Today was due to have been the sixth (sixth!) Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library but, for obvious reasons, it’s not. I can’t, alas, give you a whole day of GAD-based discussion, but I can at least fill an hour with someone from that line-up of exceptionally knowledgable people, Tony Medawar.
Lockdown rolls on, and so does my GAD-focussed podcast, which this time around sees me picking the brains of John Norris who blogs at Pretty Sinister Books and is surely one of the most widely-read members of our GAD coterie.
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.
Well, who’d’ve thought it, eh? Philip MacDonald first featured in my reading life in 1-star ignominy, and here he is not just beating all-comers to feature my 400th blog post, but doing so with a book that I — against my better judgement, nature, and previous standards — unabashedly loved with every fibre of my being. Quite the turnaround, and part of why I persevere with intially-disappointing authors. Just to clear something up from the off: no, I would not classify this as an impossible crime, despite its inclusion on the Ronald Lacourbe list being what brought it to my attention in the first place, but that’s hardly the first time this has happened….
If you’ve been paying attention, especially to my comments left both here and elsewhere, you’ll be aware that my typing is rather famously variable. 90% of the time I’m good, but that other 10% — man, some errors there are. Writing something recently, I made reference to the novel Five Little Pugs by Agatha Christie and then — catching myself in time to correct it — I had a thought…
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…
Well, this seems an odd choice of book to review the day after John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday, right? The sensible thing would be to pick one of his novels, in keeping with the occasional Carr-related theme of my posts of late, right? Aha! Well, good job, then, because this is Carr-related: in 1946 Carr selected what he felt to be the 10 best detective novels published to date (writing an essay entitled ‘The Grandest Game in the World’ that, I believe, was intended to be published as an introduction to a run of reprints of the books…which never materialised due to copyright issues) and this was one of them. I really did not like the first MacDonald book I read (X v. Rex) and was warned in advance by both TomCat and Noah that this isn’t a particularly good book…so that all boded well, hey?
Philip MacDonald first came to my attention for having written a handful of impossible crime novels but this is not one of them, and nor does it feature his series sleuth Anthony Gethryn. I stumbled across my copy of X v. Rex in a second-hand bookshop a good while ago and, as he was out of print at the time (one Gethryn novel, The Rasp, has since been republished by Collins) I picked it up for future perusal. And so, with the Crimes of the Century at Past Offences dipping into 1933, here we are – with policemen in and around London being targeted by a killer, and a government sliding into disarray as the previously unimpeachable bastion of order is attacked seemingly at will.
This is decidedly more of a thriller than a crime novel – no small cast of suspects, no scattered clues, no sudden moment of retrospective reanalysis, no clever misdirection – you just sit and wait for the suspect to be apprehended three pages from the end and then that’s over and done with. There is one piece of sort-of misdirection, but it’s revealed fairly quickly and by that point I wasn’t really all that bothered. It certainly wasn’t clever enough to warrant a closer reading. Honestly, where’s the appeal?