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?