The Play’s The Thing

There are plenty of versatile crime writers around, but how many of them compare to the late Michael Gilbert? A recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for a career of outstanding achievement – and various other honours – he is best known as a smooth and highly accomplished crime novelist, whose range of settings and story-lines was remarkably wide.

But Gilbert did much more than write novels and a large number of short stories. He wrote plays for the stage, and also for radio and television. All this in addition to his day job as a partner in a prominent London law firm. Now, posthumously, Robert Hale have published The Man Who Could Not Sleep, edited and introduced by John Cooper, who co-wrote with Barry Pike a superb book about collecting detective fiction which ran to a couple of editions some years back.

What is so admirable about this new book is that it contains two radio plays, and two synopses for radio plays that were never made. It’s a brave publishing venture that all Gilbert fans will welcome. But I think it has a wider relevance, because it’s a reminder that radio is a terrific medium for crime fiction. The enormous popularity of the revival on radio and CD of old radio serials written by Francis Durbridge and featuring his suave sleuth Paul Temple is evidence of the appeal of pacy crime fiction with twists and cliff-hangers aplenty, to a new generation of radio listeners.

And then there is the stage play. Cooper mentions in introducing the book that Gilbert wrote four stage plays, including A Clean Kill, which derived one plot element from The White Crow, a Golden Age mystery by the wayward but brilliant Philip Macdonald. Gilbert enjoyed some success in the theatre, but of course the definitive mystery stage play (actually based on a short story) is Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which seems likely to run forever in London.

Christie wrote several other stage plays – Black Coffee, for instance, was turned into a novel by Charles Osborne, as was Spider’s Web, which was also filmed quite successfully. When she adapted her extraordinary novel And Then There Were None for the stage, she was even brave enough to change the ending, a lead followed when the story was filmed. But there are many other crime writers who have enjoyed success with original work for the stage.

Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, later turned into a movie starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, is an acknowledged tour de force. Almost as good is Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. Late in his career, Francis Durbridge wrote a number of plays that enjoyed runs in the West End, although none of them is especially striking in comparison to the classics by Shaffer and Levin. Unfortunately, neither Shaffer, with Murderer, nor Levin, with the macabre and rather under-estimated Veronica’s Room, was able to repeat the extraordinary success of the plays for which they remain renowned.

Some of the best crime plays remain staples of local theatre groups for many years. Take, for example, Trap for a Lonely Man by the French writer Robert Thomas. This marvellously ingenious story, which has been filmed more than once, is frequently performed and remains an object lesson in how to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes. I first saw it performed in Chester in the1960s, and I can still recall the mounting excitement created by the twists and turns of the plot.

It takes great skill, I think, to write a truly gripping crime stage play. Radio plays, television scripts and film screenplays are easier, because tricky camera work and other effects can help to build suspense. The theatre is very demanding. But the best crime plays, like Trap for a Lonely Man, stay in the memory for a very long time.

(This article first appeared at