Humankind is fascinated with what constitutes crimes and is interested in clues that lead to a greater mystery, maintaining our curiosity in the darker side of our humanity. The crime-writing genre embodies some of our deepest yearnings, provoking our thoughts and interests as readers and because of this, writers are able to subvert the conventions and thereby deconstruct the philosophical and psychological assumptions that crime fiction is predicated upon. The subversion of the crime-writing genre is able to maintain our interest, allowing us to explore the genre more freely. Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Inspector Hound is a post-modern text reflecting the nihilistic philosophy of crime demonstrated by the absurdist nature of the play. The text simultaneously uses and discards the conventions of the crime genre while also mocking the characteristics of the genre through the use of satirical devices.
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Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound premiered in 1968, is a dual satire of the stereotypical parlour mystery The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie and the crime writing genre itself. Though the narrative is set in a theatre, the ‘play within the play’ is set in Muldoon Manor, an isolated country mansion surrounded by “treacherous swamps”, “desolate marshes”, fog and cliffs. The setting itself is a parody of Agatha Christie’s closed environment also reflecting the genre of the typical Golden Age detective story. By absurdist reconfiguration of the interactions, Stoppard parodies the predictable and mechanical convention of the isolated setting. This is conveyed by Drudge’s hyperbolic statement, “â€¦somewhat isolated Muldoon Manorâ€¦cut us offâ€¦from the outside world”. The exaggerated nature of the setting is further supported through the use of jargon, “â€¦topographical quirk in the local strata whereby there are no roads leading from the Manor”. The effect of this is that it parodies the setting, overemphasising the conventions. By exaggerating the conventions they immediately establish the play as a mockery of crime genre and the radical subversion of it.
The two main critics in the play – Moon and Birdboot attempts to assume social importance by involving themselves in the play through the means of sheer role-playing, respectively replacing the roles of Simon and Inspector Hound. This results to their deaths, which inevitably seems hollow and unimportant. In the scene where Birdboot melodramatically states “Now- finally – I see it all” at which the point he is “shot andâ€¦ falls dead” before revealing the resolution. This reflects the nihilist philosophy about the meaningless of life and the inevitability of death that was customary to composers who were influenced by the Theatre of Absurd.
Character stereotype is another convention that prevails and subverts the Crime genre. By creating caricatures with clichéd vocabularies and mannerisms, Stoppard parodies the stereotypical characters in the typical crime-writing genre. In doing so, Stoppard condemns the lack of depth and imagination that is common in characterisation in crime-writing texts. In The Real Inspector Hound, we are introduced to Mrs Drudge; the typical polite and obedient char of Muldoon Manor who lacks personality and is dedicated and consumed to her work. Parallel to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap her archetype character is caricatured in The Real Inspector Hound. Her last name “Drudge” typifies a person who is made to do hard, dull and menial work, which parodies her trivial existence. She is a catalyst and a plot device acting as one of Stoppard’s primary vehicles for emphasizing the satirical character of the story, developing the narrative and unrealistically conveys the background and the setting of the story.
With the exception of Mrs Drudge, all the characters in the play profess death threats to the eventual victim Simon Gascoyne, increasing the everlasting list of suspects. This is accentuated by the anaphora of the phrase “I’ll kill you for this Simon Gascoyne!” Their explicit and resounding threats satirise the convention of the crime-writing genre; a closed circle of suspects each with motives and intentions to kill, further heightening the suspense and tension. Stoppard highlights and illustrates his views by exaggerating the character’s dialogue and motives, suggesting to the audience to believe that crime fiction texts have become unrealistic and formulaic.
The investigation into a crime by a highly intellectual and rational sleuth is an important and key convention that makes up the crime-writing genre. An essential feature of crime-writing texts is that we as readers follow through investigations that are littered with red herrings and by examining the evidence presented, we can deduce the identity of the perpetrator. In the play, it is ironic for Inspector Hound (who is the official detective) to play the smallest role. He is caricatured as an irrational and illogical figure, representing the absurdist nature questioning the validity of logic and rationality – important values of the crime-writing genre in a post-modern world. Stoppard’s absurd exaggeration of Hound is introduced; wearing inflated “swamp boots” and carrying “a foghorn”.
Hound’s irrational and foolish character is emphasised through his interaction with Cynthia when he exclaims, “I’ll phone the police!” to which Cynthia replies “But you are the police!” Such use of humour as a technique continues to subvert the crime-writing genre in the play. Furthermore by using plot devices such as the myriad of multiple disguises, the function of conventional red herrings in crime writing is altered significantly. The exaggerated red herring “I will kill you, Simon Gascoyne!” effectively dislocate the audience’s conventional assumptions of the play. However this purpose is defeated in The Real Inspector Hound due to the excessive use, therefore satirising this aspect of the genre. The reality of the Inspector’s identity is brought into doubt and question at the conclusion of the play as we find out that the original inspector is proven to be a fraud and the ‘real’ inspector is revealed. We see the hesitant role that an ingenious sleuth plays in a postmodern world lacking from rationality.
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At the end of the play, the crime is solved but it draws an unconventional conclusion. The audience is led to a greater confusion as the absurd denouement enhances the mystery over the reality of the play. The convention of justice prevailing over evil and the restoration of justice is completely ignored, however through Stoppard’s satire this convention is restricted as his aim was to mock the genre rather than send a message that justice is prevailed in an irrational post modern world. By leaving the “murder of Higgs” unresolved, Stoppard therefore defies the audience’s expectations that justice will triumph. The loose ends of the play such as the unidentified strangers, unresolved murders and undeclared motives correspond with the ambiguity of everyday reality. The conclusion of the play is exaggerated as a reminder to highlight Stoppard’s influence from the ‘Theatre of Absurd’. Social reality is not reflected in the play, but the absent relation between reality and truth in Golden Age crime writing is mocked.
The audience should not expect to find the conventions of the crime-writing genre to be left intact by Stoppard. He is not ultimately a crime writer and therefore is not concerned at all with the conventions. He uses The Mousetrap as a springboard for his own new genre, which could be called “comedy of the absurd”. In this new genre which The Real Inspector Hound creates as it goes through, every convention of crime writing is either ignored or utterly subverted. Genre theorist John Hartley states, “Texts often exhibit the conventions of more than one genre”. The Real Inspector Hound “highlights the fact that some genres are ‘looser’ – more open-ended”. Andrew Tutor argued that genre is ‘what we collectively believe it to be’. In return, Stoppard creates a genre from the play in ‘what he collectively believes it to be’. In addition to this, Stoppard weaves into his absurdist comedy elements of various other genres such as Jacobean farce and parody.
Ultimately, the play successfully satirises many conventions of crime writing by undermining the traditions of the genre through the use of clichés, exaggeration, parody and caricature. In undermining audience expectations, Stoppard’s play reflects the chaos of an uncertain world where conventional wisdom is subverted. In the process, Stoppard delivers a post-modern dramatization reflecting the nihilist philosophy that is demonstrated by the absurdist nature of the play.
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