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…
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.