#487: The Polferry Riddle, a.k.a. The Choice (1931) by Philip MacDonald

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For now, like, the fourth time in my experience — and the second involving a book by Philip MacDonald — the Roland Lacourbe-curated list of 100 excellent impossible crime novels has disgorged a title which is not in any way an impossible crime.  I’m still fully capab- (hang on, carry the one…then minus…yup, you’re good) fully capable of enjoying a book which is sans-impossibility, but I find it weird that a list compiled by such eminent heads includes so many books that don’t qualify.  The simplicity of MacDonald’s own narratives should be a giveaway anyway, since he’s really not about the complexities or misdirection, sticking more to a simpler, thriller-tinged path.

Now I know to expect this from his works, I had a ball with this one; had I gone in hoping for the sturm und drang of virtuoso plotting, obscure pronouncements, legerdemain extraordinaire, and a bafflingly confounding final revelation that ties a complex web in new, albeit tidier, knots then I’d’ve been furious.  Fortunately, I’ve attuned myself to what MacDonald does even if I can’t quite explain it: a sort of Sexton Blake meets Edgar Wallace as written by Roger Sheringham and then slyly redrafted by John Buchan while Max Afford peers over his shoulder.  Abandon yourself to MacDonald’s cherry-picking ways — starting as a gloomy Country House Murder, becoming a kind of serial-killer-in-disguise tale with a genius amateur who’s really no genius at all — and you’ll have a blast.  But, well, the reader is warned.

The initial setup sees a woman murdered in her (unlocked!) bedroom by what must be at least one of four house-guests.  The means by which this is secured as a closed circle mystery are pleasingly weird, but there’s never any mention of or intent for it to be considered impossible: any one of them and only them could have gotten to the room unseen and unheard, done the deed, and exited without discovery.  And while something could be made out of the impossible vanishing of the weapon, well, there’s also a very easy way to deal with that mentioned in the book — so, strike out all impossibilities; banish them from your mind an expectations.  Done?  Then we shall continue.

Cut to several months later and the police, brooding over the lack of conclusion to this conundrum, call in Colonel Anthony Gethryn to examine it afresh.  To my absolute delight, Gethryn isn’t interested: “the wisest [course] is to call it a miss” he advises, demurring that he wouldn’t “make any better fist of it than [Superintendent] Pike”.  And I have to be honest, I loved this respect that Gethryn has for the police — it’s no mere highfalutin’ Holmesian disdain that the case isn’t worthy of him, he genuinely believes in the intelligence and rigour of Pike and refuses to believe that he, Gethryn, could do a better job.  This is a repeated refrain throughout — they’re on equal terms, even playfully goading each other in a “I’m sure you’ve thought of this…” way at times, and Gethryn is as confounded by events as the rest of them until almost the last minute.

Events conspire to force Gethryn’s hand, however, and he is called in when others start to die.  By the halfway stage we’re hunting a suspect, and here things take a Wallace-ish turn, with some loose logic used to explain away the deaths and link them together, confirmed at times by the sort of felonious searching and evidence-disturbing that would turn Inspector Joseph French’s hair white.  Along the way we get a Connington-esque Case with Seven Solutions list, and a swift dip into contemporary progression with the assertion that “a police car’s best is seventy miles an hour” when poor Inspector Tanner had been crawling along at 30 a decade before.  It’s on oddly poised plot, with a core idea that feels very Late Victorian and a Genius Amateur who doesn’t seem to fulfil either of those adjectives, but allow for MacDonald’s eye for an arresting visual flourish to come up with some superb suspense sequences and you’re in for a grand ol’ time.

The final resolution of the opening death will infuriate a good many…but then it was phrased in such ‘Purloined Letter’ terms that you’re kidding yourself if you don’t expect it to be disappointing.  And, in fairness, the idea here is actually a quite insightful one for the time — hell, it means very little now, but I remember my grandfather’s generation and the change they encountered that makes this smarter than 21st century minds may think.  And the book as a whole is marvellously written, full of perfect pen portraits such as the local railwayman who features in the closing chase, and Banner on page one “walking with the heavy-seeming by light-sounding waddle of the old sailor”.  Equally there’s joy to be found in MacDonald’s expression: the page-long cameo of Jordan, “one of the Big Four…big enough, as people had often said, to be all of them”, rain which “sounded against the leaded windows like handfuls of grapeshot thrown by angry gods”, or the canorous delights of “[t]hey did not know until meet they did that meet they were going to”.  Stripped of the structural hoo-haa of The Rynox Mystery (1930) or the dialogue experiment The Maze (1932) it’s nice to just be able to enjoy MacDonald’s prose…

…until the condescending class-consciousness of having to actually — yeuch! — talk to the maids crops up, and Gethryn turns into an oily, self-aggrandising prick who delights at his treating a mere mopper-upper as, like, a person with, y’know, probably feelings and…stuff (so long as she remembers her place, of course).  The early characterisation of Cambridge prospect George Ansruther felt almost gleefully parodic, but then you get to this interview towards the end and you realise that, no, the whole Ansruther thing is said with a poker-straight face and MacDonald’s personal politics — and Nick Fuller did warn me — perhaps don’t bear too close scrutiny.  It’s a minor element of a work that has much more going for it, and not really the note on which I want to end this review but, er, I’ve said everything I can think to say.  Oh, except that this Vintage paperback edition is a gorgeous object — thick paper, real heft and solidity to it…beautiful.  No wonder these go for a fortune on the secondhand market.

Also, I’m not entirely clear on why this was published under the variant title of  The Choice, to be honest.  Because they have a choice of four suspects for the initial killing?  Man, that’s the laziest-ass title ever if so…

~

See also

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: Given the initial crime setup, I had been expecting an intricate and complex mystery, but unfortunately it was not to be. So if you’re wanting to give Macdonald a go I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: One of the author’s most forgettable tales. The unprovable impossible murder of Mrs. Hale-Storford provokes the wholesale massacre of the cardboard cut-outs staying in the house, including by a good method which John Rhode would later expand on in In Face of the Verdict. The book is extremely short, and still manages to run out of steam well before the end, when it becomes a thrillerish manhunt with much rushing about by rail and car, rather than ratiocination and deduction. The solution to the first death is disappointing.

~

Philip MacDonald reviews on The Invisible Event:

The Rynox Mystery (1930)
Murder Gone Mad (1931)
The Maze, a.k.a. Persons Unknown (1932)
X v. Rex, a.k.a. The Mystery of the Dead Police (1933)

17 thoughts on “#487: The Polferry Riddle, a.k.a. The Choice (1931) by Philip MacDonald

  1. “a sort of Sexton Blake meets Edgar Wallace as written by Roger Sheringham and then slyly redrafted by John Buchan while Max Afford peers over his shoulder.”
    Err…so…how many books do I have to read before that clicks? Two, you say?

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    • How many books by MacDonald, or by any of those authors? With MacDonald I think the trick is to realise that he’s not trying to be Ellery Queen or John Rhode in the complexity stakes, he seems to largely be about innovating either in structure or form. So his narratives aren’t exactly complicated, but they have the Anthoy Berkeley-esque swipes at trying something different and possibly a bit new, and he would appear to have about Berkeley’s hit rate.

      My advice, if you want to try MacDonald, would be to go for the recently-republished The Rynox Mystery: it’s not complicated, you’ll definitely solve it ahead of time, but it’s charming as all hell, and if you’re able to accept the flaws in his plotting just so you can enjoy his loose, energetic style of writing then you’ll probably be a MacDonald apologist and find much in his work to enjoy.

      But don’t come to him for plots and clues. Good heavens, no.

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      • That was a flubbed attempt at a joke based on your complex reference.

        I do have The Rynox Mystery on my to buy list based on your review a few months ago. The only MacDonald books that I have at the moment are Mystery of the Dead Police (seems like an imaginative title) and the Collins Crime Club edition of The Maze. Is it just me, or is Collins Crime Club one of the few modern publishers doing legit cover art?

        Speaking of cover art – I’ve come across a few MacDonalds from the run of covers that your edition is from. They’re such strange covers, aren’t they. At first I was turned off by them, not really liking the illusion of a person. And yet, that illustration in your edition is fantastic. I may have to give these a second look.

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        • I apologise; my lack of a sense of humour comes back to haunt me once again.

          These HarperCollins Crime Club reissues are beautiful, gorgeously printed on excellent paper, bound in excellent boards, and with superb cover art — what’s not to love? I’m really pleased that the two current biggest publishers of GAD books, these guys and the BL, are putting such great effort into turning out such excellent physical objects — very pleasing aesthetically, and lovely to hold.

          I do love the MacDonald editions as pictured here, though — I’ve only ever seen them going for the sorts of prices I wouldn’t consider, but having finally acquired one I’m now wavering…if I see one I want, I’ll probably argue myself round to it…

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          • My one complaint about the Collins Crime Club books are that they are hard cover. I’d love nothing more than a nice paper back with that quality of art. With that said, they are nicely done hard covers, and I most enjoy that they got the size of the book just right.

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            • See, conversely, I love the fact that they’re hardcovers — any old fool can punch out a slew of paperbacks, but doing them in hardcover shows you’re serious about it…!

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          • No one who compares Crofts to Carr can be accused of lacking a sense of humour.

            This one’s a dud. The solution is a cheat and a silly cheat too that could never happen with real cops.

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  2. You continue to surprise and amaze as always! Certainly didn’t see your 4 star rating coming. It’s odd that you like Macdonald’s work more than me (I think?). I enjoy unconventional mysteries and I am always up for structural irregularities and shake ups, but for some reason Macdonald’s attempts at this don’t seem to work as well for me as I would have expected.

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    • I think I have been exceptionally fortunate in the way I’ve encountered MacDonald — had I read these same books in another order I may have come to an entirely different conclusion, being put off by the lack of complexity in Rynox or Polferry, say, when the Lacourbe list would have me anticipating just that.

      As it happened, X v. Rex was terrible (IMHO, at the time) and so it was all an improvement from there, up to the apotheosis of the delightful invention of Rynox, which ranks with the best innovating Berkeley did and is one of my happiest reading memories from last year. And TomCat’s timely comment about the early 1930s being when MacDonald started writing scripts for Hollywood also helped fame things and so improved my understanding and expectations.

      But, as I say, I completely understand how someone would come at this and not like it — yourself and Nick have read far more widely in the genre than I have, which is why I wanted to link to both of your reviews: there’s a legitimate point that this is a failure of a novel in many ways, and a badly written one on account of how much it jumps around in tone and subgenres…I was simply fortunate to go in expecting pretty much precisely that, and I got what I had foreseen.

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  3. I’ve a number of MacDonald titles – though not this one, ad it does sound rather enjoyable – on the shelves so I’ll probably return to him in the coming months. I do like his willingness to try out different approaches.

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    • Someone — I believe it was John Norris — recommended a bunch of MacDonald titles to me which veer more towards detection than thriller, and I’m keen to continue to explore this stream of his output. It’s not all going to be to my taste, and some of them are hard to find for the sort of money I’m happy paying, but hope springs eternal…

      And I already have Mystery at Friar’s Pardon, most importantly, and am very much looking forward to that,

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    • My experience is limited, a mere five books to date — four more than I thought I’d read after X v. Rex — but I do enjoy his innovations and the way he veers around so much in style and structure. The only really odd thing about this one is its being split into nine chapters of wildly inconsistent length, so he was obviously having a quiet month when he clattered this out on his typewriter; nevertheless, I found much to enjoy, and will no doubt find much else to enjoy in the future.

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  4. I picked up the same edition you have of The Polferry Riddle, plus three other MacDonalds – all of them for $2 each! That brings my total MacDonalds to six, all of them unread. Still no Rynox though.

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