X v. Rex (1933) by Philip Macdonald

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?

Overall Thoughts

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.

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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.

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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.

Rating: 3.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Mask

For another opinion try Sergio’s review at Tipping My Fedora or JJ’s review at The Invisible Event or the Puzzle Doctor’s review at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. Spoilt for choice really!

See Also:

The Rasp (1924)

The Noose (1930)


  1. Great review (and thanks for the kind mention). One suspects that what MacDonald was doing at the time was very eye-catching but now seems no big deal – the curse of the innovator! His energy and humour usually gets me through even if I see through the ingenuity now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was my first Macdonald and, as my review above attests, I did not enjoy it one bit — how they they be sure the same person is doing the killing when there’s no clear evidence to suggest it (like a repeated motive), for one? But, I’ve gone on to read more — and will read more still — and I’m with Sergio in feeliung that Macdonald innovated in a way that was very new but was discarded quite quickly. He’s like a less successful Anthony Berkeley in this regard, trying to push the genre somewhere new, not really too concerned (one hopes!) how he’ll be viewed in the long term.

    I enjoyed Murder Gone Mad a great deal more, though possibly in part because I was warned that it was bloody awful, and I intend to read a couple of the Collins Crime Club reprints that are and will be available — I’ve become intrigued by the innovators and those who experiemented. I’ll take a successful standard who/whodunnit with a blistering pace and numerous awesome reveals any day of the week, but I do find my mind creeping back over the interesting missteps, or those who haven’t aged quite so brilliantly but were doing valuable work amidst their contemporaries. Macdonald seems to fit in that strata, and so warrants further investigation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is my first experience of Macdonald’s innovative style as The Rasp and The Noose are much more standard mysteries, which I enjoyed more. That is always the risk with experimentation, it might look clever, but it might not lead to a good read. Aside from the two you mention which other Macdonald books have you read? In a way I was a bit gutted when Heyer won the vote at the last Bodies in the Library conference, over which of these two should have gotten into the detection club. Grave miscarriage of justice!


      • Only this and MGM for me so far, both of which feel like they’re striving for new things. Though I have my eye on The Maze and the forthcoming The Rynox Mystery — The Noose and The Rasp don’t quite sound like my kinda thing, so I’m giving them a miss until I decide whether to proceed further with Macdonald.

        And, yeah, don’t get me started on Heyer. How someone who didn’t even write her own plots got voted in is beyond me…


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