AN INSPECTOR CALLS is usually seen as a social message wrapped in a detective story, or thriller. Penned in 1945 but set in 1912, the author was writing from his personal experience of two world wars and was warning of another one to come unless people changed their behaviour. For him this meant taking moral responsibility for the less fortunate ones in our society.
The play begins as a detective story. A young girl has committed suicide and an Inspector calls on a respectable British family to investigate. In true thriller fashion, each family member is forced to confess his or her guilt in connection with the girl’s death, and the play ends with two stunning twists. There is also something mysterious about the Inspector. Is he a real policeman or an impostor? What begins as a routine police investigation ends on an eerie, supernatural note.
Despite the brilliance of his plotting, J.B. Priestley’s revelations concerning the morals of his characters might seem obvious and melodramatic by today’s standards, depending on one’s theatrical taste. After all, we already know, or at least suspect, practically everything that happens in the play. What is still remarkable about this 52-year-old work, however, is the solidity of its characterization and the real social conscience that shines through with as much force as ever.