It’s Curtain Time and Away We Go!*

Stage AdaptationsIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings run into several difficulties and obstacles as they work to solve the murder of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. One evening, Hastings suggests that they take a break from the case and go to a play, and Poirot enthusiastically agrees. The evening goes well enough, except that Hastings admits he’s made one mistake: taking Poirot to a crook play.

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’

And yet, crime fiction fans do enjoy going to mystery/thriller plays. Sometimes they’re adaptations of novels or short stories. Sometimes they’re originally written as plays. Other times they’re ‘audience participation’ plays. In any case, they’re popular.

Adapting a story for the different media (print, film, theatre) isn’t always easy. But there’ve been many stories that have made their way from print to stage (or vice versa). And it’s interesting to see how they’re adapted. Here are just a few examples.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, a couple who spent several years ‘in service,’ and have now retired. As a way to earn income, they’ve opened their home to lodgers, but so far, haven’t been overly successful. Then, a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr. Sleuth takes a room. He’s a little odd; but at first it seems like a fine arrangement. He’s quiet, pays promptly, and so on. Bit by bit though, the Buntings begin to suspect that something might be very wrong. Could Mr. Sleuth somehow be connected to a series of murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger? On the one hand, the Buntings depend on the income from their lodger. On the other, if he does have something to do with the Avenger killings, they should inform the police. It’s an interesting psychological study which was adapted for the stage in 1916 as Who is He?

Edgar Wallace adapted his own novel The Gaunt Stranger as a play that he called The Ringer. He later edited the original novel and re-released it with the same name as the play. In the story, Henry Arthur Milton, who calls himself ‘The Ringer,’ is a vigilante who’s gone into hiding in Australia. Then he learns that his sister Gwenda has been found dead, and returns to London to avenge her. He targets the man he blames; and of course, Scotland Yard can’t support ‘vigilante justice,’ so they’ll have to find The Ringer before he can take justice into his own hands. The major problem is, he’s very good at disguising himself – so good that no-one knows what he looks like. You can find out lots more about this story in a really interesting post by Sergio at Tipping My Fedora. And you’ll want that excellent blog on your blog roll anyway – it’s the source for classic crime novels and film adaptations.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories have been adapted for the stage. The Mousetrap, for instance, has been running continuously since 1952. It had its origin in a short story (which was based on a radio play!) called Three Blind Mice. There’s also The Yellow Iris, which began as a short story in which Rosemary Barton dies of cyanide poisoning during a dinner party. It’s believed her death is suicide, but her widower George says otherwise. A year later, he stages another dinner party with the same people to see if he can catch the killer. Interestingly enough, Christie also developed this into the novel Sparkling Cyanide, ‘though she changed both the sleuth and the murderer.

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is the story of Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, who meet when Frank, who’s a drifter, ends up working in the diner owned by Cora and her husband Nick.  Frank and Cora begin an affair that ends up having disastrous results when they decide to get rid of Nick. Originally, this was written as a short novel, but it’s been adapted several times for film, and twice (that I’m aware of) for the stage: in 2005 in London’s West End, and in 2008 in Moscow.

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel she completed. In the novel, Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married. But trouble starts when they travel to Tallboys, the country home Wimsey’s bought for his bride, and they place they intend to spend their honeymoon. When the body of the house’s former owner is found in the basement, the wedding couple have a new mystery to solve. This story had its origins in a 1936 play that Sayers co-wrote, and was later adapted as a full-length novel.

Ruth Rendell’s An Unkindness of Ravens is the thirteenth in her Reg Wexford series. In the novel, Wexford agrees to look into the disappearance of Rodney Williams. At first he’s not overly concerned about the man. All indications are that he’d run off with another woman – not exactly ‘upstanding,’ but not really a police matter. Then, Williams’ suitcase and car are found. Later, his body is discovered. Then there’s another stabbing. It’s now clear that this is more than just a case of a man who treated his wife badly. While not as well-known as some other stage adaptations are, this novel has been adapted as a play.

And I don’t think I could do a post about crime novels and the theatre without mentioning Ngaio Marsh, whose career was so heavily influenced by her work on and behind the stage. Many of her stories feature plays, stage settings and so on.

There’s just something about seeing a crime story played out on the stage. There are some nuances that it’s much harder to get across in print than ‘live.’ So it’s little wonder that so many crime novels either had their start as plays or have been adapted for that media. Which ones have you enjoyed?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Another Op’nin’ Another Show.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Wallace, James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell

28 responses to “It’s Curtain Time and Away We Go!*

  1. J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls was a great play with thrillerish elements – although I do believe it was not adapted, but actually written as a play. And I did see The Mousetrap many years ago – but have sworn not to reveal the ending (which I have now forgotten).

    • Marina Sofia – I’ve actually heard of the Priestly play, ‘though I’ll confess I’ve never seen it. And I’m glad you got the chance to see The Mousetrap. That’s one of those things I think crime fiction fans ought to try to do if they can.

  2. One of the first (and, I think, one of the best) of this genre was “The Circular Staircase,” Mary Roberts Rinehart’s first novel, published in 1908. In 1920, it was turned into a play called “The Bat,” by Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, and ran for more than 800 performances in its original Broadway run. It’s been made into a movie several times, I believe, and it’s still a great read.

    • Interesting, isn’t it, Les, how some of the finest plays are at least co-written, if not completely written, by the author of the original novel. I’m sure that’s true of The Bat, too. I’m glad you brought that up, as I sometimes don’t think Rinehart gets the attention she deserves.

  3. I’ve never seen one, but always wanted to. We have plans this fall to do a murder mystery train ride, which should be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, they only run in the fall. Otherwise we’d do it now. Darn New England weather!

    • Oh, I hope you’ll get the chance to do that train ride! I’ve heard of those adventures, and they do sound great. There are also mystery cruises too, and mystery dinners. It really does sound fun!

      • I’ve already marked my calendar. Nothing could make me miss it. I’m only sorry I didn’t find out about it until after the season ended. It’ll be a long wait, but well worth it from what I hear. I’d love to do a mystery cruise and/or dinner. I wonder if we have any around here. I’ll have to check that out.

  4. tracybham

    I enjoyed this post about plays connected with mystery novels. Many of them I did not know about. Thanks for all this info.

    • Tracy – I”m glad you enjoyed the post. I think it’s really interesting to see how stories have been adapted for different media like the theatre or print or film. I think it’s especially interesting when the original author does the adapting.

  5. Margot: There was a stage version of Twelve Angry Men I wish I could have seen a few years ago in Saskatoon. Each of the 12 jurors was played by a real life Saskatchewan lawyer.

  6. Apart from the Rendell, I can actually say hand of heart that I’ve read all of these – I think it’s a first Margot! And thanks very much for the kind words too 🙂

  7. Col

    I saw a version of Buchan’s The 39 Steps in the west End last year – a bit of a comedy riff on the novel.

  8. Watching plays is a great way for a novelist to learn how to write dialogue and show instead of telling. It’s been too long since I’ve been to see one.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Susan. You can’t do much ‘telling’ in a play, and of course, dialogue is critical. So an author can certainly learn a lot from watching plays.

  9. I’ve been to see Mousetrap three times, the first time aged 10 and I’ve loved it each time, it really is a masterpiece. I didn’t realise that the Rendell had been adapted for a play, so once again I’ve learnt something new.

    • It’s a great play, isn’t it, Cleo? Among other things, I think it shows Christie’s skill as a playwright. Not all novelists are as good at other forms. The Rendell adaptation isn’t, I admit, well-known the way some other adaptations are. I haven’t seen it myself, unfortunately. I’d like to though.

      • It is a terrific play and even works well when you know the ending! I’d love to see the Rendell especially as The Unkindness of Ravens is one of my favourites… I can’t see a raven without thinking of them by their collective name following the title of this book.

  10. Next week I am going to see a stage version of Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie – a recent adaptation, not one she had a hand in. And how did I hear about this play, so I got the chance to book tickets at a theatre a short drive from my house? Via the World-Famous and Acclaimed Margot Kinberg Crime Fiction NewsBreak! What a good thing I was watching! I will report back when I’ve been….

    • Moira – Oh, I am glad the Crime Fiction News Break broadcast was helpful to you. I hope you’ll have a lovely time at the performance, and I really do hope you’ll do a post on it or at least let us know how it was.

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