The Real Inspector Hound is a one-act play modeled after the parlor mystery genre that was extremely popular at the time. Written between 1961-62, it is considered one of Tom Stoppard’s early works. The play is actually a play-within-a-play: the main characters are theater critics watching a play, and the plot consists of both the narrative arc of the critics, and the narrative arc of the play they are reviewing.
Stoppard’s play most closely resembles the storyline of Agatha Christie’s 1952 play The Mousetrap — a ‘whodunnit’ that continues to run today in London. In Christie’s play, the detective — the traditional adversary of the murderer in parlor mysteries — turns out to be the murderer himself. At the time, this twist was considered to be groundbreaking. Stoppard’s play follows a similar narrative arc, but then adds layers of complexity and narrative strands.
Influenced by Czech and Polish absurdists, Stoppard’s play belongs to the Theater of the Absurd. It examines ideas of fate, free will, illusion, and communication, among others. It was first performed at the Criterion Theatre on June 17, 1968. The producers of Christie’s The Mousetrap were upset that The Real Inspector Hound revealed, in a way, the twist to their play (which was supposed to be a well-guarded secret), but they couldn’t publicly object without drawing more attention to the twist ending of The Mousetrap.