Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

(Book Review)

Started: November 16, 2017
Finished: November 18, 2017

Why I Read This Book
This was a book that I did for bookclub.

Having slogged our way through alot - of - the - thick classics this past year, the members wanted to reward ourselves by doing something light--something that was still a classic, but a light and fun book.
Various suggestions were thrown out.  Raymond Chandler, P.J. Wodehouse, George Bernard Shaw....but in the end we settled on Agatha Christie.
We had also been talking for some time about reading a play (just to mix things up a bit) so in the end we settled on a famous play by Agatha Christie:  "The Mousetrap".
I had never heard of The Mousetrap before, but apparently it's one of Agatha Christie's most famous plays, and has been playing in London continuously since 1952.  According to Wikipedia:

The Mousetrap opened in London's West End in 1952, and has been running continuously since then. The longest running West End show, it has by far the longest initial run of any play in history, with its 25,000th performance taking place on 18 November 2012
My History with Agatha Christie 
* My high school put on "The Unexpected Guest" when I was in 11th grade.  I wasn't in the play, but I attended as a member of the audience.
* At some point, around 2004 or so, I rented "Murder on the Orient Express".
* Around 2005 or so (before I started this book review project), I read "And Then There Were None".   (Nobody mention what the original title of this book was!  We're just all going to pretend it was always titled: "And Then There Were None".)

This little play is so short that I almost feel guilty counting it as a book on this book review project.  But because I read it for bookclub, I'm going to sneak it in.
Everyone in our bookclub read it in 2 sittings.  Partly that's because it's so short.  And partly it's because once you get hooked on the mystery, you want to keep reading until you find out who the killer is.
The length of the play is just about perfect, because you can finish it in a couple of sittings, and you don't have to be in suspense too long.
I can't really talk about much more without spoiling the book.  So, from here on out are spoilers.

*** SPOILERS ***

So, apparently there's a long tradition of people being admonished not to give away the ending of this play.  If you go to see this play in London, at the end of every performance, the actors tell the audience that they are now in on the secret, and they must never tell the ending to anyone else.
People take this tradition so seriously that when Wikipedia included a plot summary of the play (which is just what Wikipedia does), it caused an outcry, and Agatha Christie's family petitioned Wikipedia to remove the spoiler.  (Daily Mail article about the whole controversy HERE).

This makes me slightly nervous about revealing any spoilers.  Will Agatha Christie's estate come after me next?  Is this blog post going to get lots of angry comments?
But I've thought about it, and I've decided that there's no reason to grant this play any special status.  We spoil stuff on the Internet all the time.
The twist ending to this play is mildly surprising, but it's really nothing special for its genre.  (This is, after all, a genre in which the audience expects some sort of twist).  There are a lot of plays, movies and books out there with much better twist endings which regularly get spoiled on the Internet all the time.  So why does this particular play become a sacred cow?  Just because Agatha Christie's estate wants it so?

Plus, when critiquing a murder mystery, you need some sort of space to talk about whether the ending worked for you or not, and it's hard to do that without spoiling things.

If you haven't read/seen the play yet, do yourself a favor and stop reading this review, and read the play.  (It only takes about 3 hours.)  Otherwise I'm going to spoil things from here on out.

(I'm making a big deal of this, but actually at this point, it's 2017 and I'm not revealing any information that isn't already readily available on the Internet anyway.  So hopefully no one gets too upset about this.)

The Plot
So.... I totally saw the twist ending coming.
Mostly because I had already seen The Unexpected Guest in high school (as mentioned above), and The Unexpected Guest employed the same trick ending.  In both plays, it turns out that the person who is investigating the murder turns out to be the murderer themselves.

That being said... admittedly when reading these murder-mysteries, there is a bit of a hindsight bias.  While you're reading the play, you suspect pretty much all the characters at one time or another.  Then, when you get to the ending, you forget about all your wrong suppositions, and only remember how smart you are for guessing the right answer.
So I do admit to having considered all the characters.  But at about the halfway point, I started to realize that none of the other characters could be the killer.  They had either been built up too much, or too little, and none of them would have provided a suitable dramatic pay-off.  And that's when I began to remember the twist ending to The Unexpected Guest, and began to wonder if the same trick might be employed here.
And it turns out I was right. 

Other observations:
There are a lot of coincidences employed in this play.  (According to Wikipedia, the fact that this story over-relied on a number of unbelievable coincidences is one of the oldest criticisms of this play).  The fact that two of the "blind mice"--Molly Ralston and Mrs Boyle--just happen to be both staying in the same house is a huge coincidence that is never explained.  But then when it turns out that Miss Casewell is Sergeant Trotter's long lost sister...well, that's stretching things a bit too far.

Generally in these types of murder-mystery stories, I think the audience is willing to forgive one uncanny coincidence, because you need something to get the plot rolling.  But when several uncanny coincidences start to pile up on each other, that's when I think people have a right to complain.

"In fact," Sabrina said at our book club meeting, "the very fact that so many eccentric personalities just happen to get trapped together in one house is itself an unbelievable coincidence."
But here I disagreed.  A bunch of eccentric personalities trapped in one place is just the genre.  It's what you expect when you open up an Agatha Christie book.

...And actually, speaking of which, this is about the perfect stereo-typical Agatha Christie play.  As I mentioned above, my experience with Agatha Christie is limited, but I'm at least aware of her stereotype's through pop culture.  And this play crams in most of the stereotypes.
A cast of eccentric characters--including such well-worn chestnuts as the old retired colonel from the Indian army, the creepy weird foreigner, and the snooty upper-class woman.
Circumstances which trap them all in one house--in this case a snowstorm.
All the characters in the house are all suspicious in their own way.  Every single one of them has a reason why they could be the murderer.
There's a second murder which occurs halfway through which, although not really scary, is satisfyingly creepy, and lends suspense to the rest of the play.
All in all, I enjoyed it despite its flaws.

Other Notes
* Although we did find out the identity of the murderer, a lot of the other loose ends were never really tied up.  We never really found out what the deal with Christopher Wren and his tragic backstory.  And what's the deal with Paravicini?  He was up to some creepy stuff, but we never really found out what.

* Speaking of Paravicini, he's the classic "creepy weird foreigner" stereotype.
It's probably an unhelpful stereotype, but it's so ingrained in this genre that its pointless to complain about it.  (All these stereotypical Agatha Christie characters are part of what gives this play that nostalgic "classic murder mystery" feel.)
But I am reminded of George Orwell's critique of Boys Weekly Magazines: "The assumption all along is not only that foreigners are comics who are put there for us to laugh at, but that they can be classified in much the same way as insects."

* And speaking of old stereotypes--unless I'm wildly off base, Miss Casewell is supposed to be coded as the lesbian stereotype, right?  I mean, they never say the word "lesbian", because this is 1952, but that's what the play is strongly hinting at, right?
How do people feel about Miss Casewell's depiction. I at times thought that the play was making her look unlikable (and by extension, that all lesbians are unlikable?) But then again, the whole premise of the play is that all of these characters are supposed to be somewhat suspect.
I guess it's no good trying to look for political correctness in a 1952 Agatha Christie play.

Video Review
Video Review HERE and embedded below:

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on computers & military, internet & net neutrality

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