Much like in one of those hilarious romantic comedies from the early 2000s starring Ben Stiller or Jennifer Lopez, Philip MacDonald and I got off to a rocky start that seemed to be improving, on the way to falling lovingly into each other’s arms by the end credits. It began badly with X v. Rex (1933), showed signs of improvement with Murder Gone Mad (1931), and so by now we’re at the montage stage — I’m the aggressive go-getter, he won’t compromise where his family’s concerned…how can two such different souls ever hope to find common ground? Can’t I see that his brand of innovation is made for me? Won’t he just do the decent thing and write a novel of detection with actual clues? Hairy Aaron, we’re so stubborn…
All of which brings us to The Maze (1932), wherein pure detection should win through as it’s simply a series of transcripts and evidence from the inquest, containing, we’re told in the introduction, everything needed to solve the mystery of Maxwell Brunton’s murder. The framing of this concerns MacDonald’s sleuth Colonel Anthony Gethryn being sent these documents in the hope he might unpick it all, with Gethryn’s own summation rounding out the evidence and pointing to the clues provided therein that helped him trap his man (or woman). This, then, is MacDonald’s race through the airport to prove his intentions — after all, I delight in Rupert Penny’s complex puzzle plots and people complain they’re as dry as dust…so this should be exactly what I need to hurl myself wholeheartedly into MacDonald’s literary embrace.
I’ll be honest, I kinda loved it. It’s not without some fairly unavoidable flaws, but at the same time this book is loaded with invention in the manner of telling a story that would be seen as revelatory and staggering were someone to attempt it today. Each character in the drama — some sixteen or so, if you include the policemen and medical experts — must be captured purely through their dialogue, without any visual clues or direct description of their actions, and it’s quite wonderful to watch. MacDonald delineates through simple patterns of speech, some of which is easily captured — the servants, of course, drop letters and malaprop all over the place (“I’m not up ‘ere blowin’ me own strumpet…”), and the more anxious witnesses must be constantly course-corrected in their testimony by the slightly stuffed shirt coroner — and some of which is rather more subtle.
See, for instance, how the only person to pronounce Jeanette Bocquet’s name correctly is the one who holds her in highest disdain, or how Claire Bayford’s and agony at the muck-raking she sees in proceedings spills over into a desperate plea on the deceased’s behalf. Stripped entirely of action and setting descriptors, you’re left with no option but to focus on the language and it’s actually rather, well, thrilling. You remember that bit in similarly-contained Twelve Angry Men (1957) where the guy reaches up to tug at his collar? There’s a line in here where the coroner offers someone a glass of water and because you have to interpret the action that person is performing it falls with an equally resonating brilliance. MacDonald also knows this could get a little boring, and keeps things remarkably short (this superb Collins Crime Club reissue is over by page 166, with only 14 pages of loose ends remaining), even though Gethryn’s summation is rather prone to prolixity…no mean insight, that.
But, well, yes, there are issues. The story is not especially complex — for all the comings and goings, it’s actually rather pedestrian — and there’s the typical 1930s attitude towards the attitude and subservience of the servant classes that dates this badly and had rather too much emphasis placed upon it for the conclusion to work seamlessly. The jumping-off point of Gethryn’s conclusions, too, is one of those clever-clever conceits born of GAD which someone like Anthony Berkeley or Christianna Brand would have used far more compellingly, but at least the evidence is there (with, of course, some reading between the lines — though also one perfect piece of how-did-I-not-see-that face-palming that I guarantee solidly 99% of readers will overlook) even if some may question how fully and perfectly fair play it is.
So, where does this leave MacDonald and I in my rom-com framing? Well, of course, it’s the big impassioned speech in front of onlookers where one of us tears up and says something pithy and everyone cheers, normality restored, because we’re cynically led to believe that happiness is only found in being validated by someone else. Hmm, what’s my catchy line going to be? I think I’ll go with “You had me at ‘Would you like a drink of water?’…”.