Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
This is my second Macdonald read, my first being The Rasp (1924), which I enjoyed and found the depiction of masculinity intriguing (a situation mirrored in this book – hence the tongue in cheek post review title). H R F Keating in his 1985 introduction to this text (and used as the introduction to this year’s Harper Collins’ reprint) describes Macdonald’s amateur sleuth, Colonel Anthony Ruthven Gethryn, as being in the Great Detective tradition, a position Gethryn is aware of and self-consciously mocks from time to time.
The Noose (1930) commences with Gethryn being called back to London by a telegram from his wife, Lucia. On his return he discovers that Lucia wants him to save Dave Bronson, a man who has been condemned to hang for the murder of Blackatter, a fate which is to happen in 5 days time. Bronson’s wife, Selma is convinced that he is innocent, believing he would never commit so treacherous a murder by shooting a man at close range at the back of the head. The only thing which will save him is if Gethryn can find the real killer. Yet the case against Bronson is seemingly water tight. He is known to have disliked the victim. The murder weapon was found in his hand and he unconsciousness at the scene – the assumption being made that in the dark Bronson fell over something in the wood which caused him to hit his head on a stump. Oh and he has a note from the victim in his pocket asking him to meet him. So no pressure then for Gethryn…
However, Gethryn does not have to tackle the problem alone (though he does like to take the lead role), as Chief Detective Inspector Pike is willing to get involved as part of his holiday. There is also Lucia and two staff members from The Owl – a weekly review that Gethryn owns half of. From some initial theorising the team soon gets to work interviewing relevant people such as the man who found the corpse and another who was the star witness at the trial, as well the local gentry. Gethryn’s broad plan is to stir up a hornet’s nest, hoping that those involved in the crime will begin to worry and give themselves away, a plan which quickly bears fruit, sometimes in the most surprising of quarters. Nevertheless Gethryn is not out of the woods yet and time is running out for Bronson…
The Great Detective Figure
At the start of the story there is little fear of Gethryn suffering from self-esteem issues with those around him supporting the viewpoint of him being a genius sleuth or ‘mastermind’. His wife refers to him as ‘Zancig’, the name of a contemporary husband and wife team magician act, whilst Chief Detective Inspector Pike is said to have ‘damn near deified’ him. And if that wasn’t sufficient ego massaging then this rhetoric from his wife certainly would be:
‘It’s a woman. She wants help. She wants help more than any woman’s ever wanted help before. And there’s just one person who can help her. And’s that you, Anthony.’
Yet for all this Gethryn can be a bit dim, as it does take him a little too long to figure out that Lucia is asking him to find the real killer rather than get a guilty man off the hook. Thankfully such heroicising doesn’t get to become nauseating and in fact there are points where the pressure of the case makes Gethryn doubt himself: ‘Look what you’re asking, you women!’ ‘It’s Merlin you wanted, Unlimited…’ Moreover, despite her earlier praise Lucia is able to identify and mention Gethryn’s fear of failure. Though to be fair to Gethryn he doesn’t always take himself that seriously such as when Lucia asks him to tell her what he has been thinking. He refuses saying:
‘I can’t… It’s always like that with these great detectives. We think, but we don’t speak. We say it’s because we aren’t ready for speech. But it’s really because we don’t know what we’re talking about.’
He later goes on to disown the idea of him being a Sherlock Holmes figure. Interestingly despite the story beginning with the Gethryn fan club, the novel’s ending is quite different, focusing not on his greatness but on something much more poignant and meaningful.
Masculinity and Femininity Revisited
When I reviewed Macdonald’s The Rasp I postulated that the novel’s masculinity was in ‘an instable or vulnerable state within the central male characters of novel like Gethryn and Hastings, and that their masculinity […could] only be stabilised or supported if female characters […were] in some way shown to be lesser or weaker.’ So therefore I was interested to see whether the same thing would happen in The Noose.
The initial description of Selma Bronson seemed to suggest the contrary, such as in the following:
‘A long hand and strong, which clasped his with a strength which would have been surprising in many men, but which itself, when felt, was in no way like a man’s; and this despite the muscularity of the grip and the roughness – the slight but undoubted roughness – of the skin. He found himself shaking hands with a woman whose eyes were nearer to being upon a true level with his own than any feminine eyes which in the passage of his adult lifetime he could remember. Even in the half-darkness those eyes impressed upon him not only their intrinsic beauty but an impression of strength and … of oddity; of queerness. But an oddity and a queerness which had nothing to do with irrationality. Rather a difference like the difference between the eyes of a woman and a Maeve.’
This passage intrigued me for a few reasons. In some ways it is attempting to place Selma on an equal footing with Gethryn, as implied by their similarity of height and Gethryn’s recognition of this. Moreover, the passage also tries to normalise this as well which is reflected in the way Gethryn tries to qualify the type of ‘oddity’ Selma is. Furthermore, this equalising state disconcerts him, Gethryn preferring his women to more decidedly “feminine” and dependent – a preference reflected in his first encounter with his wife on returning from Spain and later on in the book when he is surprised by her astuteness: ‘Marriage is a funny thing. Until this moment, dear, I’ve never suspected you of logic.’
Additionally in this first meeting between Gethryn and Selma, the situation feels charged with tension, making you wonder whether Gethryn is attracted to her and one is not surprised when he asks her ‘if [they could] have more light?’ It feels like Gethryn was seriously worried he was going to lose control of himself, a threat suggested by the reference to Irish Queen Maeve (her name being she who intoxicates). There is also a vying for control and power between these two, though inexplicitly conveyed. An instance of this can be found here, where power is reflected in the sitting or standing positions of the characters:
‘He ceased speech. With a single, soundless movement the woman had risen. He found her standing over him as he lay in the deep, leather chair. He rose himself and stood to face her.’
‘‘Sit down again, won’t you?’ She sat. He remained standing.’’
With such an initial meeting I was keen to see how their interactions would develop. Yet like in The Rasp, Selma who initially seems competent and independent does a U turn, losing the strength she began with and Gethryn unsurprisingly is never perturbed by her again. So it seems like Gethryn’s masculinity is once again stabilised and bolstered by the side-lining of the female characters and the dominant role he takes in the case.
An aspect of the story which I enjoyed and would have liked seeing more of was the narrative insertions where the reader gets to glimpse at the effect being condemned to hang, has on Bronson psychologically. Likewise the depiction of the strain Selma is under is also interesting. Sometimes in Golden Age detective fiction there is quite a breezy light hearted atmosphere, with the investigation by the amateur sleuth being like a game – to a lesser or greater degree. However, Macdonald plays around with this, often having Lucia and Gethryn reach a high point of excitement as they think something is going well, only to have the atmosphere punctured with the darkening presence of Selma Bronson for whom this is not a game, but a matter of life and death. I think the killer was a good choice, though possibly I would have liked their role to have been a little more substantiated by solid evidence rather than relying on bluffing them into confession. Unlike in The Rasp, the solution is much better delivered in this book in terms of pace, though because Gethryn keeps his teammates fairly in the dark at times (and therefore the reader), the solution did have elements which weren’t as grounded in the previous narrative as they should have been, but I think Macdonald gets away with it. Overall this was a good read, especially in comparison to some of my recent reads, and Macdonald has an engaging narrative style and is able to create an interesting investigation for the reader to follow.