#321: The Maze, a.k.a. Persons Unknown (1932) by Philip MacDonald

The Maze 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?’…”.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

See also

Noah @ Noah’s Archives: [T]he result is a book that balances an exquisitely boring plot with a lack of characterization or, indeed, anything much of interest at all. It’s certainly a fair book, as I’d heard for years, but so is Sudoku. The solution is somewhat unusual, principally because it breaks one of the “rules” that I associate with the Golden Age, but it is neither satisfying nor ultimately interesting … But some of my readers are fond of the pure puzzle form and I am sure they will enjoy this; no distracting characterization or description to get in the way.


For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Burning Court from two weeks back as both concern the murder of a patriarchal figure.

46 thoughts on “#321: The Maze, a.k.a. Persons Unknown (1932) by Philip MacDonald

  1. You’re correct that The Maze is not perfect, but appreciated how MacDonald made me reflect on my own position as a plot-oriented mystery readers who occasionally snarls at the concept of characterization. The Maze demonstrates that the pure, plot-driven, detective story, populated solely with paper-thin characters, has its limitations. Anyway, glad you liked it.

    On a side-note, MacDonald wrote The Maze around the same time as his move to Hollywood and you have to wonder if he wrote this (dialogue heavy) book as a writing exercise for his work as a Hollywood screenwriter.


    • That’s a superb point about his reasons for making a deliberately dialogue-heavy choice in this narrative. What a way to practice your new craft!

      And my point is that this isn’t filled with paper-thin characters — there’s a huge amount of characterisation in there, the reader is simply required to interpret a lot of the actions and tone that accompany the words. If anything, this further supports your point about his move to Hollywood: how to capture the characters when all you have is the dialogue to go on. I’d say that is the real success of this.


      • I suppose “paper-thin” is, perhaps, the wrong word to use in this case. You’re right that there’s characterization, but the dialogue approach stripped them of their (discernible) personalities. The lack of that human element is what makes this a difficult one to solve and made me rethink the importance of characterization in mystery novels.

        And the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that MacDonald wrote The Maze with his new occupation in mind. It just makes sense.


        • Yeah, I agree with your surmise about his script-writing, it does make a lot of sense. The opportunity to explore a plot in this way would have tickled the innovator in him, too — win/win!

          I find it interesting how much I’m not a fan of “character” clues in GAD — when Poirot says “Ah, but, no, she would not have behaved in this way — we know this because of such-and-such” as if a single action on someone’s part speaks for their response to every other situation forever. I find that aspect of it interesting in the solution here, and that’s the part I didn’t get on with…ha!


    • I found the Symons intro — which is included in this new Crime Club edition — a bit snooty, to be honest, but then I find Symons snooty anyway. Doubtless I’m putting that on him given his well-catalogued dislike of detective fiction, but it does feel like he’s having a bit of a sneer at times…


  2. I read this one a couple of weeks ago! The solution’s surprising – and hinges on the fact that we can’t SEE the characters.

    Like you, though, I find MacDonald frustrating. Good (even brilliant) ideas, but he doesn’t always carry them off well. And the padding! ROPE TO SPARE is pretty good, from memory.

    The best of his I’ve read is THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER, his last novel, some 25 years after he wrote most of his books; it’s murder on a grand scale, with lots of good clues.


    • I’m excited that The Rynox Mystery has just been republished in this same series, and that’s one of the MacDaonald titles I’m most intrigued to read (along with Adrian Messenger, Mystery at Friar’s Pardon, and The Polferry Riddle). I think I’ve adapted to his style of approach now — he has Berkeley’s tendency to engage with a brilliant idea in a frustrating manner — and will be able to see at least something good in anything else of his I take on.

      That’s the dream, anyway, because they first need to be available for me to take them on 😀


      • Why those four in particular?

        Don’t get your hopes up about THE POLFERRY RIDDLE (THE CHOICE)! It’s very padded, and the solution is disappointing.


        • Polferry, Rynox, and Pardon are, as I understand it, impossible crimes, and Messenger just sounds great and has had much positive press from people. I checked out the synopses of some of his more thriller-sounding novels and they don’t strike me as my kind of thing; similarly Patrol, The Rasp, The Noose.

          I’d been interested in X v. Rex on account of its apparent innovation, and Murder Gone Mad was one of Carr’s picks…that was it for them, really, that’s why they cropped up on here.

          Shame Polferry’s a bit padded; I can’t get it for sensible money at the moment anyway; if it’s reprinted in an affordable edition — I do like these Crime Clubs facsimiles, they’re really nice as physical books — I’ll probably still check it out…just with lowered expectations!


          • If you really want to read it, Doubleday printed an omnibus called Triple Jeopardy that has it, Warrant for X (everyone likes it but me), and Mystery in Kensington Gore (pretty bad).

            Murder Gone Mad is good. The Rasp and The Noose are both tec stories, not thrillers; the first’s a country house murder.

            From a mystery standpoint, the ones you might enjoy are Rope to Spare and The Wraith. I’ve heard good things about The Link. The Crime Conductor and Death on My Left are also detection.


            • Appreciate the heads-up on that omnibus. Will keep it in mind, though if the other two aren’t worth it I may hold out for a reprint…

              Truly appreciate these recommendations, too, thank-you. Given MacDonald’s variable output (genre-wise, I mean) it’s good to know there are some good mysteries out there from him. I’ll enjoy trying to track these down!


  3. But are you going to have the sequel where avoidable misunderstandings wrench you apart before the tearful, big huggy climax?

    I’ve read two Philip MacDonalds, The Rasp and one which I – very helpfully – can’t now recall. I found them enjoyable enough to try more, but with awkward patches of writing and some plot absurdities. I think I’d enjoy them more without Anthony Gethryn, who is one of those ridiculously perfect beings who is apparently good at everything and universally beloved but hasn’t the charm or wit to carry it off.


    • Ha, that could yet happen. Depends on the box office…

      The Rasp was recently spoiled for me in reading The Boat Race Murder by R.E. Swartwout, but it doesn’t sound like my kind of thing. I think I might have to pick and choose a bit with MacDonald where with other authors — Crofts, Lorac, Berrow — I just want to grab whatever I can get my hands on.

      And your feelings on Gethryn mirror mine on Wimsey, for what it’s worth. I’m yet to experience the Full Gethryn — he’s very much a background presence in this, as you read a long letter by him at the end — but I’m now looking forward to meeting him when the time comes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can see where you’re coming from with Wimsey, though I like the character a lot. For me, he hasjust enough flaws, warmth, humour and depth of character to offset the Hero Halo and the annoying spots of patronage. Gethryn just kind of… winds me up. (That’s my indepth assessment). 🙂


  4. I’ve been wondering about trying to book for a while now. I guess I was concerned it might be too dry and Penny like. So it’s been helpful to hear about the dialogue focus, which I find interesting. Hopefully going to be reviewing Rynox in a week or so.


  5. Thanks for quoting me, although I still didn’t think very much of this novel I’m glad to know that you found pleasure in it. I think TomCat above has expressed himself much more accurately than I was able to manage, “The Maze demonstrates that the pure, plot-driven, detective story, populated solely with paper-thin characters, has its limitations.” Notably that it’s hard to reach the ending if you keep falling asleep in the middle ;-).
    Honestly, I think you’d much better stop walking out with Philip MacDonald when Anthony Berkeley is the same type of story-telling gentleman and actually makes you laugh all through your dates. I suggest you need to swipe left on MacDonald and move forward 😉


    • It’s precisely because or Berkeley that I came to MacDonald in the first place — he was mentioned somewhere as having that same questing, innovative spirit in his writing. And I’ve had approximately the same set of responses — some of it’s marvellous and some of it’s utter shite.

      And there’s plenty of characterisation in here; plenty, I tell you!


    • Hey, it occurs to me that this is the first book we’ve really disagreed on in a while. Not that this augurs anything, I just remember reading your review of it and being perhaps a little more hesitant than I would ordinarily be since our tastes overlap quite a lot in this sphere.

      So, y’know, there you have it.


  6. Reading the conversation with TomCat, I’m reminded of the Dennis Wheatley portfolios, all of which i own. Here you get to see everybody and actually take the evidence out of a packet and hold it in your hand. And yet, as excited as i was to open these, as I read I would find myself looking up and checking the birds flying over the sky or listen to the tick of the clock . . . or put the book down for a while and watch a movie instead. I think one can accomplish the quality of “characterization” in a number of ways, whether or not one describes a person’s inner life or just imbues her/him with “qualities.”

    I’m interested in what you described as “character clues” with reference to Poirot, JJ. I can’t actually recall him doing anything like this. Miss Marple’s allusions to village “types” was more suspect, but so was anything Christie wrote involving psychology. (My next Christie post will bring that up.) As for me, if they’re handled right, I love character clues much more than physical evidence. And I LOVE “slips in conversation” most of all. (“How could you know what the wax flowers looked like on that table?!?“)

    I’d love to continue in this vein, but Paul Halter is picking me up in his Renault Town Car for a little tete a tete.. If that connard thinks he can woo me back with some coq au vin and a coherent plot, he’s got another think coming!


    • Sorry, I don’t mean Poirot per se, more “the detective” using that shorthand. For some reason I heard it in Poirot’s voice when the thought came to me and so that’s what I typed. Silly JJ.

      And, yeah, slips in conversation are a great one, much more than “how did you know that object would be there?” which — for a while — became the Revelatory Moment of choice for just about every single crime novelist I read in the early 2000s.

      Shame those Wheatley’s didnt impress. I’ve always had a romantic sort of notion that they were wonderful (having never seen one, that is). But I suppose, were that the case, there’d’ve been hundreds of the buggers…


      • They are highly impressive in their way, but the cases, in the end, aren’t very interesting. And I can only imagine that they were a pain in the tochus to publish! Meanwhile, I have always regretted that video games did not include more whodunits! I figured the writing that it takes to create a detective’s journey is more complex than that of a mage or a post-apocalyptic soldier. If I could solve mysteries on an X-Box I’d be the happiest 450 pound man in the world!


        • There was an ABC Murders game that was excruciating; the difficulty comes in having to collect all the evidence to make a deduction…but nothing can be done until everything is collected.

          If they can find a way to “open world” it, so that you have the option of running off half-cocked, then expect a swathe to wash down upon us…which may be a good enough reason to be pleased that it’s not yet been cracked.

          Also, you’re underselling yourself at £450, Bradley…

          Liked by 1 person

        • This is more directly a reply to JJ’s “open world” comment, but relevant to this also.
          Something close to an “open world” detective game does exist, in the form of Her Story. The format of this is actually somewhat similar to what is described about The Maze: you are searching a database containing video clips of police interviews with a woman regarding her husband’s disappearance. The reason why I call such a restricted format “open world” is because you are free to search any terms you choose. Through luck or intuition you can land at a big revelation right at the start, and the end of the game comes essentially when you are satisfied you know what happens. Due to this, it doesn’t fit many aspects of what you’d see in a “Golden Age-style” detective story – the answers already exist, you are simply finding them, and you don’t have to prove them to anyone.
          However, I think this format comes the closest to making you feel like a detective – pieceing together the facts and working out what to look into next. There was a lot of the moment of realisation since you are always provided with only snippets in return for your searches.
          I shouldn’t talk it up too much – I’m not a huge fan of the story told through this (though, looking back, I can see how it’s actually almost the only suitable story in a way). And since I’ve only seen the responses of people who are more casual fans of detective fiction (I would say I’m a reasonably casual fan myself :D), I wonder what more seasoned detectioners would make of it.
          But no matter what, I think the format of this is, as far as I know, unique, and definitely deserves to be experienced. 😀


          • Sounds like a novel approach to that sort of thing, I’ll have to keep it in mind.

            Raises the questin of whether a fully opne-world detective game could ever really exist — I suppose it depends so much on what people say and how it’s said that there’s still far too much scope to really produce so linear a plot in such a broad manner,

            Hmmm, one to ruminate on, methinks.


  7. I’ve been looking forward to your review ever since this was posted as “coming soon”.

    When I first read a summary of The Maze, it sounded like a dream come true – all of the clues that you need to solve the puzzle, laid out in much the same way as a detective would receive them. As the reader, you’re tasked with solving the mystery with the same evidence as the investigators.

    Then I read a review (perhaps Noah’s) which wasn’t too flattering, and my expectations for the book dropped significantly. This was around the time I was suffering through the first two Queen novels, and so it suddenly struck me that a book based purely around interviews and evidence might not really be what I’m looking for.

    I kind of assumed you’d pan this one, which I was looking forward to, but the child inside held out hope that you’d actually enjoy it. You’re review has renewed my interest, and I’m intrigued by the format that you describe. I read a few movie scripts back in my teen years and actually found them readable in a strange way.


    • Ha, well it falls somewhere between that dream come true and the outright pan you were possibly hoping for — I think it’s probably a matter of expectations, but then I’m usually (not always!) pretty good at adjusting my on expectations once the book is started (notable exceptions here include The Bride of Newgate…which suffers from a gigantic shift in tone, so not really my fault).

      One of the key clues is brilliant — that’s the one most people will miss — and one of them is…very questionable, but I don’t think that stops it being fair play. After all, you’re promised that the clue are there, not that they’re necessarily rigorous or flawless (and what book can say that anyway? Hmm, I feel a post coming on…). I can easily see where Noah is coming from in his dislike of this one, and it’s not quite the book I was expecting it to be, but it absolutely commends itself to anyone who wishes to see a standard plot approached in an inventive way.


  8. Pingback: The Maze | ravenscroftcloud

  9. A bit late on this, but whatever.
    Anyway, I just finished this and I think you’re pretty much spot on in your assessment. I approached the book with some suspicion and trepidation, fearing that it would be a dry and dull exercise. But it was far from that; the characterization is certainly there in the dialogue, and I reckon it’s very cleverly done. I found myself engaged all the way through and I finished this very quickly. In short, really enjoyable and innovative.


    • Late, nuthin’ — the whole point of publishing stuff to read online is so that people can come to it when it’s relevant to them. I wish there were more comments on old posts, to be honest.

      Really pleased you enjoyed this, I think it’s a very clever and enjoyable (if, yes, slight) mystery that does a huge amount to play around with the conventions and tropes — no shifty looks, no suspicious actions, no trailing someone for three chapters to watch them put something in a dustbin.

      It’s a bit of a shame that Gethryn is shown photos towards of the suspects the end — he says it only confirms what he knew, so why undo the gret work of keeping everything non-visual? — but that’s the only real gripe I have. MacDonald was very, very good when he was on inventive form, and this and The Rynox Mystery are among my favourite off-kilter GAD novels to date. If only these reprints hadn’t fried up, we’d doubtless of found much else in his oeuvre to rhapsodise about.


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