OnStage United Kingdom Columnist
I am currently rehearsing for an amateur production of Agatha Christie's The Hollow. As a company we enjoy performing plays and this one is choc-full of two faced characters, plot twists and cliffhangers not to mention the eerie setting of a Manor House in the English countryside.
Of course, as with any theatre group we rely heavily on ticket sales to make profit in order to continue successfully producing shows; another reason we plumped for an Agatha Christie to see us through. Her name alone on the promotional material is a huge audience draw. One of the best selling whodunnit writers of all time, we often associate Christie with characters which are now household names (Think Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple) thanks not only to her wonderful books but also to their many stage and screen adaptations. After all, The Mousetrap (which opened in 1952!) is still the longest running play, not only on the West End, but in the world!
So what is it about a murder mystery that keeps audiences going back for more in its many art forms? From page to screen, from stage to dinner parties and beyond. As creative and broad minded audience members we will all embrace something different about the thrill of the murder mystery but I believe there is one thing that combines all of these-the formula. That is, the foundations-the magic ingredients if you will. Not secret ingredients but a recipe followed by all good crime writers that makes for a sure-fire hit.
Here are my top ten ingredients for the perfect murder mystery:
1. Location, location, location.
So much of a story relies on its setting. I'm not sure an audience would be quite so gripped with a murder mystery set in a plain, old laundrette in South London with all of its characters sat around the washing machines twiddling their thumbs. After all, a never-ending mansion of secret rooms, locked doors, dark corridors and large pieces of antique furniture is a lot more appealing and leaves so much more to the imagination. Perhaps the killer escapes through a vent in the unvisited attic or maybe the murder weapon is hidden in a locked compartment of an old writing desk? As an audience we enjoy watching things which are perhaps slightly removed from the world we live in ourselves. I don't remember the last time I retired to the smoking room or set up a game of billiards.
2. The detective.
A pivotal part of the plot. The detective holds everything together and acts as our other set of eyes. He or she is the consistent link. He or she is honest and trustworthy when we don't know who to trust. We like to think we can be one step ahead of the detective but we are often fooled, adding to the anticipation.
3. The victim.
Usually just one otherwise things might get tangled and although we love a twist, a tangle is one step too far in my opinion! The victim often has a lot to die for if you catch my drift. His or her grass is usually greener-perhaps he or she has a lot of money, is very attractive or is having an affair with one or two of the other characters! We often can't guess who the victim will be so before the murder has even taken place we are placing bets on who will be the unlucky party.
Usually a fair few of these from the butler to the Lord or Lady of the Manor! We delight in taking a journey with our suspects, trying to figure them out. As modern humans we do this a lot in our daily lives anyway-from checking out the person sitting next to us on the bus to watching Big Brother. And particularly in British culture we prefer to do this from afar. Rather than ask a person 'why you are wearing that unusual hat?' we would rather look them up and down and frequently stare at the hat until we make our own mind up. I think this is why we embrace the murder mystery. We can observe and make opinions on each of these different characters, knowing at least one of them will be caught out, but we never have to see or speak to them!
5. A weapon.
Yes, just as in the game Cluedo (or Clue as it is known in the States) there's got to be a murder weapon. Often a gun, a knife or (more tricky!) a poisoned drink. This object becomes a huge focus for the plot as we know it could lead us to our killer! I find I enjoy a more obscure weapon such as a bust of the Queen, an ashtray or a shovel!
The most fun of all, frequently jotted down in the detective's notebook. Here is where we get those twists and turns. Who is lying? Who is telling the truth? Who is bluffing? Can we patch the clues together (often if watching on television I like to rewind to make sure I heard them correctly!)
8. The theme.
Despite the murder being the main act we're interested in here, there is always an underlying theme. For example, in Dorothy L Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, the author goes into great detail on the topic of advertising and Frank Gruber's The Lock and the Key is all about locksmiths. These themes are usually underlying in order to keep the audience entertained. Some people may take an interest in the theme, others may not.
There has to be an enthralling climax, probably featuring lots of emotion (weeping into a handkerchief, crying on the handsome man's shoulder and so on). An unexpected twist usually helps. A murder mystery is no good if we can easily guess 'whodunnit'!
10. A comeuppance.
The guilty party mustn't physically escape or get away with his or her crime. As an audience we mostly like things to be 'okay in the end'. We like to feel that justice has been done and so the killer must be caught and arrested thus wrapping up our story into a neat, little package so we can all sleep at night! The End!