RogerBW's Blog

The Rasp, Philip MacDonald 11 October 2018

1924 mystery, first in the Anthony Gethryn series. A cabinet minister is beaten to death in his study; Colonel Anthony Gethryn, with a background in intelligence work but now terminally bored, investigates.

Many fictional detectives are to some extent supermen, but Gethryn has effortlessly excelled at everything from his school days onward. It makes him, dare one say it, just a little dull; there's no break in the smooth surface on which to get a purchase, no individual quirk to make him anything other than the author's idealised vision of himself.

'Then—then—you are a 'tective, sir?'

'What exactly I am,' said Anthony, 'God Himself may know. I do not. But you can make five pounds if you want it.'

Well, all right, he falls in Lerve and doesn't immediately get what he wants, but even that seems to be of a piece with the rest; when he offends the lady, she later apologises to him. Two other women are blatant stereotypes, and "Jew" is clearly understood to be a strictly pejorative term. Yes, I know, it was unexceptionable in the era, but that doesn't mean that every writer in the era did it.

The actual mystery story is fairly decent. Everyone has an alibi, and most of those alibis will end up being broken; the wrong man is arrested, and it looks damning; there's plenty of evidence, though some is over-explained, while some is completely omitted during the main narrative. (Because the last fifth or so of the book is Gethryn's detailed reconstruction of how the murder was done, given after the murderer has confessed and been arrested in the form of a letter written beforehand; all the tension is off, and it verges on the smug.)

Anthony stood up. 'Oh, I know I'm a filthy spy. Don't imagine that I think this private inquiry agent game is anything but noisome. It has been nasty, it will be nasty, and it is nasty, in spite of the cachet of Conan Doyle. I know, none better, than to rifle your room while you were at the inquest this morning was a filthy thing to do. I know that brow-beating you now is filthier—but I'm going to find out who killed your brother.'

What evidence is left in the main story allows one to make a solid balance-of-probabilities accusation, and of course narrative form is an assistance unavailable to the characters; it's not entirely satisfying as a puzzle, but reasonably good as a period piece, and for character even if they're superficially drawn. Overall I found the book enjoyable as something that feels rather different from what was in the process of becoming "mainstream" crime fiction, for all it contains many of the same tropes. (But there's rather too much description of the battered body for this ever to be classed as a "cosy".) I'm not as vastly impressed with MacDonald as was Mark Valentine ("Sleuthing with the Colonel", in Slightly Foxed #43), but I certainly plan to read more.

Followed by The White Crow.

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