By Agatha Christie
(Presented by The Therry Dramatic Society September 1-17, 2011)
What’s the Story?
A young couple, Mollie and Giles Ralston, are opening Monkswell Manor as a guest house. However, one of their guests murdered a woman in London and has two more names on their list of people left to kill…
What’s the Problem?
It’s a bit… like Agatha Christie didn’t bother to revise it. It was expanded from a much shorter radio play and it’s like she dashed out a draft then didn’t go back to edit it at all. For example…
The murders are to avenge the death of one of three children who was killed by the negligence of their adopted parents twelve years earlier. However, at various points different characters refer to the probable-murderer as the eldest of those three boys, or the eldest of those three children, when in fact he is the middle child with an older sister.
If Christie was having people make basic mistakes because they don’t remember the facts of the case, she didn’t make a big enough deal of it. No one ever picks up on this or corrects anyone, so it’s not something she’s making a point about. It just feels like Christie didn’t get straight in her own mind the ages of the children.
From the instant Sergeant Trotter turns up, we know the motive of the murders is revenge for past neglect. We know that the murderer is the elder brother, the sister, or the father. The characters all fit into one of these characters (two apiece). However, this means that when Mrs Boyle drops dead (oops, spoilers…) we all know the reason. There’s no detecting relating to why the crime took place.
It also means that some of the characters who had solid (well, for a murder-mystery) reasons for killing Mrs Boyle aren’t as suspicious. Particularly, Giles Ralston has a decent row with her and Christopher Wren takes an immediate dislike to her and mentions multiple times how he wishes she’d go away and or other ominous phrases. But these arguments and motives are irrelevant because we already know why the murder took place.
And, because we already know all the relevant facts (sans who the final victim and murderer are), the rest of the play focuses on who else was involved in the past crime and how. You basically sit there for an hour watching for anyone looking suspicious whenever Longridge Farm is mentioned. The revelations about who was involved, however, are not meted out to drive up the tension in the house; they’re ignored and repressed by all until the very final scene between murderer and victim where both are revealed as such.
The Murderer Is an Idiot
Because s/he leaves quite obvious clues at the first murder scene – like the name of where the next murders are going to take place. For this reason, the police know where the murderer will strike next and send a policeman around to keep everyone safe. He’s not a very good policeman, but that’s a point for another heading… The main point is the murderer needn’t have indicated where s/he’d strike next. That sort of thing is a bit stupid.
S/he also makes a couple of slip ups during the course of proceedings, but this is necessary for the play to work as a whodunit.
Also, s/he either doesn’t know who her/his final victim is (which is appalling research if s/he’s already started killing people) or does know and doesn’t strike when multiple opportunities present themselves; instead accidentally revealing her/his identity to another of the characters.
Hell of a Lucky Break
As it turns out, of the eight people at Monkswell Manor, five of them have some stock in the case. Two of these are fair enough; another one I’ve already complained about; but the other two are mere chance that they happen to be at Monkswell Manor at the right time for the murderer. If they’d not been there, the murderer’s plot wouldn’t have been nearly so neat.
What’s the Solution?
I’m sure Dame Agatha knew most (if not all) of these faults at the time of writing, but as the play was padded out and adapted from a radio play and she didn’t expect it to run more than a few months, one can see why a second or third draft was deemed too much effort for not enough reward.
However, since the bugger has been running non-stop for 59 years, it would have been nice if these errors had been noticed and dealt with. I pity the poor actors who’ve done the play for years at a time…
Yeah. It’s still a good murder mystery, even if not the typical kind where you work out whodunit and whydunit.
And so what if it’s a bit rough around the edges and some characters are utterly unnecessary and some leads go absolutely nowhere? That’s standard fare for murder stories, isn’t it?