Source: Review Copy
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Telephone
I had heard of Philip Macdonald in relation to films but until this book I had not read any of his novels. The Rasp (1924), has a brilliant opening chapter where Spencer Hastings who part owns and edits a publication called The Owl, is interrupted one busy night at the office by his secretary Margaret Warren. Whilst on holiday she has come across the greatest scoop for the paper and has rushed back to make sure The Owl publishes the news first. The news of course being that Cabinet Minister John Hoode has been murdered at his country home, Abbotshall, with a blunt instrument late at night in his study. The chapter works well as the details of the crime are amusing intermixed with a behind scenes look at writing a scoop article on very few details. Margaret has also found out that Hoode lived with his sister, Laura, had a secretary called Mr Deacon and had two guests staying with him: a society lady called Mrs Roland Mainwaring and Sir Arthur Digby-Coates, who is a millionaire and philanthropist amongst others things.
Hastings decides to go one step further and on Margaret’s suggestion he asks the co-owner of The Owl, Colonel Anthony Gethryn to go down to Abbotshall and investigate. Gethryn jumps at the chance according to the narrator for three reasons: a severe case of boredom and lack of purpose, as a means of coping with the effects of WW1, within which he worked with secret service and also because apparently he hasn’t found ‘the right woman yet’. Gethryn’s ingratiates himself easily into the case as he has worked with Superintendent Boyd who is in charge of the case before, and he also knows Sir Arthur. It is quickly surmised that the killer could only have entered by the window and that the murder weapon was a rasp. Such information early on may make you think this a simple open and shut case but in fact the lack of motive and the good but not perfect alibis of the other householders make deciding who the killer is a hard task for both Boyd and Gethryn. Was this killer an outsider or were they within the household? Gethryn shows himself to be good at spotting clues as he inspects the crime scene, but it is the clues he finds in the garden which lead to the most interesting find of the case (for Gethryn anyways) and that is a woman. But having successfully located her will this solve the case or throw up even more problems and complications? What information is she hiding? And can Gethryn trust his judgement as he becomes more entangled?
However, whilst Gethryn is dealing with that, Boyd is far from resting and even makes an arrest, with some compelling evidence. But has he got the right man? Gethryn is not convinced and sets off on a number of other trails, which usually involve him driving dangerously fast in his car. The unveiling of the killer is a dramatic one, set on a stormy night and although I had considered this person as the guilty party, I certainly was unable to put together the proofs Gethryn manages to. The only improvement I would suggest for the ending is that the solution, though clever could have been explained more succinctly, as this did feel a little long.
I found Gethryn an interesting semi-amateur sleuth as he does take quite a brash and at times aggressive or manipulative approach to getting suspects and witnesses to reveal what they know. This is something which he partially recognises in himself (though only in regards to persons he is not emotionally interested or invested in), which is evinced when he says:
‘I shall go on thinking and spying and crawling and bullying until I find out who it was really.’
Conversely Gethryn is also to an extent portrayed as a knight-like figure, who is anxious about completing his mission and like a knight has a lady who he is devoted to:
‘Not even the golden-black background to his thoughts which was of the perpetual image of the Lady of the Sandal could compensate for the blackness of bewilderment’.
The relationships and interactions between men and women in this book interested me a lot. Initially I really enjoyed the character of Margaret Warren as she is component and successful in her job and is not a weak-kneed ninny. Furthermore, her strength of character is perceived by her employer Hastings who is actually annoyed by it:
‘Dammit woman, are you ever wrong about anything?’
And by this annoyance we should read he is intimidated by her strength. As the story progresses his irritation is also due to the fact he is in love with her, but is too nervous to make a move. The power balance changes to an extent during the middle of the book where alas our strong female character takes a nose dive and instead Margaret becomes a heroine who needs rescuing. Yet this rescue enables Hastings to declare his feelings, though I don’t think telling her he could only do so because she had at last made a mistake, was such a wise thing to do. However, this incident did make me wonder whether masculinity in this novel is an instable or vulnerable state within the central male characters of novel like Gethryn and Hastings and that their masculinity can only be stabilised or supported if female characters are in some way shown to be lesser or weaker. This felt strongly like the case with Hastings especially. One line in the book does seemingly contradict this reading when a woman out and out debases herself in front of Gethryn saying, ‘How lucky for little me that I’m a poor, weak woman.’ Gethryn surprisingly retorts that he ‘always believed in equal rights for women.’ However, I think this scene can also be read as Gethryn saying one thing but in his actions doing something completely differently. Moreover, the woman who says this is someone he is repulsed by so it might be natural for him to refute anything she says. I’m not so sure he would have said the same thing if it had been a different woman saying that line…
Finally something I liked within the book were the allusions to 19th century crime fiction such as Doyle’s Holmes, Gaboriau’s Mr Lecoq and Leroux’s Rouletabille. I think there is also a reference to H. C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune. In addition Gethryn is also keen on the idea that fiction is often more real than reality and this concept is interwoven into the way Gethryn works through the case:
‘His theory of the essential reality of story-books had played him false… The Great Story-book Theory was vindicated.’
Overall I thought The Rasp had a sound plot with a very puzzling case and clever solution. Its’ pace was on the whole good, though like I said the ending could have been truncated and generally I thought it quite an easy entertaining read.