X is for … X v. REX (1933) by Philip MacDonald

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog is nearing its end as it reaches the letter X – and my nomination this week, also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge, is from an author who seemed to be obsessed by that the letter of the alphabet …

X v. REX by Philip MacDonald

“Brown stuck to the time-honoured formula: “Now, then”, he said. “What’s all this?” “

A serial killer is on the loose and targeting policemen in 1930s Greater London in this innovative mystery by the great Philip MacDonald, one of the most daring and prolific authors of his age. He was so prolific in fact that he used several pseudonyms and this book was originally published as by ‘Martin Porlock’. In the US however it appeared under his own name, but with the title changed to the rather prosaic The Mystery of the Dead Police, which is a bit of a shame as this book is anything but dull. In fact, whatever the name and whatever the title (it was also filmed a couple of times, first as The Mystery of Mr X in 1934 and then re-made in 1952 as The Hour of 13) this is amongst the cream of the author’s output.

In picking a book for this particular letter of the alphabet, I always knew it was going to be one by Philip MacDonald – not just because he was a great mystery writers of the Golden Age, but also because he really seemed to like that particular letter of the alphabet, using it to craft several unusual names and titles; these include Warrant for X (1938), Rynox (1930) and perhaps oddest of all his 1920 debut novel, Ambrotox and Limping Dick (!).

MacDonald was an author full of energy and original ideas and this book seems positively to brim with them. He opens with an amusing description of the growth of the small Surrey village of Farnley from its tiny 19th century beginnings to its development into a significant part of the London commuter belt. This proves to be the start of a thematic pattern for the book as a whole, in which we are frequently provided with macro and micro perspectives on the action. In this small village, through a clever ruse, a policeman is murdered within his own police station, after which the action switches to London where several more murders occur – as with the earlier Murder Gone Mad (1931). In fact this is a book with a very high body count, with a dozen policemen assassinated by the time it is over. It is a testament to the author’s ingenuity that not only does this never becomes dull or repetitive but that it is a template that would be endlessly copied by the likes of Jeffery Deaver, in which we judge a book by the clever ways in which the villain outwits the heroes to commit a series of elaborate murders before eventually being captured.

“Then I got him. It went in slish! It was a better knife than the one I has used in Fortescue Street.”

The author seems in many ways to have delighted in creating a highly unorthodox protagonist, Nicholas Revell, one that like himself proves to be particularly clever at coming up with clever stratagems – what’s unusual about this character is that he is in fact frequently deceitful, a bit of a rogue, albeit a charming one; by novel’s end we are also fairly sure that he is also a career criminal of one kind or another, though definitely in the Lupin or Raffles mode. The villain of the piece on the other hand, who is revealed to us mainly though a series of fairly hysterical diary entries, is a fairly nebulous figure, defined by his actions and the anarchy he creates. Indeed it is one of the most astute aspects of the novel that, while only intended as a pacey entertainment, it doesn’t ignore the darker dimensions of a story in which we see government slowly destabilised by the concerted attacks on the London constabulary. Revell, for his own nefarious reasons, decides to help the Chief of Police, his daughter and the man she is in love with, a very foolish and very rich lord who inadvertently helps the killer when he knocks out a bobbie on the beat so as to steal his helmet. It’s a jape worthy of Wodehouse that then goes horribly sour and which turns what might have made for a very conventional romantic couple at the heart of the book into something a bit more morally complex and helps once again to give the book its extra edge.

MacDonald gives every indication of his delight in sparring with the reader and in the central chapter, entitled ‘Kaleidoscope’, he gives a real tour de force as he enumerates a long succession of events during the Summer of 1933 (or, as he coquettishly puts it, 193- ) that last several pages – and then rewinds and insists we look closer, giving us the background to some of these events, along with several amusing in-jokes along the way – one of these plays on MacDonald’s use of pseudonyms (which included Oliver Fleming and Anthony Lawless), such as with this actual novel, when he includes the following news item:

“Mr Victor Gollancz denies that Francis Iles is the pseudonym of Mr Martin Porlock”.

Indeed the book has an iconoclastic sensibility to match the murderer’s anarchic series of outrages against civilised society and the morally compromised ‘heroes’ of the tale, reveling in the opportunities offered by the thriller format for creating one surprising set-piece after another. This is a classic performance by a great author – I unhesitatingly give it five stars and add it to my expanding list of top 100 mystery books.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Crime Fiction Alphabet, Five Star review, London, Philip MacDonald, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to X is for … X v. REX (1933) by Philip MacDonald

  1. Ela says:

    You are reviewing some fantastic-sounding books! This sounds really good – I love that period, but it seems like Macdonald is having fun with the conventions of the genre whilst also adhering to them. Do you know if this is easy to find?

    • Hello Ela, thanks for the comments. There are plenty of copies around – the original UK edition can be had for a few quid from Amazon for instance – see here. You can also get copies of the Pocket edition entitled Mystery of the Dead Poiice very easily – here is a link to Amazon. Along with Murder Gone Mad these are great prototypical examples of serial killer stories but written well within Golden Age standards but with a very knowing twinkle in the eye.

  2. Bev says:

    I love that you used a Philip MacDonald book! And this is one of my favorites. I have a very good copy of the Pocket edition that you picture above. I’ll get this added to your list at the Vintage site as soon as I’m on the desk top (still having format issues when I use Blogger on my laptop. Grrr.)

    • Thanks Bev for the kind words, as always. I really enjoyed re-reading it as I’d forgotten just how good it was to be honest, but then it’s been decades since I last perused my copy (which is also the Pocket edition, bought in San Francisco in the late 80s I think). As for your Grrr, let me add my own as I continue to have huge problems posting to Blogger sites with my wordpress account – I have to submit about the comments 10 or 15 times! This is any of those accounts, not just your of course – no idea what’s going on – there must be an easier way.

      • Bev says:

        What I can’t figure out is why Blogger works just fine on the desktop and not the laptop. I really don’t want to have to move my blog (I’m the type who hates change)…but if Blogger doesn’t get its act together I may have to consider it……

        Got you updated now, by the way.

  3. Mike Ripley says:

    An excellent choice from a wonderful writer who was dismissed as a ‘careless experimenter’ by one starchy (British)critic and who is sadly forgotten now in the UK, though not in the US. Twenty years ago I had the honour of writing a Foreword to a reissue of MacDonald’s “The List of Adrian Messenger” (where the body count exceeds 50 in Chapter One!) in which I concluded: “Perhaps he was not as ‘fair’ or ‘logical’ as other crime writers of his generation, but his daring in carrying off outrageous plots is still infectious to this day. I for one would not have refused the loan of MacDonald’s imagination for a couple of hours.”

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  5. Yvette says:

    I have never read anything by MacDonald. At least that I can remember. I am now on the hunt for his books. They sound just the sort of thing I’d like. (LOVE the covers too!) I sometimes feel as if I grew up in an alternate universe. ALL these books I haven’t read. ALL these authors I’m not familiar with. And I thought I was a well rounded reader. HA!

    • Hi Yvette – I feel exactly the same as you – just reading John’s PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS blog regularly has my head spinning with the sheer bounty of material out there – for the next few months apart from my ongoing mission to re-read all of the Ed McBain 87th series I’ll probably just be reading all the authors that i picked up on from suggestions made through blogs like yours in the last few months – wonderful, innit?

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  7. David Eastwood says:

    Have you ever been lucky enough to find a reading copy of Philip MacDonald’s QUEEN’S MATE (1926 and 1927)? It’s very scarce and is going for over $3,500 on Amazon now. I’ve found a library in Ohio that is willing to lend it to me via my local library. Perhaps somebody should reprint it if it’s any good.
    BTW I greatly enjoyed reading MacDonald’s THE RASP last month and wrote a short rev. of it on Amazon. I’d read his LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER when it first came out long, long ago.
    Dave Eastwood (Long Island, NY)

    • Thanks for the comments David – I’m afraid I haven’t been able to read any of his early historical novels but well done on finding a copy! Would love to know if it’s any good especially as next to none of his books are in print now – indeed, when Julian Symons interviewed MacDonald at the Hollywood Retirement Home, the octogenarian writer ruefully remarked that the library had not one of his works.

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