Friday, June 29, 2007

Cornerstone: The Rasp by Philip MacDonald.

I thought I would devote part of this summer to catching up on the books I've missed on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list---those mysteries published between 1748 and 1952 that were deemed essential by Howard Haycraft and Frederic Dannay. To date, I've read 34 works on the list.

I've been intrigued by the work of Scottish writer Philip MacDonald (1899-1981) since I saw the 1956 film Twenty-Three Paces to Baker Street (which features Van Johnson as a blind playwright who overhears a kidnapping plot). MacDonald, grandson of writer George MacDonald, is probably best known for the Edgar-nominated The List of Adrian Messenger (1959), but two of his other works appear on the Cornerstone list: The Rasp (1924) and The Nursemaid Who Disappeared (aka Warrant for X, 1938, the basis for Twenty-Three Paces to Baker Street).

The Rasp introduces the "hawky" Anthony Ruthven Gethryn, a former WWI secret agent, who looks into the murder of a cabinet minister. The hulking secretary is arrested, as his fingerprints were found on the murder weapon (a wood-rasp, a tool used in furniture making), and the grandfather clock was obligingly stopped to provide the time of the murder. Or does it? Gethryn is suspicious of the obvious clues.

The book poses some challenges for the modern reader, in a lengthy chapter of exposition as Gethryn explains his process for uncovering the murderer, and in the portrayal of two female characters who are presented as the epitome of competence until relatively minor circumstances cause them to change into quivering blobs of gelatin, and the male characters pat them on their collective heads. However, Gethryn is more than a dilettante amateur detective; hints of nasty goings-on during the war point to a need to atone through private investigation, while phrases such as "some cold, dark beastliness brooded everywhere" show an awareness of the dirtiness of the job. MacDonald has a facility for the well-turned phrase and a healthy sense of humor, as seen in the description of the newspaper editor Hastings as "looking, as a woman once said of him, rather like a stalwart and handsome chicken."

MacDonald once said, "The ideal detective story is a sort of competition between the author and the reader." I have to admit that I guessed the perpetrator, but the character of Gethryn, the dissection of the seemingly open-and-shut case, and some sudden turns make The Rasp an enjoyable read.

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