional murder mystery. In Murderer (pr. 1975), the protagonist, like Sleuth’s Andrew Wyke, is obsessed with games-playing and likes to graphically reenact the crimes of celebrated murderers of the past. In The Case of the Oily Levantine (pr. 1977; also known as Whodunnit, pr. 1979), the play begins as a hilarious burlesque of the traditional drawing room mystery, complete with all the stock, stuffy, aristocratic characters, but then turns into a wild variation of the genre as all the characters suddenly reveal their true identities. Shaffer was enamored of the old “cozy crime” genre. In all of his works (which include the original screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, in 1972, and screen adaptations of some of Christie’s books featuring Hercule Poirot), Shaffer’s intent was both to honor and to harass the genre. However, his main concern was to entertain, to breathe new life into one of the most popular genres of all and enthrall his audience with the elements that have made the genre so successful and well loved.