“In all the cases I’ve been mixed up in,” muses Colonel Anthony Gethryn early on in The Crime Conductor (1932), “I can only remember two which I was pulled into from the outside. All the others I seemed to fall into”. Cue a knock at the door from a constable because the celebrated theatrical impressario Willington Sigsbee has been found drowned in his bathtub over the road, and Gethryn falls into yet another murder investigation. Locked bathroom door notwithstanding, Gethryn is suspicious partly on account of “why a bath was wanted at all” in the middle of the “slightly orgiastic party” Sigsbee was hosting, and so the household comes under suspicion. Cue The Yard…
Welcome to the rollercoaster world of reading Philip MacDonald. The man has written some of the most enjoyable mystery fiction I’ve read, and one book that I suspect is in my favourite ten novels produced in the Golden Age, and yet I never really relax with a MacDonald until I’m at least a third of the way through. He has the ability to catch you out with something ingenious, but is equally content to simply roll on through the pages with plenty of tedious nothing that seems to come straight from the top of his head, and it can take a little while before you’re sure which one you’re getting. The Crime Conductor mostly delivers the latter: a mildly intriguing premise (that locked door is dealt with very quickly, and with a minimum of interest) that soon devolves into tedium, enlivened only by MacDonald’s ability to make some wonderfully mundane moments really sing.
After dallying over an opening chapter in which lots of motives are established for people to berate Sigsbee or wish harm upon him, we’re bought up to date with Colonel Gethryn and his host, the improbably named Travers Hoylake, before being ushered into the Sigsbee household for the reveal of murder and some natty deductions to support this conclusion. And then the fun seems to grind to a halt: much palaver is endured in meeting the suspects again, and probably the most irritating cliffhanger ever is employed to change the focus of the narrative from straight prose into a series of missives Gethryn writes to his wife that, frankly, might as well be straight prose. Has anyone ever written a letter the way people do in books? With attributed speech and action and everything? Why on earth do authors bother?
And, oh god, for all the references made to a map provided for this wife’s elucidation, could it not have been included in the book?
But, look, it’s not all bad, so let’s enjoy some of the novel’s merits. There is, for one, a light touch regarding the horrors of the First World War in Oliver Prideaux’s injury (“Of his left arm there was very little. One half of it lay mouldering somewhere between the Aisne and the Marne”), and we get MacDonald’s trenchant best in a few of his character notes (“Mr. Willington Sigsbee, his chunky little body clothed in a suit whose cut did credit to his tailor…”). There’s also a great deal of enjoyment to be had in Gethryn’s summary of the great and good he finds himself surrounded by — in writing to his wife, he is never caught in the thrall of hagiography that seems to infect everyone else when in the venerated company of the handsome Lars Kristania, the next big thing on the acting block, and the company he keeps. To see Mary Wheelwright summed up as “Always a leading lady. Almost an actress” is frankly hilarious, as is the rest of the “play-bill” listing Gethryn sends:
Wigs by Clarkson.
Handcuffs by Scotland Yard.
Brain Work by Anthony R. Gethryn.
Dirty Work by almost everybody.
Tears (in most cases) by Crocodile et. Cie.
This is the first opportunity I’ve had to spend time in Gethryn’s company — he offers his thoughts in The Maze (1932) without really appearing — and to call him a less priggish version of Anthony Berkeley’s gentleman sleuth Roger Sheringham damns him with faint praise (we’re all less priggish than Sheringham; that is Sheringham’s raison d’etre), as he comes across as a geuinely witty and charming man whom it would be a relief to see at a baffling crime scene:
“One of the many faults I’ve got to find with you, Gethryn…is your confounded inability to avoid splitting hairs.”
“And one of my chief objections to you, Assistant Commissioner, is that when it comes to splitting you seem to regard a twelve by sixteen elm trunk as a hair.”
And yet, for all this effervescence, you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop: for the repeated refrain of the house feeling like so much scenery to pay off; for the plot to reveal its flexuous, sinuous machinations; for something more than just a round of tedious interviews, and sudden rushing to a second murder to happen. Come the end and the reveal of our guilty party, you’re left to go “Oh, yeah, I suppose” because there seems to be very little to support this conclusion besides a couple of loose interpretations of actual events and so our killer has to confess while the police listen next door. There’s some psychology — actually quite a lot of psychology — that would feel more solid if it were earned in any way, but beside Gethryn’s conduct, which is as full of repressed fury as I think I’ve seen in this sort of scene before, there’s little to compel. I’ve never really thought before of the resilience it must take to confront killer after killer, and to hold onto one’s own standards while doing so, and it’s a bit of a shame that it’s this dull little book which has brought that awareness to my attention.
So, while not without merit, The Crime Conductor lacks anything to distinguish it and so falls by the GADside. Nick Fuller points out in his review (see link below) that MacDonald produced a lot of fiction in 1931-32, this being the last of nine books, and might have been out of fresh ideas by the time he got here. There are some vague attempts to inject variety into the presentation of information — conversations as play scripts, tables of evidence — but it lacks the investment of the similar ploy in The Rynox Mystery (1930) and feels like an attempt to be dazzling while patently aware that one has nothing with which to dazzle. We can be thankful that MacDonald was able to harness his creative impulses at times and produce some whip-smart books based on brilliant ideas, but there must be a flip side to that coin where the dots join to make a picture not as pleasing to the eye. I’ll be back for more, the excitement of MacDonald in full flight is hard to top, but I’ll remain nervous about every single one of his books I pick up. Wouldn’t want to be getting complacent now, would we?
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: Macdonald sometimes writes in a deliberately obscure way. I imagine this is to create mystification, though whether it is of the enjoyable kind I am not so sure. The worst passage with this issue concludes the first section, which is written in so cumbersome a fashion that I was not really sure what had happened. Thankfully Gethryn’s first letter to his wife explains that too! Part of me has the feeling that if you need your second section to clarify the first then perhaps it is the first section needs something of a rewrite…
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: What it lacks, though, is a compelling reason to exist. It was the ninth (!) book MacDonald published in 1931/32, and inspiration ebbed. There isn’t really a strong enough hook (situation), or a master idea (solution). It isn’t, in a word, ingenious.