Like my last review, Macdonald is another author I haven’t read in a while. This story is an early example of the serial killer mystery novel, though from its opening pages you might be forgiven for questioning this, as we are told a brief history of a town called Farnley and some of its local policeman are called out on an emergency call, to a neighbouring country home. But very quickly they and the readers realise something is wrong when the call appears to a hoax and on returning to their police station they find their colleague dead, shot at his desk. After this point many policemen will fall at the hands of an unknown killer, who is prepared to use a number of unusual ways to finish them off.
We are given a more personal angle to the case in two ways. After the second killing, the daughter of the Chief Commissioner of the police, Jane Frensham, is distraught when the man she loves is arrested for the deed, though his own reckless and foolish actions do mean he is partially to blame for his predicament. This event opens up the story to various other characters, in particular Nicholas Revel. Initially he seems very helpful towards Jane but the reader and many of the other characters cannot help but treat him with suspicion. After all he is a man with seemingly no past and whose actions can only be described as romanticised manipulation. The other way we are given a personal angle on the murders is from diary extracts from the unnamed killer, which build up a picture of who they are as a person.
The bodies fall thick and fast in this book and pressure is mounting on Scotland Yard to solve the case before the army gets drafted in. But will they manage it?
Let’s start with the positives. Macdonald captures the varying responses to the increasing troublesome situation well, such as members of the public and members of Parliament. In particular I enjoyed the moments where the double talk of politicians is criticised, when one of the Prime Minister’s colleagues boldly takes him to task over the rhetoric he is using. It might be okay in speeches but this colleague wants to know the concrete measures which are going to take place, not empty words, however good they sound.
The way Macdonald explores the impact these crimes are having on the nation as a whole also interested me, given the political tensions and atmospheres of the 1930s. The same colleague who took the Prime Minister to task also sums up this theme rather well:
‘Aren’t there thousands of men and women, some vicious, some foolish, some lustful, some mad, all of whom have been praying night and day for some such collapse of authority as we’re faced with? Don’t you realise man, that it wouldn’t be beyond the truth to say that the whole of England’s social fabric rests upon her trust in policemen? For trust in policemen is trust in the Law, which means the country trust in herself.’
In many ways these murders are taken as a whole rather than the individual victims and their pasts being investigated, which made it a more unusual read for me, as I am used to a victim’s past and connections being explored.
I would also say that this book is quite experimental in its narrative devices as one chapter, which covers the month of July begins with a couple of pages, which in its journalistic tone recounts one after another the events that took place, ranging from thefts, dinner parties and dead policemen. There is even a moment of metafiction when the narrative says, ‘Mr Victor Gollancz denies that Francis Iles is the pseudonym of Mr Martin Porlock,’ (the latter of which was the penname Macdonald used to write this book). However there is a point to this long list, as afterwards Macdonald pulls together disparate threads in order to show a sequence of events and he pulls the reader up to focus on specific parts.
But now for the not so good parts of the book. To be honest, although there were some quite interesting moments there were also a lot of dull points, especially when you can see many of the characters barking up the wrong tree for a very long time. The reader can easily spot one of the big surprises of the book a mile away and one of the ways Macdonald tries to create suspicion and danger, shall we say, is not very believable. In the main we get to know the named characters at arm’s length, so I couldn’t really get attached to any of them and of course there is Jane who spends most of her time going ‘Oh’ – was seriously tempted to go out and get her a thesaurus. However the main disappointment for me was the ending, as how the serial killer was caught was far from satisfying.
So I think if you are new to the work of Macdonald I would recommend trying some of his stronger entries. This book, whilst not unreadable and without good moments, is more for fans of Macdonald who want to read all of his work and complete their collection.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Mask
The Rasp (1924)
The Noose (1930)