The Crime Conductor (1931) by Philip Macdonald

This title came my way late last year and despite it being in something of a precarious state, the book did not disintegrate on me during reading. It was first published in America in 1931 and came out in the UK the following year. Oh and in case you’re wondering the title has nothing to do with buses! Instead it is Macdonald’s series sleuth Colonel Anthony Gethryn who is described as acting like a ‘crime conductor,’ given the number of cases he falls into.

Macdonald was something of an experimental mystery writer, often playing around with conventions of the genre and with narrative structure. Today’s read is something in that line. The book is divided into three sections and overall the story takes place during November and December. The first and third sections are written in the third person, but the middle section is comprised of letters that Gethryn writes to his wife who is holidaying in Switzerland. These letters are very full reports of the investigation he conducts including different typographical formats such as logbook entries, an event written out as though a script from a play, and reports/notes from the police.

William Sigsbee has managed to secure the Hollywood actor Kristania Lars, though he had to pay him a great deal of money. Lars will be starring in Sigsbee’s upcoming play Harlequin’s Holiday and the opening sections look at how this decision affects certain others. We have Paul Vanesco who is now out of work since Sigsbee is no longer going to be doing his usual revue. There is Anne Massareen who is to be Lars’ leading lady, rather than Mary Wheelwright who expected to be. The playwright who is down on his luck is wishing he hadn’t sold the script for Sigsbee’s play so cheaply. Whilst on a ship sailing to Britain, a theatre promoter are mulls over how his own plans for Lars came to nothing, but can they be salvaged? There are also undercurrents rippling beneath surface within Sigsbee’s own household.

So it is no surprise that one night he is found drowned in his bath. Initially it seems as though he had slipped, hit his head and drowned in the bath by accident. But Gethryn soon bursts that theory, despite the bathroom door being bolted from the inside. After all why was Sigsbee having a bath during a party? Why did he not take a towel, dry clothes or even any soap into the bathroom with him? And don’t let Gethryn get started on the wrong order Sigsbee seems to have taken his clothes off in…

Whilst the murder theory gains substance the police find their prime suspect and soon have them under lock and key. But have they got the right person? Gethryn does not think so, nor do many of the suspects, (who unsurprisingly are all of the people affected by the upcoming play). Yet which one of them is the killer?

Overall Thoughts

Macdonald is something of a hit or miss writer and today’s read derives from the latter camp unfortunately. Things begin quite well as the narrative flits between the different people who are involved or connected to Sigsbee and the play he is going to do with Lars. There are quite a few names to remember, though in the second section of the story Gethryn does give his wife a suspect list in his first letter. This was very useful as it was easy to lose a name or two during the first section, not least because Macdonald sometimes writes in a deliberately obscure way. I imagine this is to create mystification, though whether it is of the enjoyable kind I am not so sure. The worst passage with this issue concludes the first section, which is written in so cumbersome a fashion that I was not really sure what had happened. Thankfully Gethryn’s first letter to his wife explains that too! Part of me has the feeling that if you need your second section to clarify the first then perhaps it is the first section needs something of a rewrite… [I also think this book really needed a map. Despite the many descriptions of the inside of the house, I still can’t really picture it.]

This is an odd sort of book as in many respects Gethryn sets out in an Inspector French fashion basing his ideas on the facts he collects. The reader, before getting these facts, is given the chance to arrive at similar conclusions to Gethryn by also being provided with the information he has, such as with the state of the bathroom. Gethryn builds up his ideas slowly working out how the crime took place before turning his attention to identity of the killer. When it comes to the alibis and motives of the suspects these are tabulated in the second section, along with a list of questions Gethryn wants answering.

Some of this was a bit heavy going, which didn’t help when Gethryn remarks that the information concerning the alibis and motives ‘looks, at the first reading, both dull and useless.’ He does add to his wife that ‘if you summon the courage to go over it again, you may find it neither.’ However, what makes the style of the book odd is that we transition from this almost dry investigation of data to an ending which revolves around character and personality. Gethryn does not seem to return to the data he collected in the earlier part of his investigation and the motive for the crime is one of character. Yet we do not get enough time with the suspects to see evidence of that character. After the opening sequences our time spent with the suspects is very minimal. We have no opportunity to really engage with them and they become almost like actors on a stage coming on and going off as their parts require, and some are rarely required at all. This is a great pity as concealed within this story are some intriguing characters, in particular Anne and her husband Oliver. Oliver is a lawyer with experience in criminal cases, though this is not allowed to affect the plot in the slightest. In the final third of this book when Macdonald remembers he has characters and that they need to do something, he tries to intimate a more bullying marriage between these two. Yet because we had hitherto only spent five seconds with the pair of them this comes out of nowhere and bizarrely disappears after one scene. To be honest I think it was merely slotted in to add one more motive, which hadn’t been brought up. Even more unusually Macdonald sets up several narrative threads involving some of the suspects yet does not think to tie them off at the end of the book. Maybe he forgot?

Most of our information concerning the suspects is given second hand, which again I think made this a less satisfying story and the experimental nature of the narrative in the second section ultimately did not add much value. Whilst it is technically a locked room mystery, the bathroom door is dealt with by Gethryn in two seconds flat, so enthusiasts of that particular subgenre don’t have much to get excited about, alas.

I appreciate I have not exactly extolled the virtues of this book, but to end on a more positive note I found Gethryn quite amusing at points. One of these occasions is prior to the murder when he is talking late one night with an in-law in something of a Bertie Wooster manner:

‘Primarily, a man’s legs were made to enfork a horse; secondly to give him something to put his trousers on, and thirdly to enable him to get about a squash court.’

No, I have not made a typo with the word ‘enfork.’ That is what it says in the book! I just wish there had been more of these moments where character is also shine through. Oh well hopefully my next read will be more successful!

Rating: 3.25/5

See also: Nick at The Grandest Game in the World has also reviewed this title here.

11 comments

  1. This is one of the MacDonald titles I’m keen to track down, though not on account of the locked room (thankfully, it would appear). It was recommended as something in my vein, and despite your misgivings in the above I’m still keen to read it. I’ve come to really enjoy McDonald’s lurches in tone and sudden reliance on character when previously there was none. Something about the wild ambition with which he approaches his stories really appeals, in spite of the flawed way they can come out. He’s not unlike Anthony Berkeley in that regard.

    Actually, I’ve just remembered that I have The Noose kicking around, I believe, so I’ll dig that out and read it in the coming weeks. A shame that the Detective Club reprints dried up, cos I was really looking forward to Mcdonald being accessible for once…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah in the back of my mind I was thinking along the lines of well I’m not enjoying this much but to be contrary I have the feeling JJ would!
      I would give you my copy to read but given your past history with books in a fragile state, (was it a Conyth Little or Lockridge title that completely disintegrated in your hands?), it might not be a good idea.
      However, I had a quick look online and there is a reasonably priced and more robust looking copy on ebay:
      https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/THE-CRIME-CONDUCTOR-PHILIP-MACDONALD-1959-PAPERBACK/362977743233?hash=item548328d181:g:QCQAAOSwm11eTZuL
      I remember enjoying The Noose. Hopefully it will be one of those rare moments when our enjoyment levels align!

      Like

      • God, well remembered — it was an Alice Tilton novel, though I forget the title (it was the one where her protagonist who looks like Shakespeare gets a fridge delivered to him mistakenly and discovers a dead body in it). That book wasn’t even falling apart, it as in great condition, but the spine just went CRACK!! and the pages fell everywhere.

        Thanks for the pointer to eBay, too — I live in hope that the Detective Club reissues might resurface, not least because the books they put out are starting to creep out in paperback. If those sell, maybe others will follow…the hardcovers were gorgeous, but I’ll take paperbacks just as happily.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah! A Tilton! I had a feeling it was some kind of comic crime novel. I think the title you are referring to is Dead Ernest.
        Did you stretch the book open too wide? I’m guessing you’re not the sort of person who intentionally cracks the spines of books *shudders*

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  2. Thanks for the review, and it seems like this might not be one I need to track down… 😅 I just finished the Evelyn Berckman book I mentioned earlier, where the crime only occurred on page 122; the novel contained 182 pages. It was well-written and had some interesting moments of characterisation – but seemed more concerned with the characters than the puzzle. I suppose this fits with your experience of Berckman?

    Liked by 1 person

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