Today (or yesterday, depending on when you read this) would have been William Shakespeare’s 449th birthday. I don’t think I have to convince you that Shakespeare’s work has been tremendously influential in many ways, and it’s not hard to see why many people think of him as the greatest English-language poet and playwright. Whether you agree with that or not, there’s no denying his impact on books, plays, poems and authors. People don’t always consider Shakespeare a crime fiction writer but if you think about it, he was. Murder, betrayal, jealousy, theft, politics, family dysfunction – yup, it’s all there. So it’s little wonder that we see Shakespearean references and Shakespeare’s influence throughout crime fiction. There are dozens of examples, so I’ll just mention a few.
Agatha Christie refers to Shakespeare quite a lot. Even the titles of some of her stories (e.g. Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide)) are taken from Shakespeare’s work. And in there are other references too. In one of her novels (No spoilers!), Hercule Poirot says this about a murderer:
‘‘…I have always wondered,’ he added, ‘exactly what sort of woman Lady Macbeth was. What would she be like if you met her in real life? Well, I think I have met her.’’
There are lots of other allusions to Shakespeare too in the Christie canon.
Shakespeare is also woven through the plots of many theatre mysteries. I’ll just mention two to make my point. Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That? is the story of the Pintero Theatre’s production of The Scottish Play. Famous actor Warnock Belvedere is slated for the role of Duncan, and Brett’s sleuth Charles Paris has been given two bit parts. For Paris, this is an opportunity to re-build his career, which has suffered greatly, mostly due to his over-fondness for drinking and to the fact that he’s in emotional distress after separating from his wife. It doesn’t help that his agent isn’t exactly of the highest calibre. As the blocking, first readings and later rehearsals for the play go on, Warnock Belvedere alienates just about everyone. He is arrogant, rude, sexist and egotistical. One night after a particularly disastrous rehearsal, the cast goes to the bar to drown their sorrows. Paris takes a particularly deep dive, so to speak, but he manages to find his way back to his dressing area in the theatre and promptly falls asleep. When he wakes up at three in the morning, he discovers two things. First, he’s locked inside the theatre, as it’s been shut for the night. Also, he finds that Belvedere has also been locked in the theatre, and he is dead. At first Belvedere’s death is put down to heart failure but soon enough it’s shown that he was poisoned. Afraid he’ll be suspected by the police, Paris decides to clear his name and he begins to investigate. Shakespeare readers will know that the title of this novel comes from the play that the Pintero Theatre is producing. Some of the themes in the novel do, too.
In Deborah Nicholson’s House Report, Calgary’s Foothill Stage Network is doing a production of Much Ado About Nothing. The show’s run is going well until one night, Peter Reynolds is murdered and his body discovered in the men’s washroom. One of the first and most likely suspects is Reynolds’ ex-wife Gladys, who works as a theatre usher. She claims that she’s innocent and asks house manager Kate Carpenter to help her prove it. Carpenter is reluctant at first, but then, her lover Norman ‘Cam’ Caminksi comes under suspicion. Mostly to clear his name, Carpenter starts asking questions. With help from her assistant Graham, she narrows down the list of people who could have killed Reynolds. As she gets closer to the truth about the murder, Carpenter finds that the killer has discovered she’s on the right trail. Now she’s going to have to work even harder if she’s to find the killer before she and Graham are the next victims.
There are of course a lot of other theatre-related murder mysteries, many of which allude to Shakespeare. And really, how could they not? But Shakespeare’s influence goes beyond the surface level of his writing. Shakespeare used his characters and plots not just to tell stories, but also to make political and social commentary. If that sounds familiar it should. Many, many authors of crime fiction have done the same thing.
For example, Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö used their ten-novel Martin Beck series for similar purposes. This police procedural series features Beck and his police team as they investigate robberies, riots, disappearances, brutal murders and more. The cases are in and of themselves engaging and as a police procedural series, it’s in many people’s estimation the ‘gold standard.’ But fans of this series can tell you that the novels also serve as a vehicle for their authors’ social and political agendas. It’s not hard to see that in the context of telling stories, Sjöwall and Whalöö were also making statements about capitalism, police brutality, class and privilege and other issues. Shakespeare probably would have respected that about them.
Sara Paretsky has done the same thing with her V.I. Warhsawski series. Warshawski is a Chicago PI who has gone after all sorts of ‘bad guys’ including insurance fraudsters, corrupt politicians and bankers, union thugs and greedy business executives. The Chicago-land setting, the plots, and Warshawski’s character have won Paretsky millions of fans worldwide. But the novels do more than just tell well-written stories about well-drawn characters (although they do that). Paretsky has strong social and political views, and her novels are one way in which she shares those views. I think Shakespeare would have respected her for that too.
Whether it’s subtle or more obvious, it’s hard to overstate Shakespeare’s influence on writing in general and on crime fiction. And on this World Book Night, it’s appropriate to salute his memory.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Limelight.