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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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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 Golden Age thrillers, murder happens at a distance, rather too tidily; its full impact is kept off the page and the crime seems merely an excuse for the detective to exercise his or her ingenuity. Williams recognized that MacDonald was different; he makes us feel the full enormity of the crime. ‘What a marvellous capacity for shaking one’s soul up!’ Williams said, reviewing MacDonald’s R.I.P. in 1933. While MacDonald is perpetrating that soul-shaking, he does at least provide us with a guardian angel, albeit a somewhat curt and sombre one. Colonel Gethryn – Anthony Ruthven Gethryn to give him his full name – is described as ‘an oddity. A man of action who dreamed while he acted; a dreamer who acted while he dreamed.’ The son of a country squire and a Spanish actress and dancer, he went to Oxford, studied mathematics, history and then law, was called to the Bar (‘but did not answer’) and served first in the trenches, then in Intelligence during the Great War. After that, he tried his hand at writing, painting and politics; none quite worked. With a legacy he helped start a weekly review, The Owl, whose editor often puts him on to various mysteries and crimes that he clears up. Thirteen times (in twelve novels and a short story) he is faced with danger and villainy, and thirteen times he triumphs. How? By sheer determination, attention to detail, resilience. Undoubtedly there is a hint of Richard Hannay, John Buchan’s immortal character, about Gethryn; the same courage and resourcefulness, the same faintly troubled and melancholic air. But Gethryn mostly confines himself to crime and only occasionally gets embroiled in espionage. He is under no illusions about the work he must do. A gentleman he may be, but he is not in the cast of the languorous, disdainful gentleman-detective. Gethryn knows he must get his hands dirty. ‘I shall go on thinking and spying and crawling and bullying until I find out who it really was,’ he says bluntly, in his first case. Still, he has a nice line in laconic wit. An acquaintance, bumping into him unexpectedly, exclaims, ‘Good God!’ To which Gethryn retorts, ‘You exaggerate, Sir Arthur.’ His abrupt repartee is not always appreciated; one friend describes him as ‘a disconcerting sort of blighter’. His creator, Philip MacDonald, came from a literary family. One grandfather was George MacDonald (1824–1905), the Scottish clergyman and novelist (see SF no. 35) who gained a new readership in the 1960s in the wake of Tolkien’s popularity. George was the author of the remarkable Phantastes and Lilith and also of fairy stories for children such as The Princess and the Goblin. And Philip’s father, Ronald, was himself a novelist, now entirely forgotten: Philip even wrote a couple of novels in collaboration with him, under the joint name of Oliver Fleming. Whether it was in the blood or due to much hard work, Philip MacDonald was acclaimed from very early on as a writer of quality. His crime novels are masterpieces of suspense. They may have many familiar ingredients – a gallant but enigmatic hero, a strong cast of suspects, and a sleepy English provincial or country-house setting – but they are written with calm assurance in clear, taut prose. And MacDonald was one of that handful of Golden Age detective writers whom critics suspected, rightly, of having literary qualities – just like Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham or Gladys Mitchell. MacDonald was born in 1900 and seems to have continued writing until not long before his death in 1980, but in later years he became mostly a Hollywood scriptwriter and lived in the USA. His best work was done in the Thirties, when for a while he produced four or five novels a year, with no appreciable decline in quality. He seems to have been a private and reticent individual. Hence, we only know he had a conventional education and served – when very young – in the Great War, in the cavalry in the Middle East, in pretty much the same theatre of war as Lawrence of Arabia. His novel Patrol (1927), drawing on his service, was regarded as one of the finest war thrillers and was a great success when filmed by John Huston as The Lost Patrol. His later film scripts included others with a desert setting, such as Sahara. For a while after the War he seems to have used his cavalry experience to breed and train horses for the Army, until he took up writing full-time. In the first Gethryn novel, The Rasp, the Minister of Imperial Finance (a splendid, though of course fictitious, office) is found dead and mutilated in the study of his Surrey home. Gethryn makes a call to an old political contact to get himself some semi-official status on the case, books himself into the Bear and Key in a nearby village, and begins his probings. The Minister’s secretary is suspected, but Gethryn thinks otherwise. The book was filmed in 1931 by Michael Powell, later to become one of Britain’s most eminent directors, and MacDonald wrote the script himself. The Rasp is often thought to be the best of the twelve Gethryn novels, but there are other strong contenders. The Noose (1930), for instance, gives Gethryn five days to save a man from the gallows. The convicted man’s appeal and plea for clemency have both been rejected, the police are convinced of his guilt, and there is high-level resistance to Gethryn’s involvement. In The Wraith (1931), Gethryn himself becomes the narrator of his first case, in the village of High Fen, and recounts the story to a crime novelist friend, a device that allows MacDonald some wry enjoyment in taking sly digs at the stereotyped practitioners of his art. This tongue-in-cheek, satirical trait was another pioneering aspect of MacDonald’s work, later taken up to wicked effect by Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin and others. MacDonald had similar fun in an earlier Gethryn adventure, The White Crow (1928), which features a writer of Boy’s Own type adventures whose pulp hero Carlton Howe stars in books such as Ho! for the Main, Slave of the Sampan (about Chinese river pirates, of  course), and The Darts of Death. The Gethryn novels were not MacDonald’s only achievements. He wrote six other crime novels; three more under the pseudonym Martin Porlock that were equally admired; and several under other pseudonyms. The three Martin Porlock novels are ingenious. The best is perhaps Mystery at Friar’s Pardon (1931), in which we are offered a locked-room mystery with an extra twist: the victims seem to have died by drowning in a room with no water. There are also supernatural hints, and MacDonald has fun with a character who is the author of light romances. He made further use of the supernatural in a character who appears in several short stories – Doctor Alcazar, ‘Clairvoyant Extraordinary’, becloaked, ‘Olympian-browed’ and gleaming-eyed, who sees crimes before they occur. Of his other books, Murder Gone Mad (1931) is one of his most highly regarded. It was one of the earliest to depict a pathological serial killer, rather than the more comfortingly human motives of money, revenge or political conspiracy that drive most Golden Age murderers. The book achieves three difficult things: it plays fair with the reader by providing all the clues needed to solve the mystery; it creates an atmosphere of bewildering, almost Hitchcockian tension; and it remains readable despite a cast of largely unattractive characters. MacDonald even had the audacity to make one of the key ingredients in the novel that most typically English matter – rain. This was the one that made me miss my stop. There are criticisms one can make of MacDonald. Some may find his style too brisk and his attitude rather hard-hearted, and not everyone will appreciate Gethryn, for the same reasons. But against this there are many striking qualities. As Charles Williams noted, MacDonald certainly had style, and ‘style can excite, style can puzzle, style can delight, for style is interest’. Yet that is not all. Beneath the succinct and supple style, MacDonald often demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the darker sides of character and society. Most of all, though, he knows his craft; few can match his remorseless ability to keep the reader engaged. One snoozing traveller I saw in my commuting days used to put a sign round his neck: ‘Wake Me at X’. Fellow passengers invariably obliged. I’m not sure what they’d think of a sign saying: ‘Remove Book at X’. Unless, of course, they were already Philip MacDonald readers. Then they’d surely understand.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 43 © Mark Valentine 2014


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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