One night, in the village of Farnley, Surrey, the call comes in to the police station of a burglary. The three duty constables promptly head out to find that it was a hoax call. When they return, they find that the Sergeant, who remained at the station, has been shot dead.
This is only the beginning of the reign of terror of the mysterious X. As his attentions move to London, it seems that no policeman is safe from him. Soon, many more officers are found dead and the police seem powerless against this mysterious individual.
Enter Nicholas Revell – a man of mystery with his own priorities. Only he has some insight into how to catch the mysterious X – but will the police follow his advice whilst they still have enough officers left to catch the villain?
After a load of Golden Age mysteries leading up to the recent Bodies From The Library event (which I will stop mentioning at some point) there were a number of recommendations that were given for authors that people might not have encountered. And Philip MacDonald was one of them.
Philip MacDonald wrote a load of crime novels, mostly in the thirties – this one was originally under the pseudonym Martin Porlock – and has some alternative titles, The Mystery Of Mr X and Mystery of the Dead Police. It’s one of the earliest novels featuring a serial killer – by the end, the mysterious X has claimed at least ten victims (I lost count but it’s at least ten). And the plot is nigh impossible to review without spoiling things. Let’s give it a go though.
The writing style is fascinating, hopping all over the place from character to character. It’s not always obvious when we meet a new character what exactly they have to do with the plot – if anything. There is some imaginative stuff here – notably the chapter that basically lists a series of events that take place over the course of a few days and then goes back and picks out the important ones for the reader.
The characters weren’t desperately convincing to me – given the sheer volume of them, they most seem to be there to service the plot, none of them being given enough time to establish themselves properly. The lead, Nicholas Revell, is one of those characters who only exist in books – a seemingly omniscient rogue, charming the pants off the ladies, annoying most of the men, tracking down the villain, all with his own agenda.
The plot… I’ll just say that going into the book assuming it was a mystery, I was extremely disappointed. If you were to apply the Decalogue to this, then it fails in at least two major categories. But it’s not trying to be that sort of book, so I can’t really criticise it for that.
But it’s fair to say, I didn’t find this to be the classic that people say that it is. Yes, it’s an original style and I’d really like to read one of MacDonald’s more traditional mystery tales. This feels like an experiment – maybe that’s why it was originally published under a pseudonym, Martin Porlock – but for me, it’s an experiment that contains some great parts but parts that do not combine to make a cohesive whole. Certainly interesting but not my cup of tea, but for the opposite view, do see what Sergio had to say about it.