Sunday, 27 January 2008

Philip Macdonald

Like Shelley Smith, Philip Macdonald had a book chosen by Julian Symons for inclusion in the Collins Crime Club Golden Jubilee Collection. Like her, he is a writer of the past whose work deserves to be read today. I’d rate him as one of the most interesting crime novelists to emerge from the Golden Age. Even though many of his books have flaws of one kind or another, he had the gift of creating fascinating situations that keep you turning the pages.

His usual detective was Colonel Anthony Gethryn. Gethryn was in spirit a character of the 1920s, and he featured in The Maze, which kicked off the Crime Club list in 1930, but he appeared as late as 1959, in a weird but entertaining serial killer story, The List of Adrian Messenger. This is the book that, in its 1963 film version, included fleeting appearances from such unlikely Golden Age figures as Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster. George C. Scott was cast, rather improbably, as Gethryn.

There is something intensely cinematic about most of Macdonald’s work and it’s no surprise that he finished up working in Hollywood. He was associated with the screenplays of Rebecca and Forbidden Planet (and he wrote the novelisation of the latter, under a pseudonym.) These are credits that most writers would kill for. Oddly enough, he did not write the screenplay for Twenty Three Paces to Baker Street, a very good 1956 movie based on a Gethryn novel. The script came from the pen of Nigel Balchin, a writer of considerable literary gifts who sometimes ventured into criminal territory. Balchin's own work is of great interest, and I'll post about him separately one of these days.

Macdonald wrote two lively multiple murder books, X v Rex and Murder Gone Mad, long before The List of Adrian Messenger. He tried his hand at impossible crimes and wrote a few good short stories. Michael Gilbert, an even better crime novelist than Macdonald, said that the cleverly conceived denouement to The White Crow, an early Gethryn story, influenced the resolution of his play A Clean Kill. If you enjoy Golden Age detective stories, do give Macdonald a try.


Xavier said...

X vs. Rex is an awesome book, an astounding literary performance. I quite liked the later, non-Gethryn "Guest in the House" too.

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting. I absolutely agree about 'X v. Rex' and, though it's ages since I read it, I much enjoyed 'Murder Gone Mad.' I have 'Guest in the House' but have never got round to reading it for some reason. Now you've recommended it, I'll push it up the to-read list!

Ed Gorman said...

Macdonald is one of the few Golden Agers I really enjoy. He was a fine storyteller and a master at setting and sustaining a certain (and approriate) ambience.