The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

(Updated December 2022 following the BBC series Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley on the Mystery Queen and fascinating evidence from the AC archive.)

This is part of a talk I gave for Care Experience & Culture about Interrupted Childhoods earlier this year. I wanted to discuss in a bit more detail about one particular inspirational story, Someone to Love Us (2010) and the mysterious link with Agatha Christie who was sometimes inspired to write her murder mysteries based in part on real-life events.

The Mousetrap, is a murder mystery play which opened in London’s West End in 1952 and ran continuously until 16 March 2020, when the stage performances had to be temporarily discontinued during the COVID-19 pandemic, then it re-opened on 17 May 2021. This year is the 70th anniversary of when the play first opened and the cast are touring both in the UK and Australia.

The play begins as news spreads of a murder in London. A group of seven strangers find themselves snowed in at a remote countryside guesthouse. When a police sergeant arrives, the guests discover – to their horror – that a killer is in their midst! Lucy Worsley in her latest BBC programme Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley on the Mystery Queen, says: ‘He tells everybody that the victim was a woman who, years before, had been responsible for the death of a little boy in her care. Was she murdered in revenge? Taking inspiration from the real life O’Neill case, Agatha imagines that the surviving brother could be the vengeful killer.’ [1] One by one, the suspicious characters reveal their sordid pasts. Which one is the murderer? Who will be their next victim?

Lucy Worsley writes that, Queen Mary was asked to select a gift for her eightieth birthday by the BBC and opted for a new Agatha Christie play. ‘Agatha donated her writer’s fee to a charity for children, an appropriate gesture because the plot was inspired by’[2] a true event. The play was based on a short story ‘Three Blind Mice’, published in the US in 1950. It took at its heart the true story of the horrific abuse of two young orphan boys, one of whom was murdered by foster parents who were supposed to protect and look after them whilst World War Two was raging throughout Europe. Terence O’Neill and his brother, Dennis, were taken to a foster home in 1945 on the Shropshire, England farm of Reginald and Esther Gough. ‘The boys had been starved, beaten, terrified and humiliated virtually on a daily basis and later that year, Dennis died at the age of 12 from injuries he had sustained.’[3]

A tragic story and if you have seen The Mousetrap, you will know Christie portrays Terence, the boy who survived the horrific abuse as an adult, coming back to seek revenge for what happened in his childhood. There was an enquiry and this influenced the 1948 Children’s Act. That young boy suffered terribly after the death of his brother but it would be 65 years before Terence O’Neill could face writing his memoir, Someone to Love Us (2010).

Christie took a tragic story and in my view made it more tragic by using a care experience criminal stereotype, i.e. people who have been in foster care or adopted are often portrayed in crime thrillers as murderers or serial killers. We can see that even in the mid 20th Century, the criminalisation of those who had been in care was evident and more than that, Christie reinforced this belief. This was surprising as usually Christie portrayed her orphans sympathetically albeit often limited socially and intellectually.

Dr. Dee Michell, takes this one step further and questions the validity of the play in today’s current climate: ‘…why is a play that perpetrates a stereotype of a former foster child as a damaged, vengeful serial killer still running?…I confess to enjoying The Mousetrap—the acting was terrific, the script good, the set meticulous, and there’s an excellent twist. But surely it’s time to stop lauding a play that perpetrates a harmful stereotype.'[4]

The recent Care Review recommended that Care Experience be made a protected characteristic which will ultimately give Care Experienced children, young people and adults the same protection against discrimination under the Equality Act as age, disability, race, religion, gender reassignment, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity and marriage and civil partnerships. Terry Galloway is travelling around the country asking local councils to adopt the motion and in the north has had huge success. As the campaign builds momentum, it will be interesting to see how protected characteristic would affect the representation of orphans and care experience and in particular those awful petitions that ‘discriminate’ against children’s homes.

Dr Julius Green, author of Agatha Christie: A Life in Theatre, says of the play: ‘It was in 1945 and a very important case – this awful story of the boys who were sent into foster care. This forms the back story of The Mousetrap  is not the actual action of the piece, but it is referenced throughout it as one of the reasons for the motivation of the characters and the reason why people are there. For audiences of 1952, it would have been fresh in their memories. They would have understood the referencing in the play.'[5]

Agatha Christie has written “From this real life happening, happening. I took the idea for the mouse trap.”[6]

The portrayal of an imaginary grown-up Terence, is the complete opposite of the sympathy and understanding shown towards the orphan Maureen Summerhayes in Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), who was adopted as a child: ‘I was an adopted child. My mother parted with me and I had every advantage, as they call it. And it’s always hurt – always – always – to know that you weren’t really wanted, that your mother could let you go.‘ This sympathy could be because Agatha’s mother was adopted, and never really got over it.

Agatha’s grandfather died young and her maternal grandmother was 27, poor and left to look after four small children. Her elder sister married a well-off American, and offered to adopt one of the children. Agatha’s grandmother chose to send Clarissa Margaret “Clara” Miller, née Boehmer.[7]

In Agatha Christie’s autobiography there is a mirror conversation and she describes how her mother had all the so-called advantages of a comfortable home and a good education – what she lost and what nothing could replace was the carefree life with her brothers in her own home. Christie goes on to say: ‘Quite often I have seen in correspondence columns inquiries from anxious parents asking if they ought to let a child go to others because of the ‘advantages she will have which I cannot provide – such as a first class education’. I always long to cry out: Don’t let the child go. Her own home, her own people, love, and the security of belonging – what does the best education in the world mean against that?…the feeling always remained of ‘not being wanted’. I think she [Clara, Agatha’s mother] held it against my grandmother until her dying day.'[8]

When O’Neill found out he had been put into The Mousetrap, he wrote: ‘Every audience is instructed not to give away the twist in the ending, but I am not breaking any rules by telling you that the plot is about me, as an adult, coming back to seek revenge for what happened in my childhood. As if I would do such a thing![9]

As far as representation is concerned I believe a writer’s role is to represent and when this is done well it is a joy to read. The orphan stories of my childhood were a great comfort and I’m pleased to see some brilliant representations of care experience by writers who either write from life or do their research well. Modern fictional favourites include Island (1999) by Jane Rogers, The Panopticon (2004) by Jenni Fagan and Girl With Dove (2018) by Sally Bayley.

Refs:

[1] Worsley, Lucy. Agatha Christie: Lucy Worsley on the Mystery Queen. Series 1:3. Unfinished Portrait [Television Broadcast] London: BBC One; 2022 Nov 22.

[2] Worsley, Lucy. Agatha Christie: The Sunday Times Top 10 Bestseller. Hodder & Stoughton, 2022.

[3] Musgrove, Nell, and Deidre Michell. The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia: Just Like a Family? Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.

[4] Michell, Dee. ‘My question is…‘ DrDee-ThinkingOutLoud

[5] Worsley Op. cit.

[6] Ibid. Dr Julius Green provides evidence of AC’s influence from the Agatha Christie archive, a newspaper cutting from the Sunday Mirror, 1966.

[7] Christie, Agatha. Mrs McGinty’s Dead. New York: Pocket Books, 1970. P.15-16

[8] Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. London: HarperCollins, 2017. p.12-13

[9] O’Neill, Terence. Someone to Love Us: The Shocking True Story of Two Brothers Fostered into Brutality and Neglect. London: HarperNonFiction, 2010. p.308

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