Monday, 11 May 2015

The Rasp, 1924 - Philip MacDonald

Between 1918 and 1926, in these eight years, some of the greatest mystery writers of all time made their first appearance: Agatha Christie, Freeman W. Crofts, Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and S.S. Van Dine.
In 1924 it was the time for a brilliant, innovative and undervalued master: Philip MacDonald. MacDonald was born in London in 1900 and made his debut* at 24 years with a classic whodunit puzzle, The Rasp, which was influenced by Edmund Bentley (for the setting and the characters), Richard A. Freeman (for the use of clues) and Freeman W. Crofts (for the importance of alibis). Some elements remind me  of The Red House Mystery (1922) by Alan A. Milne, a classic country house mystery which was the model for many further English detective novels.
The Rasp is far from being a masterpiece, but it is a good first novel, with some interesting and clever elements. It is the first appearance of Colonel Gethryn, special correspondent for a London newspaper, «The Owl». He is very similar to Philip Trent, the protagonist of Trent’s Last Case (1913), but we can also find traces of Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, the detective created by Dorothy Sayers. First of all, the Colonel falls in love with Lucia, an enigmatic girl, like Trent did, but her innocence, unlike Evelyn from Bentley’s novel, is sure from the beginning of the story. Secondly, Gethryn is a depressed man, like Holmes, always in crisis when he doesn’t have any mysteries to solve. Thirdly, the Colonel has some features of Lord Peter Wismey: he is an artist, but also a mathematician, strong, smart and confident. 
The love story between Laura and Gethryn through the story has a melodramatic tone, and this is one of the reasons why currently the novel appears a little old-fashioned. Although MacDonald is able to handle the whodunit elements (clues, detection and interrogations), the characters appear little defined and some explanations are absurd. The solution is logic, but the murderer is guessable and, as Nick Fuller says, «his resulting descent into madness [is] unconvincingly melodramatic». Gethryn, by the way, destroys the murderer’s alibi through skills that simulate Croft’s Inspector French.
This novel is highly recommend by such critics as John Dickson Carr (at first he included The Rasp among his 10 favorite detective novels in the essay “The Greatest Game in the World”), and Barzun & Taylor, which deemed The Rasp as «classic and epoch making» (A Catalogue of Crime, p. 365). Recently the quality of the novel is called into question by scholars such as Roland Lacourbe, Philip Fooz and Vincent Bourgeois, which wrote without mercy: “une brochette de personnages stéréotypés, un mobile de crime peu original, un détective auquel nul indice n’échappe, un assassin qui se laisse aisément diviner et une solution de crime impossible […] bien décevante (1001 Chambres Closes, p. 341). 
In my opinion MacDonald didn’t get the notoriety that he deserved due to the negative judgment that Julian Symons gave him in his essay Bloody Murder (1972). I totally disagree with him: he was not only a very talented mystery writer, but a superb novelist, who exhibited an astonishing mastery across a range of fiction genres. MacDonald wrote some of the finest British detective novels of all time, and the book Murder Gone Mad (1931) is one of the best crime novels I have ever read.

*Actually he had previously co-authored two novels with his father, Ronald.


  1. Good to see this book getting some new attention - i would argue that Symons' criticism of MacDonald to a degree matched your own - he liked the author for his ingenuity and sensational ideas but felt that he often fell down in the follow-through - i.e. his endings could be a bit poor, especially when compared to the set-up. I agree, DEAD POLICE and RYNOX remain two firm favourites and I was just looking at THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER over the weekend.

  2. I really enjoyed The Rasp! It's not perfect but it's written with tremendous enthusiasm. Gethryn gets to be a bit world weary in later books but The Rasp has great energy and is well worth reading

  3. I agree with my learned friends Sergio and Dolores! A good book and a fascinating author.

  4. Thanks for the comments! I am disappointed that he is currently so undervalued. Yes, The Rasp is not perfect (I totally agree with you, Dolores), but, for instance, Murder Gone Mad is better than many serial killer novels written nowadays. I liked Rynow as well (a succession of surprises), whereas I don't remember The List of Adrian Messenger very well. When I read it (years ago, in a bad italian version), I didn't like it.

  5. @Sergio, thank you. Symons in Bloody Murder wrote that MacDonald was "one of the most talented Farceurs [...] one of those writers who find it easy to think of an idea, but hardly ever manage to carry trough a fully coherent plot". I disagree with him: MacDonald's plots were often well constructed (The Maze is a great whodunit, I think), and he had a nice sense of rhythm. He was capable to handle the whodunit elements without losing the suspense: Murder Gone Mad has a creepy atmosphere from the beginning to the end, and the plot is fantastic as well. He produced crime novels of all sorts and, in my opinion, he innovated the genre. I think he deserved more than one page inside Bloody Murder.

  6. Well, I think that counts as praise, none the less :) Incidentally, Symons wrote a very nice intro to a reprint of THE MAZE from around 1980 that included a good interview that he conducted with MacDonald in his retirement home, probably the last he ever gave. He ruefully commented on the fact that their library didn't contain a single book he had written. Mind you, from the late 1930s onwards he was primarily known as a screenwriter.

  7. Probably it's my fault, I have an authentic admiration for MacDonald as writer, and I think he deserved a better regard.
    I didn't know about the interview, I'll check it out, thank you Sergio! :)