Sunday 10 February 2013

Philip MacDonald, Part 4: Rynox

Time to return to the work of Philip MacDonald (1900-1980).

I’ve now got hold of a stack of his mystery novels and I’m working my way through them.

First up is the intriguingly titled Rynox, also known as The Rynox Mystery, The Rynox Murder and, for those who really like to remove any ambiguity, The Rynox Murder Mystery.

Rynox is the name of a company which is in difficult financial straits when its chief executive is murdered. His son takes over the company and unravels the mystery of his father’s killing.

The book is a little dated and when, on page 52, the black page boy at a fashionable restaurant is cheerily greeted by the heroine as “Sambo” the modern reader feels… well, you can guess what the modern reader feels.

But these sort of attitudes were par for the course among white writers in 1930, so let’s not beat up on Philip MacDonald in particular — though it is worth repeating that his working class character all tend to speak in colourful phonetic demotic: “Ow, Gawd save us! Wot’s this?”

The characterisation in Rynox tends to be a little crude, sometimes almost cartoonish, but it’s also tremendously vivid and vigorous and even minor characters make a big impression — like the Rynox secretary called Miss Pagan. Philip MacDonald knows the importance of a good name.

But the really notable things about Rynox are its structure and plot. 

MacDonald has always had a freewheeling approach to narrative, switching and juggling viewpoints and never hesitating to use newspapers, documents or an omniscient narrator to get his point across. (Don’t try this at home, kids, it takes a real master craftsman to pull it off.)

In Rynox he goes one step further, by amusingly playing with the sequence of events — starting with the Epilogue and ending with the Prologue.

And in between he divides the book into Sequences and Reels, as if it was a movie.

And it was a movie, twice. It was filmed as Rynox in 1932 and as Who Killed John Savage in 1937. The first movie was directed by none other than the great Michael Powell.

Speaking in 1970 Powell said that Philip MacDonald was “the best thriller writer in those days and he still is, as far as I am concerned, one of the best.”

To which I have to add that Rynox , for all its minor flaws, is a tremendously satisfying read. When I finished the last page I set it down chuckling with delight.

It’s a perfect little puzzle mystery.

And its plot is absolutely brilliant.

I can’t tell you too much about that plot, because I don’t want to give anything away.

But this book is well worth seeking out.

(Image credits: the lovely Crime Club cover is from Mike Ripley's admirable Getting Away With Murder blog which has an informative article on MacDonald and Rynox. The Avon Paul Bacon cover is from Ted Gioia's excellent Post Modern Mystery blog, which I've also linked to above. The vintage Bantam cover is from the Pulp/Mystery/Murder section of Pinterest. The two splendid dust wrappers are from Facsimile Dust Jackets, a marvellous resource for historians and book collectors — if you find an original hardcover lacking its jacket, you can buy an immaculate replica from them. Their site is a treasure trove of vintage cover art. Check it out.) 

Sunday 3 February 2013

J.G. Farrell: Singapore Grip

I recently posted about a book which I compared unfavourably with J.G. Farrell’s Singapore Grip.

Now that I’ve finished reading Farrell’s novel, I realise this is rather an unfair comparison.

Because Singapore Grip is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

It’s certainly in the top ten, probably in the top two or three.

But to hell with that kind of spectrum-disorder pigeon-holing.

Let’s just say this novel is beautifully written, darkly sardonic and both hilarious and heartbreaking. With beautiful prose, black humour and immaculate research Farrell paints a picture of the last days of Singapore before it was overrun by the Japanese in World War Two.

What is remarkable about the book is that despite being laugh out loud funny (in the most dark and cynical way) it never loses its tension or suspense. And the battle sequences crackle with terror and excitement.

The only novel I can think of which remotely compares to it in this regard is William Eastlake’s forgotten masterpiece Castle Keep, another highly unusual war story.

J.G. Farrell is a phenomenal writer. The first book I read by him was The Siege of Krishnapur (which won the Booker Prize in 1973). This tale of the Indian Mutiny was seriously impressive. It reminded me of a more satirical and surreal Patrick O’Brian.

But it was nothing compared to the stunning Troubles (winner of the so-called Lost Booker Prize), a story of Ireland in the throes of insurrection shortly after World War One. Troubles comes close to Singapore Grip in terms of brilliance and I recommend it without hesitation.

It also introduces the Major, a character who goes on to feature prominently in Singapore Grip.

Troubles was serialised in a splendid version on Radio 4, and I have that to thank for introducing me to Farrell.

The Siege of Krishnapur, Troubles and Singapore Grip form what is known as the Empire Trilogy. I urge you to read any or all of them. And if you go at it in chronological order, you’ll find the books just get better and better.

As you might have guessed by now, J.G. Farrell is my hero. He even wrote about cats. Here he is with a couple of them, in a wonderful photo by Snowdon.

There is a tragic epilogue to all this. Who knows what Farrell might have achieved if he had continued to write after Singapore Grip? But he died, drowning in bizarre accident which could have come out of one of his novels.

That was in 1979.

He was 44.

(Images: the cover of Singapore Grip is from Wikipedia. The cover of Castle Keep (designed by the great Paul Bacon) is from Amazon. Lord Snowdon's photograph of Farrell can be found at the National Portrait Gallery.)