The Play

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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...

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upstart could even contemplate running off with the wife of a respected nobleman. Andrew has set up the mock crime in order to make it appear as if he merely shot an anonymous burglar instead of his wife’s lover. He then tells Milo to put on his clown mask and prepare to die. Milo pleads for his life but to no avail. Andrew puts the gun to Milo’s head and shoots him. The curtain falls, ending act 1.

Act 2 begins two days later. Andrew, alone again, is preparing a small supper for himself when the doorbell brings. It is Detective Inspector Doppler of the local county constabulary investigating the disappearance of Milo. Andrew insists that he knows nothing about Milo’s disappearance until Doppler produces a note written two days ago by Andrew inviting Milo over for the evening. Doppler says the note was found in Milo’s cottage. Andrew then admits to having Milo visit him two nights ago but states that Milo had left later in the evening. Doppler mentions that reports of gunshots coming from Andrew’s home had been made by a neighbor passing by that evening. Doppler also mentions that, after talking to other neighbors, he learned that Milo and Andrew’s wife were having an affair.

Andrew, visibly agitated, begins to relate the events of Milo’s visit. He tells Doppler of the elaborate burglary scheme, of Milo agreeing to the plan, dressing up like a clown, and breaking into the home. Andrew also explains how he shot Milo. He then confesses that the real purpose of the scheme was to invite Milo over and humiliate him, to teach him a lesson for trying to run off with Andrew’s wife. Andrew insists that he shot Milo with a blank and that Milo, after recovering from the shock, left for the evening. Doppler is horrified at Andrew’s callousness, unnerved that anyone could go to such elaborate and sadistic extremes to humiliate a person. He also does not believe that Milo left the house alive. Andrew insists that it was merely a game to teach Milo a lesson. Doppler suggests that it might have started out as a game but that it had ended up as murder.

Doppler begins to investigate the premises. At first, Andrew is amused by Doppler’s plodding techniques but then becomes horrified when Doppler finds fresh bloodstains on the carpet and clothes hidden in a closet with Milo’s name sewn into the lining. Andrew is dumbfounded and cannot explain how the bloodstains or the clothes got there. Doppler then announces that Andrew is under arrest for murder. Andrew shrieks and attempts to evade Doppler. As they scuffle, Doppler suddenly reveals to Andrew that he, Detective Inspector Doppler, is actually Milo in disguise.

After the shock of the revelation wears off and Andrew grudgingly congratulates Milo on his clever masquerade, Milo also confesses his admiration for Andrew’s bogus crime. Milo also states that he feels his own game has hardly settled the score. Milo is still shaken by Andrew’s mock murder and announces that, unlike Andrew, he has committed a real murder. He tells Andrew that while he had been planting the fake evidence for his own game the previous day when Andrew had been away, Andrew’s mistress, Teya, had shown up, and that after seducing her, Milo killed her. Andrew does not believe him and calls Teya, only to learn from Teya’s roommate that Teya has indeed been murdered. Milo then tells Andrew that he has informed the police, who are on their way at the moment. Milo also tells Andrew that he has left incriminating evidence around the living room that will implicate Andrew as the murderer. Milo then gives clues to Andrew to help him find the evidence so he can destroy it before the police arrive.

Andrew becomes frantic as he begins tearing around the living room, looking for the evidence. With Milo’s cryptic clues, he is able to find all the evidence only moments before the police arrive. It turns out, however, that the police are merely voices coming from the doorway, impersonated by Milo. Milo then tells Andrew that Teya is alive and that she had enthusiastically agreed to help Milo fake her murder by lending him some of her personal items as the phony evidence. Milo also tells Andrew that Teya is not really his mistress because Andrew is impotent. Milo then reconfirms his plans to run off with Marguerite and goes to collect some of Marguerite’s belongings.

Andrew sits, slumped and defeated. As Milo rummages through Marguerite’s room, Andrew retrieves his gun and begins plotting a new scheme. When Milo returns, Andrew announces that if Milo tries to leave, Andrew will shoot him as a burglar, and this time he will use real bullets. Milo laughs and says that he would not be able to get away with the murder because Milo did in fact tell the police all about Andrew’s mock crime and that if Andrew were to shoot him now, the police would not believe the burglary story. Andrew, dismissing Milo’s news as just another charade, shoots Milo. As Milo slumps to the floor, the sound of an approaching car is heard and a flashing police car light shines through the window. Andrew screams in anguish as the curtain falls, ending the play.

Dramatic Devices

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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 whodunit: maids and butlers, police detectives, tantalizing mistresses, frivolous wives, and the infallible amateur supersleuth.

Probably the most effective device used to illustrate the ironic relationship that exists between flesh and blood, fact and fiction, is the staging of Milo’s two deaths. Milo’s first “death” is the more shocking and unsettling of the two. It is set up so the audience believes right along with Milo that he has been shot in the head and killed. Milo’s second death, although now in deadly earnest, does not have as much emotional impact. At this point, the audience, having been manipulated time and again, feels as Andrew must, so caught up in the deceitful world of games-playing that it cannot feel remorse over the death of another person. Death has been rendered merely another bloodless, intellectual preoccupation. Milo’s final words, a parody of Andrew’s comment which ended act 1, echo with bloodless irony and typify the world he supposedly despises: “Game, set and match!”

Historical Context

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The Downturn of the British Economy
By the mid-1960s, Britain's economic recovery from World War II seemed uncertain. As the 1970s opened, the country faced severe economic problems. Part of the country's problems stemmed from its relatively recent loss of its numerous overseas colonies, which had provided inexpensive raw materials to produce manufactured items, as well as ready markets for these goods. Britain also had failed to keep pace in plant, labor, and managerial practices with more recently industrialized nations. Of the world's industrialized countries, Britain alone experienced declining exports in the 1970s.

Outdated factories, low productivity, and lack of worker interest made it difficult for Britain to compete. The strength of labor unions led to more severe problems. Strikes took place in widespread industries, including utilities, civil services, and mining. Between 1970 and 1972, for example, around 47 million working days were lost to strikes. In 1973, the government banned strikes, but this legislation was ignored.

Unemployment, inflation, and wages were also on the rise. By the middle of the decade, unemployment had reached 1.5 million, exceeding the 2 percent figure with which the government was comfortable. With less money to meet its needs, the government pulled back from major defense commitments overseas, raised taxes, and increased borrowing.

Britain Joins the EEC
During the 1960s, British participation in the European Economic Community (EEC) was opposed by the French government, which feared that Britain's ties to the nations of the British Commonwealth and its close relationship with the United States would conflict with membership in the EEC. After lengthy discussion and disputes, Britain entered the EEC in 1973, becoming the organization's ninth member. EEC membership loosened its Commonwealth ties.

The EEC was an intergovernmental organization of fifteen Western European nations. It had its own institutional structures and decision-making framework Its goal was to construct a united Europe through peaceful means and to create conditions for economic growth, social unity, and greater political integration and cooperation among member governments. The EEC eventually included Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The EEC developed into the European Union in 1993.

British Politics
Two major parties dominated the British political scene throughout the 1970s. The Conservative Party led the government from 1970 through 1974 and again won the elections in 1979; the Labour Party held power in the intervening years. Their conflicting policies contributed to the economic instability. For example, the Conservatives denationalized some British industries, which were then renationalized by the Labour government Both governments, however, maintained the social services of the welfare state.

British Society
In the 1960s the British government had started restricting immigration from Commonwealth countries. In part, this policy reflected the racial tensions afflicting Britain's efforts to absorb a growing non-white minority. In 1971, the government passed the Immigration Act, which greatly changed immigration policy It said that only those people with parents or grandparents born in Britain could automatically emigrate to the country.

Changes also took place in the way people lived. Overall, the working class saw increased standards of living. The upper classes controlled less of the country's private capital.

Literary Style

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Detective StorySleuth is in part a parody of a detective story and in part a more convoluted mystery. It parodies detective stories in its setting—an English country house—and its characterization of Andrew—a successful mystery writer in the classic style. Andrew takes upon himself the boastful air common to such well-known detectives as Agatha Christie's Monsieur Hercule Poirot, one of those detectives to whom Shaffer dedicates the play. Andrew is proud both of his sales record as a crime writer, to which he refers numerous times, and of his cunning in putting together the plot to fool Milo. However, Sleuth is also a mystery of another sort Who is the murderer7 Who is a victim7 In fact, who is dead? Andrew revels in such puzzles, but Milo does not, though he is successful at them. At the end of the story, Milo declares, "To put it shortly, the detective story is the normal recreation of snobbish, outdated, hfe-hating, ignoble minds." With or without intention, however, Milo, has taken part in Andrew's detective story. In his determination to avenge himself, he also becomes one of those life-hating snobs he dendes. His scorn for Andrew at the end of the play and his belief that Andrew could never shoot him demonstrate this mindset.

DramatizationSleuth is a dramatization within a drama The entire first act centers on made-up events, even its very opening, in which Andrew composes his latest mystery novel. The confrontation between Andrew and Milo is a pre-scripted event. Andrew's shooting of Milo is a dramatization Interestingly, the drama that Milo has created holds yet another drama, that of a faked burglary.

The second act is also all dramatization. Within moments of the act's opening, Inspector Doppler— Milo in disguise—shows up at Andrew's door Doppler/Milo plays out the drama of taking Andrew in for the murder of Milo. Even when Doppler/Milo drops the act, yet another takes its place: that of Milo setting the stage for the next drama in which he makes Andrew believe he has been framed for the murder of Tea. Even after Milo reveals his second deception, Andrew revels in the dramatic act of game playing, proposing that the two men continue The only real moment in the play occurs in the very last seconds, as Andrew shoots Milo and sees the flashing lights of the police car. At last the drama is over.

The idea of twinning plays an important part in the construction of the play. Andrew and Milo are the play's only characters, and they are intrinsically linked on many levels. They both share Andrew's wife. In Milo's fantasy, they both share Andrew's mistress. They both are good at game playing Other instances in the text point to their mirror imaging of each other as they take on the role of opposites. At times, such as when Andrew holds the gun on Milo, Andrew is the aggressor, and Milo is the victim. At other times, such as when Doppler/Milo is about to take Andrew to the police station, the situation is reversed. Additionally, Milo criticizes Andrew for wanting to live in a world where "to be puzzled is all." He, in contrast, wants to live "a life where people try to understand.''

Textual references also refer to the ideas of twinning, doubling, and halving. Milo is half-Italian and his father half-Jewish. The clues that Milo gives Andrew in act 2 contain phrases such as "for any man with half an eye'' and "two brothers we are." More obviously, the name that Milo chooses for himself as the Inspector, Doppler, is German for the word double and also almost an anagram of the inspector Andrew referred to in act 1, Inspector Plodder, who would easily have been fooled by the faked burglary. The idea of Andrew and Milo being doubles for each other and two halves that form one cohesive whole comes to its culmination at the end of the play. Andrew proposes that Milo stay and live with him so they can continue to play these games in which they are so evenly matched. He refers to them in gentle, lover-like terms: "Two people coming together who have the courage to spend the little time of light between the eternal darkness—joking."

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: In 1971 the median disposable income per household is £171 per week. Those households in the 90th percentile have £300 pounds to spend per week, while those in the bottom 10th percentile only have £94

1990s: In 1997 the median disposable income per household is £262 per week. Those households in the 90th percentile have £531 pounds to spend per week, while those in the bottom 10th percentile only have £132.

1970s: In 1971, the rate of inflation in Great Britain is 9.46.

1990s: In 1998, the rate of inflation in Great Britain is 3.44

1970s: In 1970, British household expenditures equal close to £238 billion (in 1995 prices).

1990s: In 1998, British household expenditures equal close to £489 billion (in 1995 prices).

1970s: Changing immigration laws lead to decreasing immigration from Commonwealth nations.

1990s: Immigrants from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South African—some 253,000 people—come to reside in Britain.

1970s: Since the 1950s' high point of a British Jewish population of 450,000, the number of Jews in the country has been in constant decline.

1990s: About 350,000 Jews live in Britain, mainly in and around London. This is the second largest Jewish community in Europe.

1970s: The basic rate of tax is between 30 and 35 percent. The highest rate can be as much as 83 percent.

1990s: The basic rate of tax is between 23 and 25 percent. The highest rate is 40 percent.

1970s: The population of Britain in 1971 is close to 56 million.

1990s: The population of Britain in 1998 is close to 60 million.

Media Adaptations

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Andrew Shaffer wrote the screenplay for the 1972 film adaptation of his play. Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed the movie, which starred Laurence Olivier as Andrew Wyke and Michael Caine as Milo Tmdle, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Berkowitz, Gerald M, "Anthony Shaffer. Overview," in Contemporary Dramatists, 5th ed, edited by K A Berney, St. James Press, 1993.

Carlson, Marvin, Deathtraps, Indiana University Press, 1993.

----, "Murderous Games. The Self-Conscious Art of the Comedy Thriller," in Bucknell Review, Vol. 39, No 2,1996, pp. 170-183.

Gillen, Francis, "Anthony Shaffer," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 13 British Dramatists since World War II, edited by Stanley Wemtraub, Gale Research, 1982, pp 445-450.

Glenn, Jules, "Twins in Disguise A Psychoanalytic Essay on Sleuth and The Royal Hunt of the Sun,'' in Psychoanalytic Quarterly, April 1974, pp 288-302.

Gow, Gordon, "Murder Games," in Plays and Players, October 1979, pp. 10-13.

Grossvogel, David, Death Deferred The Long Life, Splendid Afterlife, andMysterious Workings of Agatha Christie, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Gussow, Mel,"With 'Sleuth' Another Shaffer Catches Public Eye," in New York Times, November 18,1970, p. 38.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G , "The Detective Novel of Manners," in Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, Ballanune Books, 1990, pp 275-290.

Hewes, Henry, Review, in Saturday Review, November 28, 1970,p 6.

"How Much Is That? Inflation Rates for the U S (1721 to 2000), and Great Bntain (1661 to 2000)," http// (March 7, 2001).

"The Institute for Fiscal Studies. A Survey of The UK Tax System," http //wwwl ifs org uk/taxsystem/ratslimstime shtml (March 7, 2001).

Wolf, Matt, '"Sleuth'-sayer," in Variety, August4,1997, p. 8.

Further Reading
Brown, Allan, Interview with Anthony Shaffer, in Sunday Tunes (London), April 11,1999, p 5. Shaffer and Brown discuss the survival of Sleuth on the stage.

Grimley, Terry, Interview with Anthony Shaffer, in Birmingham Post (England), May 5,1999, p 15. Shaffer discusses the success of Sleuth.

Klein, Dennis A, Peter and Anthony Shaffer, G K, Hal, 1982 This is a reference guide to Shaffer's work, as well as that of his brother and co-author, Peter.

Sondheim, Stephen, and Anthony Shaffer, "Of Mystery, Murder and Other Delights," in New York Times, Vol. 145, March 10,1996, p. 7. In this conversation between Sondheim and Shaffer, the award-winning lyricist and composer and the playwright discuss the audience for mystery plays and the art of murder.


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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. Peter and Anthony Shaffer: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Morley, Sheridan. “The Whodunit That Did It Right: Sleuth Still Offers More than the Genre’s Usual Suspects.” International Herald Tribune, July 24, 2002, p. 9.

Newsweek. Review of Sleuth. November 23, 1970, 138.

Time. Review of Sleuth. March 30, 1970, 77.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide