Murder Gone Mad (Philip MacDonald)

  • By Philip MacDonald
  • First published: UK: Collins, February 1931; US: Doubleday, July 1931

My review

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“Equal to the best Mr MacDonald has written”? Well, no. The List of Adrian Messenger is livelier, faster-paced and more ingenious. Since Messenger wouldn’t appear until more than twenty years after the previous Colonel Gethryn, we shall ignore it. How, then, does Murder Gone Mad compare to MacDonald’s novels of the 1920s and 1930s?

Instead of the endless recapitulations (cf. The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, which summarises the plot every second chapter) and muffled oaths (“My God, Gethryn!”), Murder Gone Mad actually has that rare thing in MacDonald’s books: a story. The description of the effect the Butcher, a serial killer who strikes indiscriminately to satisfy a lust for pain, has on the small town of Holmdale – mob violence, attempted lynchings and despair – is as terrifying and disturbing as the murders themselves, which are much nastier than most contemporary detective stories (particularly the sixth murder). Perhaps MacDonald was trying to make a point about the animal passions (cruelty, fear, hatred and grief) that lurk beneath the façade of even such a respectable humdrum middle-class garden suburb (or ex-g.s.!) as Holmdale.

The detection is mainly police work, competent but not as interesting as the portrayal of the small town, and drags in the final section. The murderer is obvious from the beginning if one remembers H. C. Bailey‘s “Unknown Murderer” (SPOILER Lady Chantry’s horribly ghoulish sympathy for the relations of her victims and the curious expression in her eyes), but nonetheless interesting. It is also striking to find a multiple murderer whose motive is genuine Schadenfreude rather than an elaborate plot to disguise the one genuine murder (Agatha Christie) or to create a publicity stunt (Francis Beeding and Gladys Mitchell). We could, however, have done without the following tension-destroying line:

Upstairs, Miss Finch, her breath so laboured that her breasts seemed at times to be going to burst the silk blouse which covered them, stood before the bentwood hatstand in the passage of her little flat.

Blurb (UK)

Mr. Macdonald, who has shown himself in The Noose and The Rasp to be a master of the crime novel of pure detection, has here told a story of a motiveless crime, or at least a crime prompted only by blood lust.  The sure, clear thinking of the individual detective is useless and only wide, cleverly organised investigation can hope to succeed.  A long knife with a brilliant but perverted brain directing it is terrorising Holmdale; innocent people are being done to death under the very eyes of the law.  Inspector Pike of Scotland Yard, whom MacDonald readers will remember in previous cases, is put on the track of the butcher.  He has nothing to go on but the evidence of the bodies themselves and the butcher’s own bravado.  After every murder a businesslike letter arrives announcing that another “removal has been carried out”.  But Pike gets there with a certainty the very slowness of which will give the reader many breathless moments.  In the novelty of its treatment, the humour of its dialogue and the truth of its characterisation, Murder Gone Mad is equal to the best Mr. MacDonald has written.

Blurb (US)

This is the most bloody and terrifying book PHILIP MACDONALD has ever written, with more genuine dread and rending horror in it than a dozen usual mysteries.  It is exactly what its title states – “murder gone mad.”

Holmsdale was a garden city; a synthetic real estate development forty miles from London, where the air was pure and neighbours called each other “old man”.  But when Superintendent Arnold Pike of Scotland Yard reached it on a still November day it was no longer a model suburb, but a harried, desperate, terror-stricken community with murder rampant in its midst.  Brutal, secret, seemingly motiveless, the killer found his victims – and with each killing came a note signed “The Butcher,” weaving his incomprehensible pattern of murder…  Superintendent Pike found no other clues to work on but those notes, and the bodies.  Other evidence, motives, the instrument of death, were all missing.  And though Pike filled the town with his own patrols, the murders continued, planned with deadly cunning and executed with terrible skill.  Working slowly and steadily against tremendous odds, Pike reduced the number of suspects from the entire population of Holmsdale to twelve, and then set the thrilling machinery of a man-catching trap to work.  The bait was human, a blue-eyed girl with the courage to look death in the eye and face it down.  The climax Pike contrives with her aid is a masterpiece of breathless excitement.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (26th February 1931): The happy and thriving community of Holmdale (formerly a garden city but now repudiating that designation) is visited by a “terror” in which a long knife plays a prominent part.  A young boy on his way home from a gymnasium is the first victim, quickly followed by a girl from one of the most prominent families in the town, and an assistant at the local theatre, who was struck down while performing her duties.  Much to the disgust of the local police, Superintendent Pike of Scotland Yard is invited to Holmdale by the Chief Constable, and Pike’s unavailing effort to prevent three more murders taking place give a grim sort of satisfaction to Inspector Davis of the local force.  Colonel Gethryn, to whom Pike turns in all his more baffling problems, is still unable to leave his room, and the superintendent has to tackle the problem on his own.  A very bold and dangerous experiment finally unmasks the murderer in another attempt, and all parties concerned congratulate each other on the most startling dénouement.