X v. Rex (Martin Porlock)

By Philip MacDonald

First published: UK, Collins, March 1933; US, Doubleday, July 1933, as The Mystery of the Dead Police.  Also published as The Mystery of Mr. X, Collins 1934.

Blurb (UK)

MacDonald - X v Rex.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

X, symbol of the unknown, against Rex, the symbol of Law and Order and the People.  For the perpetrator of a series of appalling murders in the greatest city of the world to defy capture and remain at large, killing, is a blow at the very structure of society; how much more is this so when the victims of his knife are the guardians of the Law themselves?  A policeman is killed in amazing circumstances, in a country town near London – and the hunt is up!  Another and still another murder is committed until the apparently never-ending series of diabolical crimes engages the serious attention of the whole Cabinet.  Distinguished by clever characterisation and good dialogue, X v. Rex is a murder story on the truly grand scale – a story in which the excitement rises in dramatic crescendo to a thrilling conclusion.

My review

MacDonald - X v Rex US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Not a great detective story, but a gripping thriller and an ambitious social fantasy.  One of MacDonald’s multiple murder stories—c.f. Murder Gone Mad, The List of Adrian Messenger, and “The Wood-for-the-Trees”.  The murderer (only appears at the end) and murdered policemen are less interesting than their effect on society.  MacDonald goes one better than M.G.M. in that the murders affect not just a small town, but the whole country: newspaper campaigns, political repercussions (Prime Minister and a Secretary of War who may be Churchill), mobilisation of society / army to protect victims from the murderer, and undermining of the law.  Clearly these two books are the main influence on Queen’s Cat of Many Tails.

The detection is done by Nicholas Revel, one of MacDonald’s allies of justice who are yet unethical and ruthless—Revel is a criminal (gentleman-cambrioleur) whose activities are hampered by police vigilance.  Relationship with the Chief Commissioner of Police and his daughter Jane, and the suspicious Superintendent Connor, is excellent.

“Kaleidoscope” chapter impressive.

P. 109: ‘Mr. Victor Gollancz denies that Francis Iles is the pseudonym of Mr. Martin Porlock.’

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (6th April 1933):

This differs a good deal from most crime stories, but the differences are not all for the better.  The plot can be told in one sentence.  A madman known as X killed seven London policemen in three months, till Revel shot him while arresting him.  We are given instalments of X’s crazy diary; but neither X nor any of his victims are prominent in the story.  The prominent people are, first, the athletic Sir C. Vayle, who, while drunk, gave X a chance to kill his second victim, and repentantly devoted himself to trying to detect X; second, Vayle’s fiancée, Jane Frensham, daughter of the Chief Commissioner; third, the mysterious Revel; fourth, Superintendent Connor, who suspected Revel was X.  The reader is likely to suspect it too, till near the end; but the ingenious detective work one expects is almost absent.  Revel and Vayle caught X by what looks like a mere lucky guess.  And the expected revelation about Revel never comes; hints imply that he was a burglar to whom the doubled police activity caused by X was inconvenient.  However, parts of the book are good, notably the summaries of newspaper news and the War Minister’s talk to the Premier.