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.) 

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