They Think Me Macbeth, and Ambition is My Folly*

More then 400 years after its first known production, Shakespeare’s Macbeth still plays an important role in theatre, literature, and in Western culture. There are, of course, many books, commentaries, and other pieces of writing that reflect on the play and its significance.

And it shouldn’t be surprising that Macbeth (we’re not in a theatre, so I can use the play’s proper name) also shows up in crime fiction. It is, after all, a play about a crime, among other things. And it shows how that crime impacts the people who are mixed up in it.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that she was a fan of Shakespeare’s work, and that includes Macbeth. In Hallowe’en Party, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young girl who had boasted that she saw a murder. Only hours after she made her claim, someone drowned her in the apple-bobbing bucket at a Hallowe’en party. As Poirot gets to know the people in the village of Woodleigh Common, where the victim lived, he also learns the history of the place, and the history of some of the characters’ interactions. And that leads him to some important clues about the murder. At one point, he compares one of the characters to Lady Macbeth, saying,

‘‘I have always wondered…exactly what sort of woman Lady Macbeth was. What would she be like if you met her in real life?’’

Poirot is not a fanciful person; it’s just that that Lady Macbeth is a strong and well-developed character who’s not easy to forget. There’s also, of course By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which takes its title from a line in the play.

Ngaio Marsh’s last Inspector Alleyn novel, Light Thickens, features Macbeth, a play that Marsh directed more than once. In the story, Sir Dougal Macdougal is set to play the lead in a production of the Scottish Play, to be held at London’s Dolphin Theatre. As theatre fans will know, this is considered an unlucky play, and there are people who won’t produce or act in it. But Peregrine Jay, who owns the Dolphin, wants to go ahead with it. Some odd things happen (missing equipment, for instance), but all of the rehearsals go well, and cast is ready for opening night. Six weeks into the play’s run, Macdougal is murdered on stage. Inspector Alleyn investigates, looking into the victim’s relationships with fellow cast members, as well as his personal life. And in the end, he finds out who the killer is, and how this murder is related to the other strange events at the theatre.

James Yaffe wrote a short series featuring Dave, an investigator for the Mesa Grande, Colorado, Public Defender’s Office. He does his job well, but the real sleuth in the series is his mother, who’s moved from their native New York City to Mesa Grande. In Mom Doth Murder Sleep, the local amateur theatre group decides on a production of Macbeth, with Martin Osborn set to take the lead role. Sally Michaels has the role of Lady Macbeth. Dave’s friend and co-worker, Roger Meyer, is also in the cast. On opening night, Osborn is stabbed onstage, and Sally is the most likely suspect. In fact, she is arrested and charged with the crime. When Dave finds out about the case from Roger, he sees no reason to doubt that Sally is the killer. But his mother sees things differently and persuades him to look into the case more deeply. When he does, Dave finds that more than one person had very good reason to want to kill Martin Osborn.

There’s also Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That? (Oh, come on! Could I resist the chance to add a Charles Paris mystery with a topic like this?). In that novel, Paris is ‘resting between roles’ when his agent calls to tell him he’s gotten a ‘play as cast’ contract. The production is Macbeth, and the location is the Pintero Theatre, Warminster. ‘Play as cast’ roles are notorious for being time-consuming and difficult, but Paris doesn’t have much choice. So, he accepts the contract and work on the play begins. The role of Duncan has been given to the legendary Warnock Belvedere. He’s gifted on the stage, but in real life, is arrogant, egotistical, sexist and high-handed. So, as you can imagine, he manages to alienate just about everyone in the cast and crew. There are other hurdles, too, with this production, but little by little, the cast and crew get ready. One day, rehearsal goes especially badly, and everyone decides to drown their sorrows. Paris has quite a lot more to drink than is judicious, so he lurches back to his dressing room to try to get some rest. He sees Belvedere, who’s also had quite a bit to drink. Paris falls asleep and wakes up at three in the morning. He soon sees that he’s been locked in to the theatre. He also discovers that Belvedere has died. He calls the police, and they begin to investigate. Once they establish that Belvedere’s been murdered, Paris sees that he will be a suspect, since he was in the theatre all night, and can’t account for his actions. In order to clear his name, he decides to do a little investigating on his own – and to avoid the police as much as he can until he finds out the truth.

One of K.B. Owen’s protagonists is Concordia Wells. She is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College, in the last years of the 19th Century. And, although she doesn’t set out to be an investigator, she finds herself drawn into more than one murder. In Dangerous and Unseemly, for instance, she is supervising the school’s upcoming production of Macbeth, something she hadn’t planned to do, but has ended up doing by default, so to speak. While she’s busy with the details of the play, the college’s Bursar, Ruth Lyman, dies in an apparent case of suicide. It’s not, though, and it’s not the only bad thing happening at the school. Some malicious pranks, and even arson, also happen. Concordia knows that if someone doesn’t act, her school may have to close. So, she decides to find out the truth behind what’s been going on, even though criminal investigation is simply not ‘ladylike.’

See what I mean? Macbeth has been a part of our culture for a very long time and shows up in all sorts of different ways in crime fiction. Considering the play’s themes and plot, that isn’t surprising.

ps. Thank you, Royal Shakespeare Company, for this fabulous ‘photo of Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth! Their production will be on at Stratford-Upon-Avon until September, and then it moves to London.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Take a Break.


Filed under Agatha Christie, James Yaffe, K.B. Owen, Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett

20 responses to “They Think Me Macbeth, and Ambition is My Folly*

  1. Big admission here: I’ve never been able to stomach any of Shakespeare’s work. I can’t get past the language, and try as I might, I’m bored to tears before I get a couple of pages in. Thus do I meekly proffer my sincere apologies to the Bard:
    “I have labored, dear William, but alas and forsooth, thine writing I canst abide and henceforth must forbear.” 🙂

  2. “By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes…” What a fantastic line! It wasn’t my favorite Christie mystery, but the Shakespearian idea just added such a creepy touch to the story. I enjoy Shakespeare’s comedies more, (not that I’ve read many since college if I’m being honest 🙂 ) but he could certainly stage a dark, tragic scene!

  3. While riding on a bus outside Inverness, Scotland, I spotted a sign that read “Cawdor Castle”. Holy Moly, I thought, that’s where Macbeth killed Duncan.
    It isn’t.
    There was a Scottish king named Macbeth and he did kill King Duncan I (in battle) – but he never was Thane of Cawdor. Shakespeare made it all up. Fancy that! Not that much different than Hollywood today.

    • No, not much different at all, Almost Iowa. And thanks for sharing that story. I’d have probably thought the same thing if I’d seen that sign. Interesting to compare are and life, isn’t it?

  4. mudpuddle

    admirable post! imaginative and provocative! i wonder how many of S’s plays have been used as props in mysteries…? i’ve got a copy of “Comedy of Terrors” by George Herman, but i haven’t read it yet… soon, soon…

    • I hope you’ll get the chance to read the Herman soon. If you do, I hope you’ll post about it, Mudpuddle. In the meantime…thanks for the kind words. My guess is (I’ve not done an actual count), several of Shakespeare’s plays have found their way into crime fiction. They really lend themselves, I think.

  5. Ah, my favourite Shakespeare! Mainly because of the great Judi Dench/Ian McKellen production – the filmed version, that is. Sadly I never got to see the stage version – another stop on my ‘when they invent the time-machine’ tour. Can’t think of any direct examples to add of the play being used in this way, but I did read a novelised version of it by David Hewson and AJ Hartley a few years back. Hmm… it was OK as a sword and sandal thriller, but didn’t really stand comparison to the original…

    • Not to be unfair to Hewson and Hartley, FictionFan, since I never read that adaptation, but I would find it hard put to believe it would be as good as the original. There’s just something about it, isn’t there? I’d have loved to see Dench and McKellen live, too. It must have been wonderful! Well, at least we still have the filmed version to remind us..

  6. Spade & Dagger

    The Lady Macbeth ‘syndrome’ of trying to wash the blood from her hands certainly crops up in crime novels in many guises, with culprits compulsively attempting to remove real or imaginary blood (or other materials) & the guilt caused by their actions.

    • That’s quite true, Spade & Dagger. Guilt is very often a part of taking a life, and we see how different people cope with that aspect of it all through the genre.

  7. tracybham

    How interesting, all those books featuring Macbeth. I will have to seek some of them out. It is possible I have read both the book by Ngaio Marsh and the one by Simon Brett, but it so, it was long ago.

    • I know what you mean about long-ago books, Tracy. I have a whole list of books like that, and I often think I ought to take the time to re-read them. But there’s never that sort of spare time… And, yes, there’s lot of Macbeth in the genre. And the genre is in Macbeth, too, I think.

  8. Pingback: Writing Links…4/23/18 – Where Genres Collide

  9. Cartriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and a Spot of Toil and Trouble is a marvellous addition to her historical series set in 1920s and 30s Scotland – and features a troublesome performance of Macbeth at a suitable Scottish castle. As you might guess from the title – Macbeth is full of quotes, isn’t it?

  10. Col

    My son made me watch a film adaptation of this last year, my eyes have only just stopped bleeding. As an aside, Jo Nesbo’s latest book is titled Macbeth. I wonder if its themes mirror the play? Not buying it myself so I shall rely on other’s for some insight.

    • I haven’t read the Nesbø, Col, so I don’t know whether it mirrors the play or picks up on its themes. I’ll be interested, too, in what others may say about it.

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