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?
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.’
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.