Sixty years after The Mousetrap’s premiere, there is nostalgia for crime novels that you once curled up with on a rainy day — till Steig Larsson ruined that plot.
I am not sure if this is a real story or yet another of those Mumbai urban legends. A day after the thriller Gupt was released in 1997, somebody had scrawled in large letters on the low walls of Marine Drive: Kajol is the killer.
This treatment, thankfully, hasn’t been meted out to The Mousetrap. For the last 60 years, group after group of audience has been walking out of the St. Martin’s Theatre in London every evening. Lord Richard Attenborough, part of the cast said at the end of the first show in 1952 (and subsequent actors to this day have followed suit), “Now you have seen The Mousetrap, you are our partners in crime, and we ask you to preserve the tradition by keeping the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.” And so it has come to be that London is celebrating not just the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year.
What’s so special?
In November, The Mousetrap completes 60 years on London’s West End. To mark this, the production is touring the U.K. and several other countries including South Africa, Australia, China, Russia and Venezuela. It has been often asked: why is this play so successful? As whodunits go, there is nothing special about it, certainly nothing that deserves 60 years on the stage. Agatha Christie, the playwright, herself gave it six months at the most.
Even if the identity of the killer is common knowledge now — and how can it not be in this Wikipedian age — people go in droves. Perhaps the play feeds on its own popularity, people curious to see exactly what the fuss is all about. Or perhaps it has preserved for us a slice of life as it was back in the 1950s. Or because you come out of the theatre in a cheerful mood, as if you have just listened to a music concert that entertained without presuming too much effort from your side.
The reason I bring this up is that the Agatha Christie school of crime novels and crime writers is gone forever. That was a world where life seemed warm and cosy, despite the depressing spectre of the War that hung over the country for many years.
Murders were typically set in house parties, during exotic excursions to other countries, in family get-togethers and, of course, in small gossipy villages, the kind of places where you would stop for tea and scones if you were to do a road trip in the U.K. now.
No blood and gore
The formula was simple: take a large manor house (or in the case of Mousetrap, a hotel), throw in a bunch of quarrelling family members, and sprinkle a couple of strangers (preferably “foreigners”) who come with their own oddities and... voila! a mystery.
And it was all so pleasant — there was rarely much actual blood, any mention of sex was sidestepped with genteel references, and there was always a clear motive. It was almost as if murder was just by the way and, even if you knew the identity of the killer, you could read the books again and again, just for the tone and plot. These were books you could curl up with on a rainy day, cup of tea in hand.
Can you imagine enjoying a Jo Nesbo that way?
Actually, it is all Steig Larsson’s fault. I am sure there have been Scandinavian writers churning out blood-curdling novels about mentally and emotionally disturbed (to put it mildly in this age of political correctness) killers for decades now. But it is really Larsson — whose Millennium Trilogy has sold over 60 million copies — who brought the world’s spotlight to shine on this grey and gloomy region. Chew on this: his first book was originally called Men who Hate Women. Enough said.
What is worse, the detectives are even more complicated creatures — depressive and drunk, with a head full of dark secrets and flailing around in a job that demands all their time and attention. And all this takes place in a glum Scandinavian town; there seem to be no murders in summer, in the days of endless sunshine.
No clear motive, at least as far as I can figure out, except perhaps some deep-seated childhood neurosis (or as that old master P.G. Wodehouse puts it, “somebody must have taken his all day sucker away when he was a child”). Enough to make you want to take to some form of violence yourself.
Stop, you Scandinavians, I beseech you. You could write books without so much gore. Back in the 1960s, the couple Majs Sjowall and Per Wahloo wrote the 10 delightful Martin Beck novels, slowly exploring — and where possible, explaining — the larger context of a society grappling with many changes.
Bring them back
Better still, what I would like is for the return of the women crime writers with their benign characters and simple storylines. The village spinster immortalised by Miss Marple, or Dorothy Sayers’ rich and dandified Peter Wimsey may be anachronisms today.
But there have been others; the female Private Investigator prototype from Sue Grafton, the knitting and crossword club members from Maggie Sefton and Parnell Hall. P.D. James and Ruth Rendell (both among the best in the business) have created some exciting villains. They also weave sophisticated plots and give multiple layers to the detectives themselves, including one with a poet’s soul.
And sure, Patricia Highsmith gave us the chilling Ripley but there was no in-your-face violence. All of them have shown that it is possible to write gripping crime fiction without having to describe murder in slow, agonising detail, in what critics have come to call torture porn.
Even as I write this, all that is apparently changing. According to a recent article in The Guardian, more and more women crime writers like Gillian Flynn and Cathi Unsworth are “making themselves at home on noir’s mean streets,” perhaps with an intention to sensationalise. It is almost as if they have a point to prove in yet another sport in the gender-equality race — if the men can do thriller, we can do it better.
Can I have the good old days of cheery murders back please?