Sunday 12 May 2013

Philip MacDonald: More Colonel Gethryn

Anthony Ruthven Gethryn (the middle name is pronounced 'riven') was the detective protagonist created by the gifted British novelist and screenwriter Philip MacDonald. MacDonald is now largely, and undeservedly, forgotten.

And the Gethryn novels, possibly with the exception of his earliest outing, The Rasp (1924), are still worth reading.

The Choice is the fifth novel in the series and was published in 1931. Interestingly, it begins as a classic 'locked room' type murder mystery, but then soon modulates into a chase thriller before returning to the locked room mystery at its conclusion. 

MacDonald was an intelligent and imaginative writer and the way he blends and bends genre conventions is altogether admirable.

The Choice (aka The Polferry Mystery and The Polferry Riddle) also foreshadows the final, and perhaps finest, Gethryn adventure The List of Adrian Messenger in the way it presents a race to stop a killer completing a sequence of assasinations, and to work out the reason for his murderous spree.

It also prefigures a couple of the murder methods in that later novel — the small boat drowning and the spooked horse. For a little while I even thought that the motivation behind the killing of the victims on the list would be the same in both books.

But MacDonald is much too good a writer to duplicate himself like that and, thankfully, The Choice eventually explores very different territory to The List of Adrian Messenger.

One thing about the Gethryn novels; even though he is a sleuthing genius, the police are never treated like dolts. There is an attitude of mutual respect — and affection — between Gethryn and the Scotland Yard officers.  This was even true of the first novel The Rasp. 

(I was perhaps a little hard on The Rasp in my earlier post. It did feature some excellent, vivid characterisation. Like the effeminate, corrupt private detective Mr Pebble, who only features on about one page but makes an indelible impression.)

And on a police procedure note, I was intrigued to see that even in 1931 the police issued the familiar caution: "Anything you tell us..." "I know, I know, may be taken down and used as evidence against me." 

Elsewhere in the novel, MacDonald is up to his old trick of rendering the dialogue of the lower orders phonetically, for the amusement of the reader. However, to his credit, he actually does a reversal of this procedure here when a taxi driver is asked to describe his fare. He says the man was a 'toff' and goes on to mimic the toff's voice as it commanded him: "Drave me lake L to Jook Squaw". Translation: "Drive me like hell to Duke Square."

MacDonald actually has quite a good ear for this idiomatic stuff, and now I've read an example of him using it to mock the upper class as well as the working class, it sits a lot more comfortably with me. 

And there's some fine little touches of descriptive prose: a floorboard is torn up "with a little crashing scream."

Incidentally the Mayflower Dell copy which I read, featuring the yellow lamp, is very misleading showing as it does the bloodstained cut throat razor. The whole point of the story is that the razor is mysteriously missing. But this isn't just artistic licence, it's fundamentally inaccurate in other ways. I won't say any more, except to add that the Black Dagger Crime edition, with its red cover, is much more on-target.

I'm keen to read some more Anthony Gethryn adventures. And if you're wondering what the image of the automobile is about, it's a French Voisin of the same vintage as the one Gethryn drives. (Also a favourite motor of the architect Le Corbusier.)

(Image credits. The generic but striking green, white and black Crime Club cover is from Fantastic Fiction. The beautiful hardcover dustwrappers, both UK and USA, are from the wonderful Facsimile Dust Jackets. The Vintage paperback with its jigsaw design (I'm beginning to realise this was a very stylish series) is from eBay. The red razor blade cover — much more relevant than some others — is from The Bunburyist, a blog which features a perceptive post about this novel by Elizabeth Foxwell. The Mayflower Dell yellow lamp cover is again from eBay and is exactly the copy I bought and read. The radiator of the Voisin is from Beloblog, where I learned about the Le Corbusier connection.)

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