Defective Detectives

On 4 December 1998, the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Boy Who fell Into A Book premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

It introduced the pulp detective Rockfist Slim and, to mark the anniversary, Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist – Simon Murgatroyd – is taking a look at the detectives created by the playwright over the decades.

Defective Detectives by Simon Murgatroyd

“When I’m not writing or rehearsing, I spend a lot of my time reading crime fiction. I tend to move from author to author, alighting on one and devouring their entire output.”
Alan Ayckbourn

Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Hercules Poirot, John Rebus. The list of great detectives whose keen intelligence and enquiring minds strike fear into criminals could go on and on.

Near the bottom of that barrel – but determined to drag his way up – you’ll find Rockfist Slim, the pulp detective who punches first and, possibly, asks questions later.

In short, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s defective detectives and centre-stage in the play The Boy Who Fell Into A Book.

Alan Ayckbourn has a professed love of the thriller genre, be it on the page or on screen. His reading list is prolific, although in recent years Nordic Noir has been a favourite from the novels of Jo Nesbø and Håkan Nesser to TV serials such as The Killing with its Faroe Island knitwear wearing detective Sarah Lund.

So it should come as no surprise that the ranks of literary detectives have been swelled by some of the playwright’s own creations; albeit often distinctly less effective than their more famous counterparts.

Defective Detectives: Slim, Hough, Honeywell & Rash as portrayed in their world premieres by Richard Derrington, John Arthur, Simon Cadell & Giles New (© Scarborough Theatre Trust, National Theatre & Tony Bartholomew)

The playwright first hit upon the idea of writing a detective thriller in 1980 with a play called Sight Unseen, which was reported in the national press as being his 25th play. Set predominantly in a suburban hallway, it saw Detective Constable Seeles aiming to solve the mystery of who killed Neville Bunker….

And this isn’t ringing bells with anyone, is it?

Sight Unseen was actually never written. Although Neville Bunker was resurrected – alongside many of the other characters intended for Sight Unseen – and put into the hastily written replacement Season’s Greetings, which kept the idea of the hallway setting, most of the characters and abandoned practically everything else.

But the idea had lodged in the playwright’s mind.

In 1983, Alan wrote his first thriller It Could Be Any One of Us, which introduced the world to the delightfully inept amateur detective Norris Honeywell, originally played by John Arthur.

John Arthur as Norris Honeywell & Graeme Eton as Mortimer in the world premiere of It Could Be Any One Of Us (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Norris was created by Alan as “a sort of English Clouseau” – referring to Peter Seller’s memorable detective in the Pink Panther movies – and very much in the mould of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot. He even has his moment of exposition in the dining room to name his suspect.

Of course, not only are Norris’s conclusions spectacularly wrong but he is faced with a problem which even Sherlock Holmes might have struggled to solve: a different murderer randomly chosen each night, which also caused its own problems for the playwright!

“Comedy thrillers are nearly as difficult to write as farces! The problem I had with writing this was that, to construct a successful whodunit, you have to fill your stage with characters who could possibly have done it. Now, I’m quite prepared to believe that a household could have one member capable of murder – but five or six…?”

The next Ayckbourn detective has arguably the dubious distinction of being one of the most repugnant characters the playwright has ever created, but is probably the only one with any real talent as a detective. Quite why anyone would hire the most odious and shifty of characters except in dire circumstances – or perhaps blackmail – is anyone’s guess.

Benedict Hough is the private detective featured in A Small Family Business, originally portrayed to great acclaim by Simon Cadell in 1987 at the National Theatre and followed in 2014 with disgusting success by Matthew Cottle in the National’s revival of the play.

Matthew Cottle as Benedict Clough menacing Debra Gillet as Poppy in the National Theatre’s 2014 revival of A Small Family Business (© Johan Persson)

Although it’s hard to quite pinpoint the inspiration for Hough, the grubby raincoat and his sheer tenacity does bring to mind the likes of television’s Columbo – albeit with more grease – and all those other down-at-heel and scruffy gumshoes who always get their man.

Of course as a character that his creator once described as “the Serpent in the garden”, Hough is hardly a paradigm of the detective profession with his appalling personal habits, lack of moral fibre and corruptness leading to a bloody and deserved downfall.

More morally upstanding is hard-boiled hero Rockfist Slim, a detective of the old school of hard-boiled noir detectives cut from the same clothe as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. A man whose fists and pistol do much of the talking.

Rockfist, who appears in The Boy Who Fell Into A Book and was first portrayed by Richard Derrington in 1998 and Nicolas Colicos in the 2014 musical adaptation, is Alan’s most endearing defective detective who finds his unlikely match in 10 year old Kevin, reader of the pulp novels Rockfist appears in.

“I liked the incongruity of a real hard boiled old private eye being forced to tag along with a kid and the slow affection that grows up between them; the way that very often the kid is more knowledgeable about the world they’re getting into than the detective is prepared to admit.”

Evelyn Hoskins as Kevin, John Barr as Gran Wolf, & Nicolas Colicos as Rockfist Slim in 2014 musical of The Boy Who Fell Into A Book (© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

Tenacious and dependable, Rockfist is an affectionate tribute to both the noir genre of thriller- writing – aptly given the play’s celebration of books – and a nod to the classic buddy-cop movies where mis-matched and unlikely heroes have to rely on each other to save the day.

Alan’s most recent venture into thriller territory was in 2005 with Improbable Fiction. During the second act, the unwritten characters and ideas of Pendon Writers’ Circle spring to life with mysteries to solve.

Foremost amongst them is poetry quoting DCI Jim Rash and his smitten DS Fiona Longstaff -creations of the Circle member and crime-writer Vivvi Dickens, who is as lovestruck and ignored by her own boyfriend as Longstaff is by her superior officer.

Vivvi’s suave Rash – originally portrayed by Giles New in 2005 and Start Fox in 2006 – brings to mind the great gentlemen detectives, such as Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn and Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey.

Elsa (Laura Doddington) is interviewed by DCI Jim Rash (Stuart Fox) in the 2006 tour of Improbable Fiction (© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

Like The Boy Who Fell Into A BookImprobable Fiction celebrates the power of the imagination, creating another memorable detective who finally solves the crime through some extraordinary deduction and not a little pretension; although he hasn’t the wits to notice his DS’s obsession with him.

All these detectives in their own ways reflect and pay tribute to the great fictional detective tradition, of which Alan Ayckbourn is obviously very fond even when poking fun at it.

Honeywell, Hough, Slim and Rash. More defective than effective as detectives, but never anything less than entertaining in their investigations.

Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and the administrator of his official website www.alanayckbourn.net.

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