It’s a Mystery!

It’s a Mystery!

Julie Anderson heads to the Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham, to see Tim Benzie’s one man show.

Stand-up comedian and award-winning playwright, Tim Benzie shares his love of cosy crime, from his childhood favourites such as Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew through to Agatha Christie’s entire oeuvre and other giants of the Golden Age of crime fiction, such as Dorothy L Sayers and GK Chesterton. He acknowledges its proclivities – these books represent the culture of the day, a largely white, educated and monied culture, in which the only non-whites are servants or villains; though he cites Edward Fisher (The Conjure Man Dies, 1932) and Walter Mosely as examples of excellent writers of Black detective fiction.

Benzie’s show is framed by a murder mystery which the audience is invited to solve and which provides a way into the conventions of the genre; a small cast of suspects (audience members), a country house (we are in the drawing room) and a contrived method of dispatch. The final, clinching clue which points us towards the killer is only vouchsafed towards the end of the show, which is, to an extent, a small cheat, but the framing device isn’t a serious puzzle, it’s really a chance for some audience participation and it enables Benzie to consider the different elements of the genre.

The setting is usually an enclosed world; a small village ─ ‘Mayhem Parva’, as coined by Colin Watson in Snobbery with Violence ─ a train, a boat or a monastery. Not for the young Benzie the rain-flecked mean streets of LA with Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, no, he wanted amateur sleuths, an elderly spinster, a Belgian refugee, a padre or an aristocrat. A Spode tea set and natural poison, not a shot of whisky and a cosh.

Benzie is amusing when talking about the ‘rules’ of writing detective fiction, like those set out by S.S. Van Dine, who insisted that the writer must play fair with the reader and give her or him every chance to solve the murder, providing ‘dog in the nighttime’ type clues. He also cites the Ten Commandments of Rev Robert Knox, who precluded supernatural interventions, twins, a superfluity of secret passages and Chinamen. The last is interesting, as Benzie points out; it was Knox’s attempt to steer the detective novel away from the ‘yellow menace’ type of villain, the racist trope so popular in the 1920s. As a Clapham aside, Saxe Rohmer (Arthur Ward) creator of Fu Manchu, met his future wife in the area, and set some of his stories here (the surgery of Dr Petrie, the hero’s sidekick, is believed to have been on Clapham South Side).

Rules are, of course, meant to be broken and Benzie shows how Christie, in particular, chose to disregard them and how her ‘whodunnits’ encompassed everything from ‘the narrator did it’ to ‘they all did it’. Indeed, as Benzie points out, the story considered to be the first ever ‘detective’ fiction – Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue – ignores the rules completely, given who did it.

We are taken through different aspects of the detective novel, setting, the corpse, evidence, suspects, motive, the logical cogitations of the detective and, finally, the revelation of the identity of the killer. We had much fun with the Cluedo board game and Benzie assumes the personalities of various sleuths, most commonly Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, though he first appears on stage with deer stalker and inverness cape (note; in the novels, Holmes wears an ulster coat, it was Basil Rathbone who first wore the caped coat). The costume changes are fun, but, on a stultifyingly warm night, they proved cumbersome and will, I’m sure, slim down and get slicker.

Benzie is most interesting and affecting, in my view, when exploring the enduring popularity of detective stories and why we love them so much, drawing on his own experience of feeling like an outsider, being gay in 1970s Brisbane. I would have liked more of this, given the innate urge we all have to define our existence and the way we use stories to help us do that. The ‘cosy’ detective story is the perfect vehicle to provide reassurance and justice in an imperfect world. We also love puzzles.

‘It’s a Mystery!’ is an entertaining and funny journey through the byways of cosy crime fiction and its TV and film adaptations. At 70 minutes it seldom falters and Benzie is a funny and engaging host. Directed by Sarah Chew, the show runs until 6 July at Bread and Roses.

  • Julie Anderson is a crime fiction writer. Her latest book ‘The Midnight Man’ is set in Clapham in 1946, published by Hobeck Books. It is the first in the Clapham Trilogy.