BBC Radio has started a pleasant practice of filling the Christmas season with murder plays, mostly dramatised detective stories from the classic English phase of the 1920s and 1930s. This joining of the festive with the lethal provokes thought. There may well be some long line in English culture that links the Christmas visit to The Mousetrap with a point at least as far back as that splendid moment in Medieval literature when the Green Knight, his head cut off, stoops to pick up the rolling object, and rides out of Arthur's Christmas Court with the head lifted high and turned in the hand to smile genially here and there at the gathered knights and ladies as he goes. 'A sad tale's best for winter.' If there is such a tradition of smiling violence, clearly there must be a place in it for the original 'Mousetrap' itself, Shakespeare's tragedy of court life. Indeed, as the work of the most formally inventive of all literary geniuses, Hamlet could even be called - particularly since its presumed Kydian predecessor is lost - the first ever detective story or civilised thriller. The drama critic James Agate, who once savagely described Donald Wolfit's Hamlet as a private detective watching the jewels at the Claudius-Gertrude wedding feast, may have said more than he knew.
LRB 31 March 1988 | PDF Download