Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
Last month saw Harper Collins continue their reprinting of Macdonald’s work, with the release of today’s read. I’ve read a couple of these reprints already and The Noose (1930) is currently my favourite. The introduction this time comes from the author himself – which he wrote for a collection of three of his books: Three for Midnight (1963), which contains The Rasp (1924), Murder Gone Mad (1931) and of course The Rynox Mystery. In this introduction Macdonald shares about how he finds it hard to like his work after he has written it, with any positivity rapidly fading. When considering the reprinting of these three novels from the 20s/30s, he was most concerned about whether or not they would be out of date. He then looks at each novel individually, commenting on the interwar period and mystery fiction and how he set about writing these three works. It was surprising, but also not surprising that he didn’t hugely like his serial character, Anthony Gethryn, ironically surprising himself that he kept him on. When it comes to talking about Murder Gone Mad he talks about how he would have had to write it differently if he had written it in the 1960s, believing he would have been compelled to link the serial killer’s behaviour to a childhood trauma or something. He says this differs to the time he actually published the novel:
‘It was enough then, that the murderer was mentally unhinged; that the murderer was killing without sane motive; that the murderer was eventually caught… That was the way we used to do it – and I’m not at all sure we weren’t right…’
In regards to The Rynox Mystery, he describes it as ‘a much lighter book than the others; lighter in every way. Writing it was really a sort of busman’s holiday’ and he thought that its satire helped the novel’s success. In short I would agree with its lightness, though Macdonald is arguably still doing some experimental writing, but I didn’t feel there was all that much satire, but then again I might have just missed it.
From the very beginning Macdonald signals that he will be doing something different with the structure of his mystery. It begins with an epilogue, which only begins to make sense about half way through the novel. There are then three sections named Reel 1, Reel 2 and Reel 3, which are further divided into sequences and after these sequences there is usually a very short section entitled: Commentary, which provides a pithy comment on the action. The novel ends with a prologue. Whilst in the hands of some writers this could become awfully gimmicky, I think Macdonald does a really good job with his more innovative structure, creating quite a distinctly different style from his Gethryn novels. A key difference is of course that there is no central detecting figure, heck there isn’t much of a peripheral detecting figure, yet given the plot type this works absolutely fine, as the reader already has their initial challenge of figuring how the epilogue relates to earlier events, which are later revealed. In addition, I think it is also worthwhile pointing out that one of the sequences in the middle of the book is composed of various documents, which made me wonder whether this was part of the inspiration for Macdonald’s later novel, The Maze (1932).
But of course I have not yet mentioned what the plot is about. Let me rectify this. In some ways this is not an easy book to summarise as it is quite episodic in nature. So the epilogue… The President of the Naval, Military and Cosmopolitan Assurance Corporation receives a very baffling series of packages stuffed full of banknotes and a halfpenny, followed by a brief note saying that the money was to be used by the corporation and not for personal use. Suffice to say the characters in this scene and the reader are fairly baffled as to why this has happened?
The novel proper then begins with the introduction of Mr Marsh, a highly unpleasant individual who is the nightmare of all sales reps, postmen and station masters. The postman describes him as ‘a feen in ‘uman shape’ and a further description says that ‘the dark glasses made pits in his face instead of eyes; his white teeth gleamed when he smiled his savage, humourless and twisted smile.’ It also seems that he is very adept at insults, as one very hungover ticket salesman soon discovered: ‘Give ‘em to me and tell me how much they are so that I can get away from your face. It’s not a pleasant face, I should say, at the best of times. This morning it’s an indecency.’ It soon becomes apparent that Marsh has a great animosity towards the main partner of Rynox Unlimited, F. X. Benedik, who also runs the company with his son, Anthony, and S. H. Rickforth. Marsh is being a big and unpleasant nuisance for Benedik, with his phone calls, letters and even visit and Benedik soon decides to meet him one night at his home. The rest of the story charts the outcome of this meeting, shall we say, and the series of consequences which follow.
Since I have already discussed the structure of the book earlier, I will focus my attentions elsewhere here. The plot type as I said works well with the innovative structure, but I think from about half way through the novel most readers will have figured out what has been going on. The story begins with a great deal of mystification, but perhaps simplifies itself too soon. A mystery being simple can be a great flaw in some books, especially if the writer takes 300+ pages to tell it. Thankfully though this is not the case here, as Macdonald writes all of it in a wonderfully entertaining manner and keeps the story short and sweet at 167 pages. Moreover the action of the story keeps your attention as you read to see how things will turn out. The only criticism I would level at the plot is perhaps the lack of surprise in the prologue, which would have had an added twist if it had been written by someone like Anthony Berkeley. The characterisation is delightful. I especially enjoyed Peter Rickforth, S. H.’s daughter. Yes daughter. For some unfortunate reason she was named Petronella, so you can excuse her wanting to revert to Peter. She definitely has a lot of spunk, which comes out well in one particular scene of the book, which I won’t spoil for you. She’s the sort of character you’d like to read about again. But even with the much more minor characters such as the postman, the station master, his son and the box office worker, Macdonald creates such a memorable image of them, providing a brief but intense snapshot of who they are.
However whilst the ending of The Rynox Mystery might have lack a little excitement, there is an additional surprise in store for readers once this story finishes, as Harper Collins have also included a short story Macdonald wrote for Something to Hide, which was published in the 1950s and contained 6 stories. The one included in this book is ‘The Wood for the Trees’, which is the only one to feature Colonel Gethryn. The introduction to this says that Gethryn, ‘returning to England to deliver a secret document to a Personage of Extreme Importance, is challenged by the British weather, a sense of evil and a mass murder’ of old, poor and unpleasant women. A highlight of this tale for me was how the characters judged and almost dissected the victims, metaphorically speaking, and ugliness as a connecting link between the victims was certainly intriguing. There is a blatant borrowing from Christie in the solution but I think the culprit will still surprise most.
Here’s hoping Harper Collins continue their work in bringing Macdonald into print.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Brunette