Well, this seems an odd choice of book to review the day after John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday, right? The sensible thing would be to pick one of his novels, in keeping with the occasional Carr-related theme of my posts of late, right? Aha! Well, good job, then, because this is Carr-related: in 1946 Carr selected what he felt to be the 10 best detective novels published to date (writing an essay entitled ‘The Grandest Game in the World’ that, I believe, was intended to be published as an introduction to a run of reprints of the books…which never materialised due to copyright issues) and this was one of them. I really did not like the first MacDonald book I read (X v. Rex) and was warned in advance by both TomCat and Noah that this isn’t a particularly good book…so that all boded well, hey?
Well, y’know what? I’m warming up to MacDonald, though I think at least in part due to lowered expectations. This doesn’t supply anything approaching the riddles one would look for in a detective novel — it’s another thriller, with no clues and no chance of solving it yourself — but in laying the groundwork for the move away from genteel puzzles towards a more realistic representation of crime, it feels like a very notable work indeed. And I don’t go in for crime fiction, but it’s difficult to ignore the innovations MacDonald lays out here that would go on to become the tropes still being churned out to good sales and praise-filled reviews some 85 years later.
Someone is murdering people in the garden city of Holmdale (but don’t call it a garden city…MacDonald has a great line of this sort of petty-minded navel-gazing) and sending letters to the police claiming responsibility for each stabbing (here’s one advantage over X v. Rex — each death utilises the same method). The letters — in educated, crisp, faintly mocking tones — then go on to warn the police in advance of the next murder…a murder they fail to stop despite the warning. Inspector Arnold Pike of Scotland Yard, brought in to clear up the killings, faces public opprobrium, furious superiors, and more than a sniff of personal tragedy in the completion of the case…all the while against a fomenting background of suspicion within the community where every action of the police is second-guessed and gossips spread dissent and fear in equal measure…
Now, honestly? That sounds not unlike the synopsis of at least 5 books I read soon after their publication back in 2000. The difference is that the investigation and the nature of the plot developments here feel so frustratingly bloody amateur in comparison to the slick manhunts we typically get on the page — the way they go about narrowing down the suspects at first (rounding up everyone outside when a murder is discovered, tedious and unprofitable interviews that drag on and on and on) is, to those of us well-schooled in this kind of unpleasantness, a clear break from protocol and as such difficult to sit through. But, ye gads man, this was Nineteen Thirty-One — six years before the invention of the ballpoint pen, seven years before freeze-dried coffee…it’s a different age entirely!
Seen from that perspective — and it’s easy to forget, because MacDonald makes some admirably bold narrative decisions, the kind of thing a lot of people are still reluctant to use these days, and certainly do so with far greater melodrama, eschewing MacDonald’s reserved, quiet dignity — of course they’re going to make a pig’s ear out of it. One brief mention of an offer of help from the Düsseldorf police throws that into sharp relief: this is a completely new challenge, both in the universe of the book and the meta-level of the author’s undertaking; I’m not claiming it’s the first serial killer novel ever (that’s probably Dracula) but it feels fresh when you look around at the company MacDonald was keeping — Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery, Carr’s Castle Skull and The Lost Gallows, Sayers’ Five Red Herrings, Anthony Berkeley’s Malice Aforethought…none of the contemporary classicists were doing this kind of thing at this time.
And there’s a lot to enjoy in MacDonald’s writing, too — Pike has a very human way of dealing with everyone, including his subordinates where he demonstrates the kind of gentle authority that makes Norman Berrow’s Lancelot Carolus Smith novels so enjoyable. The various difficulties with his superiors are communicated in slightly overlong and oft-repeated diatribes, yes, but they’re shot through with sparks of pure gold:
The Chief Constable’s glance at Pike was compound of deference to the institution which Pike represented and personal hostility to the man himself while his glance at Inspector Farrow was just plainly irate.
As in X v. Rex, MacDonald captures the sense of a small community very well indeed, not rushing into the main event and instead building up cosy and safe familiarity to be torn asunder by the knife of our motiveless meshuggener. The capture of said killer, the way the book ends without even trying to reconcile the cold intellect of the letters and the creeping dread insanity which manifested itself in such brutal ways, won’t please a lot of people, but again I can’t deny that this is MacDonald pushing the limits of his puzzle-fiend friends and asking them to consider another perspective. No mean feat, and worth considering if you’re tempted to pick this one up.
And so now we enter a pattern of my lowered expectations raising the expectations of others who will then go on to lower the expectations of more people whose therefore increased enjoyment of this will raise the hopes of…y’know what? Collins Crime Club are reprinting it at the end of the month; you’re just going to have to figure this one out amongst yourselves.