Philip MacDonald first came to my attention for having written a handful of impossible crime novels but this is not one of them, and nor does it feature his series sleuth Anthony Gethryn. I stumbled across my copy of X v. Rex in a second-hand bookshop a good while ago and, as he was out of print at the time (one Gethryn novel, The Rasp, has since been republished by Collins) I picked it up for future perusal. And so, with the Crimes of the Century at Past Offences dipping into 1933, here we are – with policemen in and around London being targeted by a killer, and a government sliding into disarray as the previously unimpeachable bastion of order is attacked seemingly at will.
This is decidedly more of a thriller than a crime novel – no small cast of suspects, no scattered clues, no sudden moment of retrospective reanalysis, no clever misdirection – you just sit and wait for the suspect to be apprehended three pages from the end and then that’s over and done with. There is one piece of sort-of misdirection, but it’s revealed fairly quickly and by that point I wasn’t really all that bothered. It certainly wasn’t clever enough to warrant a closer reading. Honestly, where’s the appeal?
In fact, this has caused me to reflect on why I don’t really do thrillers: there’s nothing to work out, and in 1933 they’re hardly likely to let the miscreant go uncaptured or unpunished, so it’s not really my kind of thing. It’s not even really a serial killer novel in the purest sense because, apart from a baseless conviction on the behalf of the authorities that these murders must all be carried out by the same person, there’s nothing to really link them except that the victims are all policemen. Even the methods themselves aren’t especially rich or interesting – okay, perhaps they were back then – and one of the murders relies on something that is lost to history as a cultural reference (thank-you Google!), though it would be exceptionally churlish to hold this against MacDonald or his book.
It starts charmingly with a thoroughly hilarious narrative of the expanding population of a London satellite town as City Folk move out into what would now be the commuter belt, and MacDonald displays a very light touch with broad strokes – it’s a tonally superb beginning, and a clever ruse sets up the first murder. Unfortunately, as the murders continue and the peril is accordingly raised, he doesn’t deviate from this lightness – cabinet meetings are relaying briefly and lightly, panic in the streets is relayed briefly and lightly, confusion over how to respond to the threat is displayed briefly and lightly…never do you feel that MacDonald ever really gives you something approaching genuine fear, bewilderment, anger, or any of the other sensations that this conceit should be used to mine.
What we do get is a very long chapter detailing how difficult it is to find out anything about our nominal hero Nicholas Revel – who it’s fairly obvious is a charming yet shady bounder with a finger or two outside of the law from his first appearance – by way of reinforcing what a charming yet shady bounder with a finger or two outside of the law he is. And chapter 12 – tellingly entitled ‘Kaleidoscope’ – is simply a lazy stirring of some ingredients that have been hastily thrown in, with MacDonald apparently trying to muster some sort of Everything Is Not What It Seems vibe and in fact adding nothing at all to the paper-thin plot.
There is a lot of Nicholas Revel saying he’s not really bothered about being involved, and then repeatedly ingratiating himself into things for reasons that I certainly missed. I think he’s supposed to show a healthy disregard for the shackled nature of the police, but instead he’s just a bit of an arse and a curiously marmoreal presence we’re simply expected to get behind because we’re told he’s the hero. It simply adds to the bloodlessness of this already callow approach to a thriller and, unfortunately, left me glad to simply be at the end so I could move on. The occasional well-turned phrase is not enough to recommend this, alas, and I’ll have to put it down as Really Not My Kind of Thing.
This book is brought to you by my 2016 Reading Slump, which is seeing me failing to get enthusiastic about anything I’m reading at present; an alternative perspective may be handy, then. Sergio at Tipping My Fedora – that wiser, saner, more reasonable head – hugely enjoyed this, however, and you can see his contrasting thoughts here. Puzzle Doctor probably represents the middle ground – he’s the Mummy Bear, if you like, with the lukewarm porridge – and his thoughts on this are here.
UPDATE I managed to overlook Noah Stewart’s take on this, as he reviewed it under the alternative title The Mystery of the Dead Police. He takes many of the things I don’t like and sees them as positives. So here it is, because even I trust Noah more than I trust me on matters such as these!