#173: Murder Gone Mad (1931) by Philip MacDonald

murder-gone-madWell, 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!

murder-gone-mad-2Seen 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.

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Incidentally, the 10 books selected by Carr were:

Anthony Berkeley — The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929)

Agatha Christie — Death on the Nile (1937)

Arthur Conan Doyle — The Valley of Fear (1914)

Gaston Leroux — The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907)

Philip MacDonald — Murder Gone Mad (1931)

A.E.W. Mason — At the Villa Rose (1910)

Ellery Queen — The Lamp of God [a.k.a. The House of Haunts] (1935)

Dorothy L. Sayers — The Nine Tailors (1934)

Rex Stout — The League of Frightened Men (1935)

S.S. van Dine — The Greene Murder Case (1928)

Having now read six of these, I don’t think any of them would make my top ten, just sayin’.  And, yes, Carr did change some selections in 1963 (replacing this with MacDonald’s own The Rasp, The Lamp of God with Queen’s Chinese Orange Mystery, and something else…possibly the Sayers with another Sayers) but I’ve opted for his original selections.

21 thoughts on “#173: Murder Gone Mad (1931) by Philip MacDonald

  1. Since this is a thriller, I shall shy away from it, even though I’ve been thinking of trying one of the Collins Crime Club reprints of MacDonald. I can understand Carr’s inclusion of the Berkeley title, the Christie title (even though I don’t think its her best work) as well as the Leroux title – I’m feeling ambivalent about Sayers’s ‘Nine Tailors’ and Queen’s ‘Lamp of God’. Surely Sayers and Queen have written better works…?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hell, by 1946 Carr’s list of the ten best detective novels in print could have just been a list of his own works…but I guess he was being modest. Or ironic. A certainly Sayers and Christie would have been colleagues of his, and big names to boot, so part of me automatically finds those selections suspect…


  2. I like this one a lot – but then, I liked X VS REX too and remember liking MacDonald a lot when I first got into mysteries. A lot of the interest is inevitably historical but always glad to see his work getting some credit!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am quite surprised by Carr’s selection of 10 best novels. Sayers, Christie and Berkeley had written better works than those selected by Carr in 1946. I’m surprised Carr picked Murder Gone Mad over The Rasp the first time round as The Rasp is more of a puzzle focused mystery. Then again trying to pick your favourite 10 pre 1946 detective novels is no mean feat. Not sure I’d be able to narrow it down that far. It was bad enough when I tried to come up with my top 3 pre 1929 crime novels.


    • Poisoned Chocolates is the one I’m not surprised to find there, since it demonstrates such diverse plotting acumen. Well, and Yellow Room, too, since it’s so very very important in setting up the genius amateur (which Berkeley was so intent on pulling down…) and of course extending the impossible crime. TomCat’s comment makes me think I’m missing something in Death on the Nine now, but given that my Top Ten list would have at least 17 books in it perhaps I should keep my mouth closed… 🙂


  4. All I remember about this one is the killer’s identity, and it was a dilly. As for the list, I think any professional author’s opinion- as opposed to a critic or even a fan – will be necessarily eclectic, but I find this list pretty obvious. Nile is an easy pick, a good title which we can all disagree on. The Berkeley novel is prescient as it’s the one that has withstood the test of time. The Van Dine probably IS his best, and the Stout certainly is a classic. You can understand why the names Doyle, Leroux and Mason would be there, and to me the only controversial title amongst the three would be The Valley of Fear. The Nine Tailors is “weird” Sayers; maybe that’s why it appealed to Carr. Which leaves the Queen novella, an overrated work, but it IS an impossible crime story, and the ending is rather clever, Carr calls it a “ten best” list, but this has to have merged “best” with “favorite.”


  5. You already know my opinion about the book. So I’ll refrain from further comments, but I’m surprised about your last remark about Carr’s top 10 list. I agree most of them would not make my list, either, except for Death on the Nile, which is (IMHO) one of the wonders of the Golden Age.

    Everyone who has not read that one should do so, not once, but twice… back to back. The first time to simply enjoy one of the greatest detective stories ever committed to paper and the second time, with the explanation clear in mind, to marvel how everything fitted together and how brazen some of the clues were dangled in front of the reader.

    If Death on the Nile does not qualify for a best-of list, I don’t know what mystery will.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I, too, have and I, too, am excited, but I don’t know how soon I’m going to get to it just yet — partly because I have a lot of other stuff I want to read, and partly because once it’s read I’m ot of Halter yet again and have to start counting the days until the next one! But, well, I imagine I’ll get to it before the end of the month. Watch this space… 🙂


      • Yes, I know what you mean about leaving something behind to look forward to. I made the mistake of reading ‘Death of Jezebel’ before ‘Heads You Lose’ – which means that my reading of Brand will end with a whimper and not a bang. 😦 But I’ve planned to keep ‘Demon of Dartmoor’ and ‘Phantom Passage’ right till the end, so that each of Halter’s detectives can make a grand exit. 😀


  6. I wasn’t too impressed with MacDonald’s Rynox and your review here doesn’t quite make me want to give him another go. Some nice writing but a staggeringly obvious and unsurprising plot.
    Carr’s top 10 is fascinating. I love the Sayers- it was one of the books that got me back into mystery fiction after my unfortunate experience with ‘Postern of Fate.’ I’ve only read one Van Dine, and wanted to throttle the detective, so I don’t know if I’ll return to him, though Carr’s recommendation has me thinking about it.


    • I’ve read a few van Dines, and having checked out the synopsis for this it sounds like far and away the most interesting — I’llbe reading it in the near future and shall report back.


  7. I’m afraid MURDER GONE MAD didn’t work for me, but then I really dislike serial killer tales.

    On the subject of early serial killer novels there’s also Francis Beeding’s DEATH WALKS IN EASTREPPS, published in 1931. Which I also didn’t like all that much. Beeding was better at thrillers.


  8. I think Carr’s list is generally not bad. THE VALLEY OF FEAR is an interesting choice – a very unconventional Sherlock Holmes tale. AT THE VILLA ROSE is superb. Stout’s THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN is a top-tier Nero Wolfe mystery. All the early Van Dines are terrific (I even liked THE DRAGON MURDER CASE).


    • Villa Rose, League, and Greene are three of the ones I’ve not read. I remember thoroughly disliking The Valey of Fear because Doyle once again loses interest in Holmes and the entire second half is overly verbose scene-setting fo rthe crime that occurs and is solved in the first half…which seemed a curiously backwards way of plotting something given all the great stuff that was about to emerge in the genre (I know he did a similar-ish thing in A Study in Scarlet, with that weird western section in the middle, and I didn’t like that either!).


      • VALLEY OF FEAR is indeed a bit of a mess. An experiment that didn’t quite come off. The Sherlock Holmes novels are certainly hit and miss, although I’m very fond of THE SIGN OF FOUR.


        • I need to reread TSoF. I seem to remember it being pretty much just Holmes and Watson following a sniffer dog for most of its duration, but surely that can’t be right…


  9. Pingback: Murder Gone Mad (1931) by Philip Macdonald – crossexaminingcrime

  10. Pingback: Murder Gone Mad (1931) by Philip Macdonald – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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