The Nursemaid Who Disappeared (Philip MacDonald)

By Philip MacDonald

First published: UK, Collins, 1938; US, Doubleday Doran, 1938, as Warrant for X

Blurb (UK)

MacDonald - The Nursemaid Who Disappeared.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

This book marks the return of Philip MacDonald to crime fiction after a silence of four years, during which Hollywood has claimed his time, leaving detective connoisseurs to clamour in vain for a new novel from his pen.  He made detective-story history with his first novel, The Rasp, published in 1924.  It was notable, like its distinguished successors, not only for the brilliance of its conception, but also for its high literary quality and for an unrivalled command of suspense and of the macabre.  Six years late he made history again, when The Noose was made the first selection of the newly-formed Crime Club.

Now, in The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, he gives us a novel which must rank with his best.  The detection is really superb, and our old friend, Colonel Anthony Gethryn is in charge.  Need we say more?


Blurb (US)

MacDonald - The Nursemaid Who Disappeared US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Warrant for X is one of Philip MacDonald’s finest novels, and Philip MacDonald at his best is unsurpassable among mystery writers to-day.  Readers who remember such books as The Link, The White Crow, Mystery of the Dead Police, The Crime Conductor and many others will realise how true that statement is.  This startling new thriller involves first Sheldon Garrett, American author in London for the production of his play.  It later involves Colonel Anthony Gethryn, MacDonald’s crack detective; Lucas, head of the C.I.D., the far-flung police system of London, violent murder, inexplicable disappearances, a device for detection that is so good that it is apt to become standard police equipment.

It involves, too, the mysterious intricacies of the innocent-appearing employment agency known as K.J.B., Miss Bellingham’s new maid and a little man with a brief case which was the clue to terror and a cascading climax of action and excitement.

My review

This is a thriller, not a detective story. A few clues exist, and their significance is revealed a few pages after they are brought into existence. However, it fulfils the main purpose of the thriller, which is: to thrill. The plot deals with a hideous conspiracy so utterly monstrous and fiendish that it rivals Bailey’s most melodramatic excesses. A young Carrian hero, Sheldon Garrett, overhears two people plotting something monstrous in a café. He goes to the police, is ignored, and goes to Colonel Gethryn, before having two attempts made on his life. This doesn’t faze him, for he is such a hero that he can wander around concussed for three-quarters of the novel and still manage to perform incredible stunts. The plot (which is summarised at the beginning of every chapter, presumably in order to pad it out) involves a domestic agency given over to blackmail, and a new kidnapping plot (coincidentally, Garrett’s sister’s child was kidnapped and returned with half its brain missing). The background is a fairly drab London, whose inhabitants are clichés who wander around saying “My God,” “Good God,” and similar variants on the theme, and where three people are murdered. The Englishman Gethryn uses Americanisms the entire time.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Brian Hill, 12th February 1938):

Tom Garrett, an American playwright in London, overhears a conversation between two women in a teashop.  Their talk suggests to him that a kidnapping crime such as is too prevalent in his own country is contemplated, but he has no clues to their identity beyond a glove, a bus ticket and a shopping list left behind by one of them.  From this slender beginning Anthony Gethryn tries to discover an unidentified person who is going to commit an unspecified crime, even the projected victim of which is unknown.

This inverted plot gives Mr. MacDonald a chance to show his cleverness in adding clue to clue until, largely by a process of deduction, Gethryn has laid by the heels a triple murderer.  Humour, suspense and swift movement combine with excellent characterisation to produce an excellent story.


Observer (Torquemada, 13th February 1938):


Philip MacDonald has followed Lynn Brock back from exile.  He had not published a detective story for four years, and I, for one, had missed him.  In The Nursemaid Who Disappeared the pleasant, green-eyed Anthony Gethryn is still Reggie Fortunate in some of his quotations, just as Superintendent Pike’s tones are still Bell-like on occasion; but both strike me as a little subdued, or perhaps mellowed would be the juster word.  The conception of the tale is entirely novel; for most of the way Gethryn and the Yard are putting their heads somewhat violently together to discover whether there is going to be a crime at all, and if so what.  Until almost too late their efforts are stultified by a perfectly natural assumption on the part of an American playwright.  Setting aside the lifelike detecting and the unconventional angle from which it is applied, The Nursemaid Who Disappeared scores very heavily, in its last forty or fifty pages, as a thriller of quite masterly suspense.  In fact, those pages are the only ones I have read since I started reviewing detective tales which have produced in me the physical symptoms of anxiety.