Friday, 20 December 2013

Forgotten Book - The Wraith

Philip Macdonald was one of the major British crime writers of the Golden Age, and given that he also enjoyed much success as a Hollywood screenwriter, it is surprising to me that his work is not discussed more extensively. I've always liked his work, while recognising that his inventiveness was matched by a certain haste and carelessness that sometimes meant his books fell short of the high standards of which he was capable. Today's Forgotten Book, The Wraith, is an example of both his gifts and his shortcomings.

The book was published in 1931, and my paperback reprint makes the very bold claim that "Colonel Anthony Gethryn is no longer merely an extremely engaging character, he has become a permanent figure in crime fiction." Well, perhaps not, but he was one of the more appealing Golden Age detectives in my opinion. Here he tells the story himself, years after the events took place. It's a good device, and Macdonald handles it pretty well.

The setting is a small Fenland village in the aftermath of the Great War. Gethryn is staying there, and is invited to dinner at the local mansion. His host is duly murdered, and there is, as usual, a small circle of potential suspects, one of them rather wraith-like. The set-up is excellent, and there is an excellent twist, which is the most effective part of the story and was probably the idea that sparked the novel.

The downside is that there are too few suspects, and they are too thinly characterised. For this book to have become a classic, Macdonald would have needed to put more effort into building up the tension and background as well as the people of High Fen. As it is, The Wraith feels, in parts, almost as insubstantial as that eponymous ghostly figure. But it's a reminder of Macdonald's talents, and a book which certainly benefits from his crisp and readable style. And many years later, it was referenced by Desmond Cory in an even more intriguing book, Bennett.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review.

I recently finally completed my set of the Gethryn novels; for some reason Death on My Left was very hard to get at a reasonable price. The Wraith is on my list to read.

I like Philip MacDonald's work a lot. He was highly inventive and original. I think he was the first author to write a "clock-race" detective story of the sort made famous by Cornell Woolrich: the sort of story where an innocent man is about to be executed for a crime and the detective has only a very short period of time to solve the case: this was The Noose (1930). In any event I cannot find an earlier example, although there is a somewhat similar situation in Verne's Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon involving solving a coded message.

MacDonald's situation reminds me of that of Henry Wade. If you leave these two authors out of a history of crime fiction there are gaps in the development of the genre, but they don't receive as much notice as they ought to, considering their merits.

Kelly Robinson said...

Before I saw MacDonald's name, based on title alone, I was expecting a horror novel. I haven't read any Philip MacDonald, and this sounds like a nice one to try.

Martin Edwards said...

Excellent comment, Anon, thanks very much. I haven't read Death on My Left, and don't have a copy myself. I very much agree with you about both Macdonald and Henry Wade, and the 'clock race' point is spot on. I can't think of an earlier example in the genre, either.

Martin Edwards said...

Kelly, I can also recommend The Noose, X v Rex. Warrant for X, and Murder Gone Mad

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