The Crime Conductor (Philip MacDonald)

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I recently wrote that the Humdrums were ingenious, but rarely clever. Philip MacDonald has cleverness in spades.

In his best books, he tried to do something new. He invented the serial killer novel, and the “race-against-time-to-save-a-man-from-the-rope” novel.  He put the epilogue first and the prologue last, or told the story as a trial transcript.

Here, Colonel Gethryn writes letters to his wife, holidaying in Switzerland, narrating the case. He’s an agreeable, witty conductor on this crime tour. That, though, is the book’s novelty.

It’s a straightforward, conventional detective story. A millionaire theatre entrepreneur is drowned in a bathtub, and everyone in the house has a motive and opportunity. There are some good clues based on the order the victim’s clothing was placed on a chair; a reconstruction of the crime; and vignettes of the suspects à la Christie.

MacDonald found police routine a bore, so Gethryn summarises Superintendent Pike’s toil in a table. Barzun and Taylor, sticklers for orthodox detection, objected to MacDonald treating “good clues treated in a fantastically loose and garrulous manner”.

MacDonald, though, never commits what Carr called the unforgiveable sin of being dull. He’s a lively writer – and, as J.B. Priestley thought, the book “has great pace”.

What it lacks, though, is a compelling reason to exist. It was the ninth (!) book MacDonald published in 1931/32, and inspiration ebbed. There isn’t really a strong enough hook (situation), or a master idea (solution). It isn’t, in a word, ingenious.

“Though this quality of ingenuity is not necessary to the detective story as such,” John Dickson Carr wrote, “you will never find the great masterpiece without it.  Ingenuity lifts things up; it is triumphant; it blazes, like a diabolical lightning flash, from beginning to end.”

The solution – as Bill Deeck and Mike Grost have felt – doesn’t play fair. The murderer feels arbitrary. There are the roots of a strong, simple idea – SPOILER The murderer appears to be the catalyst for the crime; he provokes motives in others, but lacks a motive himself. We also dismiss him because our attention is drawn to another character, a handsome dark-haired man. (The murderer is blond.) The crime is theatrical; everything in the house is an illusion. END SPOILER But it’s unexpected without being surprising; few, if any, clues are presented, other than the murderer’s psychology, which we have to take on trust.

Blurb (US)

Colonel Gethryn’s collection of cases is becoming unique.  “I want to know,” asks Dr. Hoylake, “how it is you get into all these things – in the first place, I mean.  Does the Big Four ring you up or something and say – ‘There’s been a murder at number one, High Street, London.  Just go and find out who did it, will you?  Or what?”

“Generally,” said Anthony, “or what.”  His tone changed.  “It’s a damned funny thing, Travers, there’s some sort of a hoodoo on me.  In all the cases I’ve been mixed up in, and the number seems to be growing quite alarmingly, I can only remember two into which I was pulled from the outside.  All the others I seemed to fall into.”

Hoylake smiled.  “Sort of crime conductor, what?”

Anthony nodded.  “You’re about right.  One of these days they’ll find it out and put me away for the good of the state.”

Shortly after that conversation a policeman appeared at Dr. Hoylake’s door.  A man had been accidentally drowned in his bathtub in a house nearby, and medical assistance was needed.  Dr. Hoylake was not gone long.  The dead man was Mr. Willington Sigsbee, the great theatrical entrepreneur and he had undoubtedly slipped in his bath, struck his head on a faucet and drowned while in a stunned condition.  Nevertheless, Dr. Hoylake thought Gethryn ought to have a look.  Gethryn did, although it was then three in the morning.  “Which is it?” Inspector Merridew asked him, “accident or suicide?”  “Neither,” said Gethryn soberly, “Murder.  Call the Yard.”

Blurb (UK)

Kristania on the screen!  Kristania on the hoardings!  Kristania in the skylights!  Kristania the prince of a million hearts!  And then Kristania in a murder mystery!  What a catch for the press; what a thrill for the world!  Willington Sigsbee, the man behind Sigsbee’s Revue, had succeeded in engaging and bringing to London Lars Kristania, the idol of the films, to appear in person with Anne Massareen in Harlequin’s Holiday.  There are numerous people who do not like Sigsbee for this, and Sigsbee is found dead in his bath.  Anthony R. Gethryn almost apologetically appears on the scene.  He has more to do than Mr. Macdonald usually gives him, but he does it even better than he usually does.  Mr. Macdonald’s characterisation and dialogue are always delightful.  This time he has gone into an entirely new world for them, taking with him the inimitable Gethryn.

Contemporary reviews

The Guardian (16 March 1932): The only difficulty about Travers [in Christopher Bush’s Cut Throat] is that one finds him a little inconceivable. There is nothing inconceivable in either Scott Egerton [in Anthony Gilbert’s Body on the Beam] or Anthony Gethryn. They are as clear cut and as credible as Holmes himself, and on each his creator has lavished real care, for the most notable characteristic of both Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Gilbert is their capacity for taking pains. Mr. Macdonald’s The Crime Conductor is very well written. If theatrical and film stars don’t think and talk like that they ought to, and if this is a make-believe world it seems astonishingly real. There were many in it who didn’t like Willington Sigsbee, impresario, and there were a good many of these about when Sigsbee was discovered dead in his bath. The professionals, of course, settled on their victim, but Superintendent Pike, who knew his Gethryn, saw that that gentleman was not satisfied. The blunder of a second murder gives Gethryn the clue, and his knowledge of men does the rest.

This tale is only a shade less good than the far less flamboyant The Body on the Beam, by Mr. Gilbert. …

The Body on the Beam takes, one would say, first prize. The Crime Conductor is a good “proxime”…

The Observer (H.C. O’Neill, 20 March 1932): Philip Macdonald is an old friend from whom much is expected. The stage is always set for Gethryn. The audience is sympathetic. Even since his marriage he appears to attract trouble. He is, in fact, a crime conductor, and the new mystery which he solves in the end has many strangely attractive features. The culprit asks to help and is allowed to do so to his own undoing. It is a typical Gethryn case, and the reader will not ask more.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Plan of premises Gethryn’s wife being away, he can make her do the work by writing her long reports of “the case”.  This last is theatrical in both senses of the word, and what is deplorable, it is full of good clues treated in a fantastically loose and garrulous manner.

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