Sunday 28 April 2013

Philip MacDonald: The First and Last of Colonel Gethryn

Colonel Gethryn is Anthony Gethryn -- he hates to be referred to by his military rank. An intelligence officer in both World Wars, he consults with the police on an informal basis.

He is Philip MacDonald's detective hero and featured in a sequence of some twelve novels which began with The Rasp in 1924 and ended with The List of Adrian Messenger in 1959.

I started with the last book, and then proceeded to the first. It was an unconventional procedure, but an enlightening one.

By the time he wrote The List of Adrian Messenger (great title, by the way), Philip MacDonald was a writer fully in command of his craft with almost half a century of experience, and it shows. This is a taut, expertly plotted thriller with evocative locations, memorable characters and a compelling villain.

The bad guy here is reminiscent of the monstrous antagonists in Thomas Harris or John D. MacDonald

Indeed, the scheming ruthless psychopath killing for gain could come straight out of the pages of one of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels.

The List of Adrian Messenger is a race-against-time thriller where Gethryn has to work out who the victims are, and why, and identify the killer and stop him. It's beautifully done and well worth a read. It has hardly dated.

The same can't be said of The Rasp, which as I said was published in 1924 and was for decades regarded as a masterpiece and a classic of crime fiction in the great tradition.

The Rasp appears to be MacDonald's first solo effort. His earlier works were two novels under the pseudonym Oliver Fleming, written in collaboration with his father Ronald MacDonald -- a name which, to the modern reader, seems hilarious.

Given that The Rasp is effectively his first novel, and that Philip MacDonald was still three years away from his masterpiece Patrol, I guess one should cut him some slack.

However, I found The Rasp a major disappointment. It is a whodunnit and features a 'locked-room' style puzzle murder. Unfortunately, the solution to the puzzle wasn't sufficiently original, convincing or ingenious to impress yours truly.

This is in complete contrast to MacDonald's Rynox, written in 1930, which was also a locked room puzzle, and is a work of sheer genius which had me chuckling with awestruck delight.

Much worse than the weakness of the central conceit in The Rasp is the gooey romance which encumbers the book (in fact, three gooey romances). This gives rise to some of MacDonald's most unfortunate prose. I was particularly amused by the line "a dark proud face whose beauty was enhanced by its pallor."

But, as I said, within three years MacDonald would be writing the brilliant hard-boiled prose of Patrol. And even here in The Rasp there's much excellent writing, as when he describes the "low angry mutter of thunder."

And the other early Gethryn novels are by no means to be ignored. I'm currently reading the fifth one, from 1931, and it's turning out rather well.

I'll report about it soon. 

(Note: I wish I could have included a link to the great Thomas Harris/Hannibal Lecter website Hannotations. But it has vanished and the real estate is now occupied by some jerks who want to offer links to "Lebanese Girls" and "Funny Funny Pictures". Like I'm going to click on those. Hannotations was a magnificent resource and if I'd known it was going to disappear I would have printed out every page. On the other hand, John D. MacDonald is very well served online, and Steve Scott's The Trap of Solid Gold, referenced above, is informative, detailed and a labour of love. Also, there were too many good Travis McGee websites for me to link to them all above. Check out this one by S. Rufener and also the handiwork of the admirable Book Slut.)

(Image credits: The striking black and white Bantam paperback of The List of Adrian Messenger (by Sanford Kossin, I think — shock update: I just picked up a copy of this edition (13 July 2013) and it's cleary signed, in the form of his initials, by Mitchell Hooks. Yippee) is from Good Reads. The groovy German The List of Adrian Messenger is from Prisma 631 on Flickr. The Vintage jigsaw cover of Adrian Messenger is from Amazon. The Vintage jigsaw cover of The Rasp is from Paperback Swap. The wonderful early dustjackets of The Rasp, one British and two American, are from the magnificent Facsimile Dust Jackets site. I urge you to shop there.)

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