The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sleuth is presented in two acts, with all the action taking place in the country-home interior of famous mystery writer Andrew Wyke. It is a summer evening; a solitary Andrew is absorbed in finishing his latest manuscript featuring his famous fictional creation, the eccentric and brilliant amateur sleuth, St. John Lord Merridew. Andrew, middle-aged and dressed casually in his smoking jacket, is obviously pleased with his latest work and begins to recite it aloud as he strolls around his living room decorated with a variety of games, puzzles, and toys.

The doorbell rings and Andrew invites Milo Tindle in. Milo is a young, handsome travel agent whom Andrew has invited over this evening to discuss Milo’s involvement with Andrew’s wife, Marguerite. Milo is at first taken aback by Andrew’s civil openness about the situation, but Andrew insists that he has no animosity against Milo, that he only wants to make sure Milo knows what he is getting into. Andrew claims he does not love Marguerite and is perfectly willing to divorce her so he can more fully enjoy his mistress, Teya. He wants to make sure, however, that Milo can take care of Marguerite in the comfort and luxury to which she is accustomed in order to prevent her from becoming dissatisfied with Milo in a few months and trying to reconcile with Andrew. Milo admits that his travel agency business, although successful, is still somewhat financially insecure.

Andrew, smug and aggressive, filled with devilish energy and cunning, proposes a scheme to Milo in an effort to keep Marguerite happy and lavishly content and therefore permanently out of Andrew’s life. Andrew suggests that Milo rob the estate of some valuable jewelry along with the receipts, and sell the jewels on the black market, enabling Milo to garner a sizable amount of cash and giving Andrew the opportunity to collect on the insurance. Andrew then outlines an elaborate burglary plan involving Milo breaking into the home, ransacking various rooms and ultimately taking the gems.

Milo is quite suspicious at first. He cannot believe Andrew would be so obliging in his efforts to free himself of Marguerite. Andrew insists, however, that his motives are free from malice and the scheme is foolproof. Finally, to Andrew’s delight, Milo agrees to the plan. Andrew insists that Milo disguise himself using one of Andrew’s old theatrical costumes and break into the estate through an upstairs window. Milo begins to catch Andrew’s enthusiastic, flamboyant fever and ends up dressing like a clown. He follows Andrew’s orders and while he is busy breaking into the home, Andrew rigs the safe containing the jewels with explosives and blows it open. Both men then indulge in a frenzied ransacking of the home, throwing papers, overturning furniture, disemboweling drawers and closets, until the house is in sufficient disarray.

Andrew then announces that they must make it appear as if Andrew walked in on the crime and that Milo subdued Andrew before escaping with the jewels. First Andrew proposes that Milo strike him so it will appear as if the two had struggled. Then Andrew produces a gun, however, and says that the plan should be that Andrew at first held the gun on Milo but after a struggle in which shots were fired, Milo escaped. Andrew then fires two shots from the gun, breaking various objects in the living room. Then he turns to Milo and says that he is going to kill him. Milo thinks that Andrew is joking. Andrew then reveals the real reason for inviting Milo over for the evening. Andrew is outraged that a young, unaristocratic upstart could even contemplate running off with the wife of a respected nobleman. Andrew has set up the mock crime...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The two acts of Sleuth are presented to illustrate the contrast as well as the interrelationships that exist between the world of detective fact and detective fiction. In act 1, Andrew is clearly in control of the proceedings as he manipulates Milo into first believing he is helping to assure his successful future with Marguerite by playing Andrew’s games, and then into believing that Andrew has actually shot him dead.

In act 2, it is the plodding and methodical Inspector Doppler and his world of detective fact that manipulates Andrew. In this world, Andrew’s flamboyance, his gift for mimicry and his allusions to his literary heroes, so charming and appropriate in act 1, now fail to impress the serious Doppler. Even the canned laughter from one of Andrew’s most innocent props, a life-size doll dressed as a sea captain, sounds hollow and ironic in Doppler’s presence.

Milo avenges himself in act 2 by using all the tricks Andrew used to humiliate him in act 1: disguises, deceit, horrible puns, literary allusions, and a chilling disregard for human life. Throughout both acts, the setting remains the same, the traditional country estate interior, as if it were a huge game board itself, unchanging except for its human game pieces. The two characters, with their theatrical disguises and repertoire of voices, create the illusion of a houseful of eccentric caricatures, all of whom would be found in the traditional drawing room...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Downturn of the British Economy
By the mid-1960s, Britain's economic recovery from World War II seemed uncertain. As the...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Detective Story
Sleuth is in part a parody of a detective story and in part a more convoluted mystery. It parodies detective...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1970s: In 1971 the median disposable income per household is £171 per week. Those households in the 90th percentile have £300 pounds...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Write a newspaper article about Andrew's murder of Milo.

Create your own plot for a play in the whodunwhat genre. Write an...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Andrew Shaffer wrote the screenplay for the 1972 film adaptation of his play. Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed the movie, which starred Laurence...

(The entire section is 42 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Shaffer's follow-up to Sleuth (1970) l&Murderer (1979). This play opens with a thirty-minute silent sequence in which the...

(The entire section is 183 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Chve, Review, in New York Times, November 13, 1970, p. 25.

Berkowitz, Gerald M, "Anthony...

(The entire section is 334 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Gill, Brendan. “Things Going Wrong.” The New Yorker, November 21, 1970, 103.

Glenn, Jules. “Twins in the Theater: A Study of Plays by Peter and Anthony Shaffer.” Blood Brothers: Siblings as Writers, edited by Norman Kiell. New York: International University Press, 1983.

Gussow, Mel. “With Sleuth, Another Shaffer Catches Public Eye.” New York Times, November 18, 1970, p. 38.

Hewes, Henry. “Two Can Play at a Game.” Saturday Review, November 28, 1970.

Klein, Dennis A....

(The entire section is 114 words.)