Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Unbreakable Alibi

I’ve watched another in the 1982 TV series of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime, starring Francesca Annis and James Warwick as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This story was The Unbreakable Alibi, and really it is a skit on the work of Freeman Wills Crofts, the alibi king, whose patient cop Inspector French tirelessly unravelled the most complex alibis. You tend to wonder why criminals in the French era bothered with such elaborate plans when the great man had his train timetable ready to consult at every opportunity.

The story was light but agreeable, with a bit more substance in terms of plot than some of the others I’ve seen in this series. As ever, Annis’ vivacious performance keeps it all going pretty well.

It did make me wonder about the emphasis that crime writers place on alibis. The high water mark was surely in the Golden Age, when Crofts was at his peak, in the 20s and 30s. Writers did rather depend on the trains running to time. After J.J. Connington wrote The Two Tickets Puzzle, Dorothy L. Sayers doffed her cap to him and his book when elaborating upon his idea a year or so later in Five Red Herrings.

Today, alibis still play a part in a good many books - although the same tends not to be true of train timetables! Alibis crop up occasionally in my own work, but I haven’t tended to devote a lot of space to them, preferring to concentrate on other ‘techniques of misdirection’ when putting together a whodunit-style plot. But one of these days, perhaps, I’ll try to create an ‘unbreakable’ alibi for one of my own culprits....


Anonymous said...

Martin - Really interesting post on alibis! Thanks for discussing this. I agree that alibis are less of a focus than they were. One reason, in my opinion, might be that today, we know more about psychology and the way the mind words. Perhaps that just may be more interesting than which train a person was on, or whether there's a hotel bill somewhere. That said, though, I do get annoyed when an author has taken no trouble to create characters who make an effort to dissociate themselves from a crime.

Fiona said...

You could bring the train theme right up to date for the unbreakable alibi -

Suspect: I couldn't possibly have gone by train on Sunday because there are the usual cancellations due to track working.

DCI Aha! Last Sunday all the trains ran on time so I know you are lying!

But maybe that's too far fetched?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I like to read alibis, but I don't like the whole focus to be on them because it gets boring. I love your "techniques of misdirection"--it's very like a magician misdirecting the eyes of the audience, isn't it?

The Merry said...

I couldn't take a lot of the older "train alibi" mysteries seriously after I saw the Monty Python "Train Sketch."

Inspector: I suggest you murdered your father for his seat reservation.
Tony: I may have had the motive, inspector, but I could not have done it, for I have only just arrived from Gillingham on the 8.13 and here's my restaurant car ticket to prove it.
Jasmina: The 8.13 from Gillingham doesn't have a restaurant car.
John: It's a standing buffet only.
Tony: Oh, er... did I say the 8.13, I meant the 7.58 stopping train.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments, and I do love the Monty Python reference! Fiona, not far-fetched at all, alas....