Apart from being a regular reader of crime fiction, T. S. Eliot also reflected on it as a critic, mainly in two essays from 1927. In “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” he celebrated The Moonstone as the first detective novel in English. Further, he concluded “Homage to Wilkie Collins: An Omnibus Review of Nine Mystery Novels” with a set of five rules to which any successful specimen of the genre should conform. Eliot also admired Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie as well as other less known authors, and most of his plays have elements of mystery.
In Murder in the Cathedral, the dialogue between Becket and the Second Tempter unequivocally echoes the Musgrave Ritual, an incantatory exchange of questions and answers from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”:
THOMAS: Who shall have it?
TEMPTER: He who will come.
THOMAS: What shall be the month?
TEMPTER: The last from the first.
Later in the play, after Becket’s murder, the Four Knights break the fourth wall and try to justify their action as if they were witnesses in a trial or crime suspects questioned by the police. Similarly, in Part I of The Family Reunion, Gerald questions Downing in order to find out about Harry’s wife’s death; in Part II, Dr. Warburton, who may remind us of J. B. Priestley’s Inspector Goole, sagaciously interrogates Harry, hoping to reach a diagnosis as an investigator hopes to solve a case.
In The Confidential Clerk, Mrs. Guzzard resolves the conundrum of Colby’s identity, applying wider knowledge and logical thinking. In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton stands accused of past crimes by two mysterious characters, Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill. Sir Henry, first appearing in The Cocktail Party as an “unidentified guest” and then as a combination of therapist and confessor, also has something of the detective, prying for motives and seeing through his patients’ deceptions.
One of these patients is Lavinia Chamberlayne. Early in the play, we learn that she has left her husband and no one knows her whereabouts. In 1926, Agatha Christie went missing for eleven days, her long absence attributed to a marital crisis or, less plausibly, an episode of amnesia. When, in Eliot’s play, Lavinia returns home, she is puzzled to find her husband surrounded by friends who claim that she has invited them by telegram. Lavinia cannot account for these telegrams, and one of her friends, Julia – a nosy old lady as fond of mystery as Miss Marple – exclaims: “Lavinia! Don’t say you’ve had a lapse of memory!”
The character who, in The Family Reunion, helps Harry to unravel the mystery of his family’s curse, curiously, is named Agatha. She speaks two crucial lines: “What we have written is not a story of detection, / Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation”. Although Agatha’s statement is undeniable, and true of all Eliot’s plays, we may also identify features of “a story of detection” in each of his dramatic plots.