The Real Inspector Hound begins with a brief set of stage directions. The play is set in the drawing room of Muldoon Manor, a large country house located in Essex, England. In the room is a settee (mid-sized sofa), a red telephone - and a dead body sprawled out across the floor. Upstage there is a “bank of plush seats and pale smudges of faces,” creating the illusion of the audience seeing its own reflection in a mirror. A second-string theater critic named Moon sits in one seat and a renowned theater critic named Birdboot sits next to him. These stage directions inform us that we are reading a play-within-a-play — that is, The Real Inspector Hound is a play about two theater critics watching and reviewing a play.
Turning to Moon, Birdboot inquires into the whereabouts of a man named Higgs. As it turns out, Higgs is a first-string theater critic, and Moon, as the second-string, only gets to review plays when Higgs is unavailable. Irritated, Moon remarks, “it is as if we only existed one at a time,” and then, “perhaps he’s dead at last,” a remark that imbues the conversation with an eerie undertone. A short while later, Moon dreams up a world in which second-strings stir up a revolution against first-strings. “Sometimes I dream of revolution,” he admits, “a bloody coup d’etat by the second rank--troupes of actors slaughtered by their understudies, magicians sawn in half by indefatigably smiling glamour girls[...].” In response, Birdboot offers him a chocolate.
Even as the play they are reviewing begins, the two critics continue to exchange soliloquies, mostly inattentive to the other’s preoccupations. At Moon’s prodding, Birdboot defends the absence of his wife, Myrtle, claiming that the play is not her “cup of tea.” But we soon find out that Birdboot has a reputation for philandering (womanizing), and when Moon subtly accuses Birdboot of cheating on his wife with one of the actresses in the play they are about to review, Birdboot protests that people mistake his professional duty of mingling “with the world of the footlights” for hitting on women. He calls himself a “family man devoted to [his] homely but good-natured wife.”
In the play-within-a-play, a ‘whodunnit,’ Mrs. Drudge, the Help at Muldoon Manor, enters the drawing room and plays the radio. A message on-air from the county police, led by Inspector Hound, warns that an escaped madman was last seen in the “desolate marshes” around Muldoon Manor, and in a moment of comical suspense, a man matching the police description tip-toes into the drawing room, then exits, all without being seen by Mrs. Drudge. What’s more, neither character spots the dead body on the floor. As Mrs. Drudge sweeps the room, she fortuitously slides the settee over the dead body, guaranteeing that it won’t be seen.
The critics press on with their personal grievances, and we learn more about Birdboot’s philandering. The previous night, Moon spotted him with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Birdboot acts offended by the accusation, exclaiming, “how dare you!” but then appears to submit to the accusations, asking Moon not to mention the incident to Myrtle.
The Real Inspector Hound is a play-within-a-play. On one level, it follows the development of a relationship between two critics, Moon and Birdboot, who work in the prestigious London theater scene. They are acquaintances but not equals: Birdboot is a renowned critic, while Moon is merely a stand-in for his superior, Higgs. Still, they both struggle equally with personal grievances. Then, on another level, this play follows the development of a murder mystery at Muldoon Manor, the setting of the play-within-a-play, and both narratives develop simultaneously.
We learn a lot about Moon’s character in the first few pages. He is a second-string theater critic burning for a promotion to first-string. Whenever he reviews plays, his theater colleagues inquire, “Where’s Higgs?” a question that diminishes his own sense of self. His existence hinges on Higgs’ absence. Moon fantasizes, “When Higgs and I walk down this aisle together to claim our common seat, the oceans will fall into the sky and the trees will hang with fishes.” Caught in the heat of the moment, he says of Higgs, “Perhaps he’s dead at last, or trapped in a lift somewhere, or succumbed to amnesia[...]” These gruesome words carry a lot of weight because the play-within-a-play is a murder mystery. Moon's insecurity is also the first glimpse into the theme of identity that grips the rest of the play. Moon desires to rise out of his position as (what could be called) "not-Higgs", but he is beleaguered by perception.
Birdboot’s grievances are of a different stripe, but also rest on perception. A respected critic, he is also a well-known philanderer. In response to Moon’s accusations, Birdboot feigns offense, but the text provides clues that he is in fact unfaithful to his wife Myrtle. First, he describes Myrtle as “homely but good-natured,” hardly the romantic portrayal that one would expect from a spouse. Even more damaging to his cause, Moon says that he spotted Birdboot with another woman the previous night, and in response, Birdboot, with a gentler tone, says, “Incidentally, old chap, I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention—I mean you know how these misunderstandings get about…” Still, Birdboot is concerned that his reputation as a philanderer precedes his renown as a critic.
The Real Inspector Hound belongs to the “Theatre of the Absurd,” a designation for plays that express the meaninglessness of human existence. These plays tend to feature comedy mixed with tragic images, dialogue full of cliches, nonsense, and more. Stoppard, the play’s author, hints at the play’s genre through Birdboot, who says to Moon, “don’t be absurd.” In just the first few pages, several of the play’s absurdist elements emerge. First, of course, it is a play-within-a-play. Second, neither Mrs. Drudge nor the suspicious man spot the dead body, which is sprawled out across the open floor of the drawing room. Even as Mrs. Drudge cleans the room, “her view of the body is always blocked, and when it isn’t she has her back to it.” And third, the two critics maintain a seamless conversation as they watch the murder mystery unfold. These elements produce a comical effect, but also tell us as readers to stay alert for more oddities throughout the play.
Finally, the critics make use of language which suggests that their lives run parallel to those involved in the murder mystery onstage. For example, Moon says of Higgs, “Perhaps he’s dead at last,” and later on, Birdboot says, “wouldn’t be seen dead with the old...” Is their fixation on death merely a coincidence? Are their words shaped by the play that they are watching? Or is something more sinister going on? At this point, the reader is simply forewarned.