Murder Gone Mad (1931) by Philip Macdonald

1931 was a busy year for Macdonald, publishing at least 7 books, according to L. C. Tyler in the introduction to the Harper Collins’ reprint, an introduction which is very balanced in its appraisal of Macdonald’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. The book under review today is ‘one of the earliest books to make use of the serial killer’ and I was intrigued by the comment which Tyler makes on this story anticipating ‘the invention of CCTV as a means of detecting crime.’ The tale’s connection to real life is also interesting as Macdonald openly references the German serial killer, the “Vampire of Dusseldorf,” who was only executed for his crimes in the year this book was published, having claimed 9 lives.

So in a nutshell, this story is indeed the rise and fall of a serial killer, as experienced by the inhabitants of Holmdale and the police, in particular Superintendent Pike, who comes down from Scotland Yard to solve the case, his efforts stymied by a murderer who is always one step ahead. But can Pike still get the better of them?

Overall Thoughts

I think Macdonald starts this story well, with a very effective opening, which sets up the type of town the action is taking place in and its snobbish, well-contented residents. We get great moments of prose such as when the commuters returning home from London are said to be ‘like a moving carpet of black, huge locusts…’ Yet from the very first chapter the body count begins, commencing with a pain in the rear teenage boy. The killings escalate not just in number but also in there daringness. The tension of the opening chapters works very well as the bodies start appearing so fast that the police and other support services cannot keep up with them.

Macdonald writes at his best in this book when he is dealing with the inhabitants of the town, who are poked fun at for their depth of pride in Holmdale and I enjoyed how Macdonald gives us sequences where he takes a panoramic view of the town and its various occupants. It is in one such sequence that he delightfully satirises speech makers, who talk in the manner of Ronnie Barker: comically long winded. Despite becoming an increasingly dark book Macdonald does inject moments of humour such as when he writes that, ‘The two county policemen stood one upon each running board and thanked their Gods that now the Superintendent drove never at more than forty-five miles an hour.’

Yet what I think lets the story down a bit are the detecting figures. We are told early on that this sort of case is not for your amateur sleuth such as Colonel Gethryn, but for a body of detectives working on mass. But for all that the plot hinges on the decisions of Superintendent Pike, who in the end relies on some pretty amateur methods to get the job done. The ending in particular did not work for me. Equally I think it is the ineptitude of the detecting side of things which ultimately impedes the pacing and reader’s engagement with the plot. Consequently I was quite amazed to read that John Dickson Carr ‘listed it as one of the ten best detective novels ever written.’

Rating: 3.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Read by a fellow challenger, JJ at The Invisible Event, in fact, whose review you can read here.

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9 comments

  1. Aspects of this do sound quite intriguing – particularly that this is one of the first instances of a serial killer in fiction but also the setting sounds appealing. The flaws you found in the ending and detection process would likely frustrate me too however so I will look to start Macdonald with one of his other novels. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, there’s definitely no detection — a clever bit of stuff with working out where the letters are posted, but the culprit comes out of nowhere. Nevertheless, having been told I’d despise this, I rather enjoyed it — not my usual, and not something I feel I could recommend without the caveats Kate lists above, but it’s fast and easy to read, and feels innovative in how clumsily it does the things we now take for granted.

      Heaven knows what Carr was thinking when he picked this for his list, though. Mind you, I feel like that about most of the books on there…

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Heaven knows what Carr was thinking when he picked this for his list, though”
        Well, I feel the same about the majority of the books in your list of top 15 impossible crime novels ! 🙂

        Like

  2. The list of the 10 best detective novels was prepared by Carr in 1946. Seventeen years later, in 1963 he mentioned that he would change this novel with The Rasp by the same author.

    Liked by 1 person

      • The other 9 (as per the 1946 list) were:
        1. The Valley Of Fear by A. Conan Doyle
        2. The Mystery Of The Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux
        3. At The Villa Rose by A.E.W. Mason
        4. Death On The Nile by Agatha Christie
        5. The Lamp Of God by Ellery Queen
        6. The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley
        7. The Greene Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
        8 The League Of Frightened Men by Rex Stout
        9. Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

        In 1963, Carr mentioned that he would like to make 3 changes, keeping the authors the same. The new choices were The House Of The Arrow, The Chinese Orange Mystery and The Rasp (for the authors A.E.W. Mason, Ellery Queen and Philip Macdonald respectively).

        Liked by 1 person

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