Shakespearean Allusion in Crime Fiction (2016) by Lisa Hopkins

Source: Review Copy (Palgrave Macmillan)

Spoiler Alert: In the fifth paragraph there is a major spoiler in regards to Harriet Rutland’s Blue Murder.

Shakespeatean Allusion in Crime Fiction

This book immediately caught my interest, as I have been aware of the allusions detective fiction writers make to Shakespeare and other Jacobean playwrights (click here for my own brief musings on the topic), but I have yet to read a book which looks at such allusions in depth, which seeks to find the significances and purposes of such borrowings. Allusions to Shakespeare abound in a variety of subgenres of crime fiction and Hopkins cites a wide range of examples, including a mixture of well-known and more obscure authors. Readers, who like myself prefer Golden Age detective fiction, will be pleased to know that such authors are demonstrably present throughout the book. Hopkins draws on more well-known Golden Age writers such as Christie, Sayers, Tey, Marsh and Mitchell, but she also looks at comparatively less well known authors such as John Bude, Nicholas Blake, Mavis Doriel Hay, Alan Melville and Christopher St John Sprigg. TV programmes are also included in Hopkin’s investigation of her topic, such as Wire in the Blood, Lewis, Inspector Morse, Endeavour and Midsummer Murders.

William Shakespeare

Overall I think Hopkins’ does a good job of examining the effect Shakespearean allusions have on a crime text, although in some chapters more than others, I think her style becomes more descriptive than analytical; a case of evidencing numerous example of crime fiction alluding to a specific play, but without any attaching these examples to a particular line of argument. In her introduction Hopkins also attempts to look globally at why crime fiction has borrowed so heavily from Shakespeare. I think further evidence in this section would have made it stronger, as she begins by asserting that ‘first and most obviously, Shakespeare is an unimpeachable source of cultural capital,’ and she does go on to doing a reading of a work by Christie in this light. But I think what needed to be more overtly addressed was why out of all the many writers who can be seen as ‘cultural capital,’ Shakespeare is one most chosen. Hopkins suggests that it is because he is ‘perceived as popular enough to be free of any connotations of elitism or inaccessibility,’ yet I don’t feel this really gets to the root of the question. Another purpose Hopkins cites for crime writers alluding to Shakespeare is that ‘Shakespearean allusion can… lend authority’ to what characters say, especially if they are a detective. This idea works well with Hopkins’ Miss Marple example, but I feel her final chapter undermines this purpose, as this is a chapter which questions the meaning and weight attached to Shakespeare and his work. One idea I was certainly dubious of was when Hopkins suggested that writers included Shakespearean references for their readers to spot, so that when the reader has been ‘fool[ed]’ by the author as to who did the murder, they can still feel good about themselves for having spotted the literary references.

Hopkins then goes onto suggest that Shakespearean allusions help to make the detective Inspector Alleyncharacter (who has to do unpalatable things such as prying and snooping), ‘an insider,’ citing Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn as an example of a detective who quotes Shakespeare a lot. Not entirely convinced of this notion, as I think Alleyn’s ability to ingratiate himself with the suspects and their milieu is more to do with his class status and his general demeanour as a “Gentleman”. I think the strongest reason Hopkins puts forward is that Shakespearean allusions can be used to tackle the issue of lack of realism in a detective novel, ‘by stressing’ the artificiality of the text and the suggestion of using the allusions as a pattern for the events of the novel, which in turn can aid the reader in solving the crime.

However, after perhaps a slightly wobbly introduction, I think Hopkins hits her stride in her next chapter which discusses ‘the most basic use to which Shakespeare is put in detective fiction, which is to assist with an enquiry into who the detective is, who the criminal is, and what empowers the one to track down and punish the other.’ In retrospect I think this was probably my favourite chapter and the three main plays focused on are Macbeth, Hamlet and Twelfth Night. The ‘idea of the double’ is of paramount importance in this chapter looking at how Shakespearean allusions can support notions of detectives being the criminal’s double or of the reader themselves becoming the criminal’s double, as they are ‘almost as avid for the crime as the criminal.’

With Macbeth in particular Hopkins addresses the themes of what is evil and whether it is Macbethreadable in people’s external appearances and also how writers have used Lady Macbeth, a female criminal icon, to explore domestic happiness and marriage. Hopkins’ exploration of the latter topic certainly piqued my interest as I enjoyed her analysis of Sayers’ Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon and in turn it made me think of Harriet Rutland’s Blue Murder, where the female killer appropriates Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech to express her frustration at the role society proscribes for women. Hopkins’ exploration of Lady Macbeth also considers the issue of female villainy and how these allusions show ‘the readiness of society to believe’ women who are unconventional as guilty or transgressive and because of this assumption writers can use allusions to Lady Macbeth as genuine clues of guilt or as red herrings.

Hopkins’ exploration of Hamlet in this chapter, centres around ideas of ‘truth, revengeAntidote to Venom and suicide’. She begins by looking at how references to Hamlet are used to contrast with the protagonists, who are so un-Hamlet like; an idea she supports with interesting readings of Freeman Wills Croft’s Antidote to Venom and Charles Kingston’s Murder in Piccadilly. However, I think her idea of Hamlet allusions being a means of ‘tell[ing] the truth’ needed to be more elaborated before she went onto her examples (which include Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes). Moreover, during these examples I think she also needed to emphasis her line of argument more consistently and I would say her strongest example was Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead, where Hopkins looks at the Hamlet device of a play within a play to prove criminal guilt and in the Marsh novel this is mirrored in the crime reconstruction Inspector Alleyn directs.

Allusions to Hamlet, according to Hopkins, are also used in crime novels in order to explore the appropriateness of criminal punishment and justice and whether the detective becomes ‘tainted in the process,’ citing Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey as an example (echoing Kelly C. Connelly’s article ‘From Detective Fiction to Detective Literature: Psychology in Hamletthe Novels of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margaret Miller’ (2007)). Many fictional sleuths allow the guilty to escape or commit suicide, as alternatives to legal justice and Hopkins highlights how these moment invoke Hamlet. It does seem though that she erroneously includes By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Christie as an example of Poirot permitting suicide, but on the other hand I did enjoy her reading of The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake, which effectively supports her idea that ‘shared knowledge of Hamlet… [breeds] a complicity between [the] detective and [the] criminal’ and her overall assertion that ‘arguably, injecting Hamlet or Macbeth into a detective novel increases its moral power by forcing the reader into at least a temporary identification with the criminal… making them understand the strength and nature of temptation.’

In terms of Twelfth Night, Hopkins looks at female behaviour and doubling again, but for me this latter part of the argument felt weaker and I think it would have been better if she had clarified the role of doubling in Twelfth Night more overtly, before trying to explain its link to various crime novels. Out of the examples she does give though, her reading of A Murder is Announced is the most sound and engaging.

Twelfth Night

Hopkins then devotes an entire chapter to Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she looks at the issue of ‘land ownership and the cultural meanings of woodland,’ which she argues is ‘an increasingly pressing concern which has featured prominently in crime fiction.’ Hopkins interestingly discusses the idea of the woods being ‘a border between the civic and the wild… the borderland between what is acceptable and what is not.’ A key example Hopkins gives of how this links to crime fiction is the way in which in Midsummer Night’s Dream and in many crime novels, the woods is a place where violence against women occurs and a place where masculine identity is asserted. Hopkins also explores Margery Allingham’s use of woodlands and allusions to Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Allingham utilises such references to emphasise the ‘desecration’ of a crime scene for example in The Fashion in Shrouds, or in The Beckoning Lady to look at the theme of marriage.

Hopkins’ next chapter shifts focus to discussing how Shakespearean allusions are used to ‘investigate… questions about social and national identities… [and are] tasked with negotiating the meanings of foreignness and Englishness.’ The three primary plays focused on in this chapter are Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Richard III. I enjoyed reading Hopkins’ pairing of Sayers’ Gaudy Night, Clouds of Witnesses and Unnatural Death with Othello, in terms of how Sayers treats the theme of insiders and outsiders and the question Curtainsof how much do we know about those close to us? In fact as Hopkins’ suggests the killers in novels such as several of Sayers are invariably “insiders” who need to be made “outsiders” due to their crimes. Another section of this chapter which I found engaging was Hopkins’ reading of Christie’s Curtain, in light of Othello, in particular the character of Iago. In comparison I felt that Hopkins’ examination of allusions to The Merchant of Venice more descriptive than analytical and I think her line

of argument needed to be more strongly joined to the examples she explored. Another lineOthello of argument in this chapter which needed more attention was Hopkins’ suggestion that in pre WW2 detective fiction, allusions to the plays focused on in this chapter ‘reflect[ed] tensions about migration and empire.’ This was an idea which intrigued me, but I didn’t feel it was sufficiently addressed. Another idea that I liked in this chapter was Hopkins’ assertion that ‘what Shakespeare and Englishness mean to each other becomes particularly pressing in detective stories written during the Second World War.’ An argument I think which is more fully explored and I enjoyed her readings of various Edmund Crispin novels.

Hopkins’ final chapter looks at crime novels which involve a supposedly lost piece of writing from Shakespeare. I think Hopkins’ convincingly argues her idea that such texts ‘invite… us to speculate on what the world would lose if it lost a Shakespeare text, and in so doing… take us to the nub of the question of what Shakespeare is for and what he can contribute to detective fiction.’ Hopkins’ draws on a wide range of examples, including some from Golden Age detective writers such as Edmund Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding, Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Dolphin and Michael Innes’ The Long Farewell. Her reading of Death at the Dolphin was especially interesting, suggesting how responses to or allusions to Shakespeare can reveal character vulgarity, insincerity and commercialism and Hopkins also suggests that Marsh in moments such as these is revealing her ‘unease… about whether Shakespeare retains any meaning.’ Hopkins also uses examples from modern authors such as Laurie King and Susan Hill, posing the question of whether the over use of Shakespeare has reduced or distorted his significance or meaning. The chapter rounds off with a brief look at the Doctor Who episode, The Shakespeare Code.

The Shakespeare Code

Overall I think this was certainly an interesting read, piquing my interest in giving Allingham’s work more of a go and also motivating me to give Crispin’s work a re-read. Hopkins’ definitely explores a wide range of effects Shakespearean allusions can have in a crime fiction text and despite not agreeing with all of her ideas, (some of which needed joining with their examples more thoroughly), her work has stimulated me and given me a great deal of food for thought. The attention given to Golden Age detective fiction also made this an enjoyable read, as it helped me to look at texts I had read in a different light. Her writing style is accessible and engaging, breaking complex ideas down into manageable chunks, though I think there are a few occasions where some of her chapter arguments became submerged beneath the breadth of examples she gives. But on the whole this is a thought provoking book and one which definitely adds to existing research on crime fiction.

Rating: 4.25/5


  1. So here’s a coincidence for you – I finished Leo Bruce’s Case with Four Clowns last night, and in the closing stages there is a reference to the ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech (in fact, that exact line)…doubly weird because your next book appears to be Case for Three Detectives… WOAoOOoOOOoOOOOAooAooaooooaaaaoooOO.

    Liked by 1 person

    • haah that is quite a number of coincidences – any more and we might actually be in a detective novel! One omission I did notice in this book was reference to John Dickson Carr. Having read more of his work do you think Carr does use allusions to Shakespeare much?


      • Oh, crikey, now you’re asking. I’m not really sure of anything off the top of my head, but then I tend to look at other things through the lens of “are they referencing Carr?” than vice versa. Inevitably there will be something – I can’t believe there wouldn’t be in the vast body of Carr’s work, especially his historical novels – but you really need TomCat or Sergio or Puzzle Doctor for this kind of analysis!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. How unfair to include “Nicholas Blake” among all those “comparatively less well known” writers. Poor C. Day-Lewis! His books are still very well known among veteran mystery fans. It’s sad that simply because a writer’s books are out of print and unknown to young people he gets dumped in with a bunch of genuinely obscure writers that many people would never have heard of if it weren’t for the British Library Crime Classics series. And is that a coincidence? Every one of those other minor writers in that list are part of that series. Very interesting. I’m curious if Hopkins included Sara Woods (out of print, of course) whose mystery novels about lawyer Anthony Maitland take their titles from Shakespeare dialogue. Is there a chapter about epigrams and titles alone? There’s a rich vein waiting to be mined in mystery and crime fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well I know to readers like us Nicholas Blake is fairly well known, but to your average person on the street, they are far more likely to know Agatha Christie or Sayers than they would Blake. So therefore in relation to Christie, Blake is less well known. I did wonder myself whether Hopkins has read a number of British Library reprints, as such novels would be tricky to buy second hand. As far as I can remember I don’t think Wood’s work is mentioned. Hopkins’ book works thematically so she doesn’t have a chapter devoted to just epigrams or titles alone, though the evidence she uses in her chapters sometimes comes from these sources.


    • Hasn’t Blake’s work been reprinted recently? Only last year I bought a fresh copy of “The Widow’s Cruise”. I think all of his mysteries are available now as both e-books and printed books.


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