Sleuthing with the Colonel

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I’d never really been convinced by those claims made for particularly compelling books. Surely nobody really stayed awake at night, having to read on; or laughed and cried over the pages; or were so gripped that they missed their station. That was all just an amusing way of trying to explain how good the book was.

However, it is true that one day, absorbed in a detective story, I did what I had never done before on my daily commute. I missed my stop. Utterly absorbed by the mystery unfolding before me, I let the pre-recorded announcement, the flashing illuminated sign and the familiar landmarks glide past. It was only when I looked up to reflect on the latest twist in the book that I noticed where I was.

The writer responsible? Philip MacDonald. Of all the great crime writers of the Golden Age, It is he who can perhaps claim to be the most overlooked. Certainly, MacDonald has his enthusiasts even today, and some connoisseurs think he is the most involving of all the fine storytellers of that period. But he is hardly a household name, in the same way as, say, Margery Allingham or Dorothy L. Sayers; there is no society devoted to him; he is not often reprinted; and his books are generally only found in the dustier corners of second-hand shops.

This relative neglect is all the more surprising because MacDonald was much admired by his peers. He was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe prize twice. His early novel The Rasp (1924), which introduced his series detective Colonel Gethryn, was chosen by the American detective writer S. S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance, for his ‘library of great mysteries’. And a later novel, the remorseless Murder Gone Mad (1931), was selected by John Dickson Carr as one of his ‘Ten Best Detective Novels’.

The poet, literary editor and author of supernatural thrillers Charles Williams was also impressed by MacDonald’s power, his ‘sheer gusto of horror and inventive creeps’. In some Gold

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About the contributor

Though no longer commuting, Mark Valentine still combines railway travel and reading by taking the wonderful Settle-Carlisle line and the lesser-known Skipton-Morecambe route to such towns as still have a station and a bookshop.

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