Clue to the Labyrinth

"The whole story is now before you: clues galore, I give you my word; and when put together in the proper order and the inevitable deductions drawn, they point resolutely to the one and only possible criminal."
- Ellery Queen ("Challenge to the Reader" from The American Gun Mystery, 1933)
Philip MacDonald was a horse-and dog breeder, screenwriter and a crime-and thriller novelist who pioneered the modern serial killer genre with such novels as Murder Gone Mad (1931), The Mystery of the Dead Police (1933) and the very late The List of Adrian Messenger (1960), but MacDonald was also credited with penning a few genuine detective stories – some of them made it into Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). Rest assured, this is not going to be yet another piece on some obscure locked room title. Something else found its way into my hands!

Recently, the Collins Crime Club, an imprint of HarperCollins, reissued an experimental detective story by MacDonald, The Maze (1932), which is alternatively titled Persons Unknown and originally had a good subtitle – namely "An Exercise in Detection." I think the description is very appropriate for a book that can best be described as a novelization of the "Challenge to the Reader" concept that Ellery Queen introduced in The Roman Hat Mystery (1929).

MacDonald stated in his preface that he had "striven to be absolutely fair to the reader." Or, as he described it, The Maze is a completely fair story that places the reader and his detective "upon an equal footing" by giving both parties all of the information in exactly the same form. The lion's share of the book consists of a lengthy transcript of a Coroner's inquest and this verbatim report barely leaves any room for fanciful prose or shrewd characterization, which makes this the storybook equivalent of a crossword puzzle or chess problem.

So this is not mystery novel everyone will be able to enjoy, but connoisseurs of the pure, problem-oriented and clue-strewn detective stories will no doubt be able to appreciate it.

The Maze opens with MacDonald's series-detective, Col. Anthony Gethryn, receiving a letter from the Assistant Commissioner, Sir Egbert Lucas, while on holiday abroad and the reason for this intrusion pertains an extraordinary case – one that could benefit from a fresh pair of eyes and a rested brain. Sir Egbert has enclosed the court transcripts from the inquest, all of them, and wants Gethryn to peruse them at his leisure to see if he can spot anything the police might have missed.

The problem MacDonald poses is of the classical kind: on the night of the 11-12th July, in the private study of a Kensington home, the head of the household, Maxwell Brunton, is murdered under bizarre circumstances. Brunton's right eye had been penetrated by a large lump of gold quartz with a long, blood-covered spur that had pierced the brain. A very unusual murder weapon and circumstances suggests the murderer must be one of "the inmates of the house," but, as the transcript shows, there's "a perfect gallimaufry of motive" that correspond with a number of potential suspects.

First of all, there's the victim's wife, Enid Brunton, who was "persistently harrowed" by her husband's constant infidelity. One of the women entangled in a liaison with her husband was her best friend, Mary Lamort, who was staying at the home at the night of the murder. Adrian Brunton is the only son of the victim, but his motive is threefold, because his father disapproved of the woman he intended to marry and that angered him. And there's also the huge inheritance. Claire Bayford is Maxwell Brunton's daughter, who widowed young, but she has invited a guest over at the home, Peter Hargreaves, which, for some reason, annoyed her father – as well as providing a potential motive during the inquest. Finally, there's the secretary and number of servants. All of them make testimonies and some even emerge as potential suspects.

You should take note that all of these characters only appear to the reader as named in the transcript. The only allowance given to characterization is how they talk (i.e. accents) or how they responded to the Coroner's questions (i.e. elusive or outright rude).

Gethryn acknowledged how the lack of a human element hampered him, which resulted in some self-reflection on my part, because, as a plot-oriented reader, I tend to snarl at characterization, but MacDonald effectively showed that a pure, undiluted and plot-driven detective story can have its limitations – which makes my failure all the more embarrassing. I completely failed in getting anywhere near the correct solution. Not even close!

I'm not entirely sure how fair the motive actually was, which seemed very modern for a 1930s mystery novel, but I should have identified the murderer. So that pretty much shattered my self-image as a brilliant armchair detective and crushed any ghost of a dream of becoming, as MacDonald advised in his preface, "a really big noise at Scotland Yard." However, that's also part of the fun of The Maze and this aspect should not disappoint any mystery reader who loves to match wits with the detective. As a matter of fact, if you're that kind of (thinking) reader, you should launch this title to the top of your wish-or TBR list. I also suspect fans of the Van Dine-Queen School of Detective Fiction will be able to appreciate The Maze.

So, now that we got the review out of the way, I want to end this blog-post with an observation about the book and author: MacDonald wrote The Maze around the same time he moved to Hollywood, which made me wonder if the book, for him, was also a writing exercise. It's practically written like a movie script. I got the strong impression he was practicing to build a story and distinguish characters with nothing but dialogue. Why not? You pen a pure detective story and simultaneously garner some experience for your second line as a scenarist. You kill two birds with one stone. It makes sense, right?


  1. I think that MacDonald was one of the true pioneers of the detective novel as an art form whose boundaries could be explored. I don't think he often gets the credit he deserves. In fact, in some quarters, there seems to be some sort of adverse criticism for reasons I can't understand. He has much of the feel to me of Anthony Berkeley and Henry Wade as knowing exactly what it is they are trying to do and doing something new and different each time.
    Some time ago, I completed my set of the Gethryn books. For some reason, the hardest book to get was Death on My Left. I have not read them all, but it seems to me he was a pioneer in the following:
    1. The psychopathic serial killer (Murder Gone Mad, 1931). I note that there were a number of mass murderer novels before that, but this was the first I could find which features a psychopath; the others were rational killers.
    2. The clock-race story (The Noose, 1930). This is the one where the detective has only a very limited time to solve the case before an innocent party is executed. I can't find any of this type before this.
    3. The transcript story (Persons Unknown, 1930). I had not read this one prior to your review, but I checked my copy and it is as you say; the whole book is a transcript. This may not have been the first of this type, because the transcript is in the nature of an epistolary novel. Probably the first of this type is The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams (1862-3!!), which was a collection of documents. However, the MacDonald book appears to me to be the first of this type which is a fair play mystery.
    4. The psychological profile novel (Warrant for X, 1938). Gethryn has to work with indirect clues.

    We will probably find more as we go.

    I have a question. It sounds from your review that The Maze has a sort of prologue where the police send the transcript to Gethryn and ask him to have a look. My copy is the Doubleday, New York edition (1931) with the title Persons Unknown. There is an introduction from MacDonald stating what he is trying to do, and then the transcript starts immediately thereafter. Does your copy of The Maze have some sort of fictional prologue? If it does, then I will have to buy The Maze also.

    1. My edition, the recent reprint, begins with two introductions (one by Julian Symons from the 80s and the other by MacDonald) followed by the short letter from Sir Egbert to Gethryn. After that the transcript begins. So maybe Persons Unknown is an abridged version of The Maze?

      However, I find it strange that they would remove that one-page letter, because it briefly explains why you're reading a transscript. Anyhow...

      MacDonald definitely deserves credit as one of the pioneers of the modern serial killer novel. Personally, I did not like Murder Gone Mad or The Mystery of the Dead Police, but they were among the first of such stories in the genre.

      I can't think of any specific examples off the top of my head, but I'm sure clock-race type of stories have appeared prior to 1930.

  2. It sounds like the New York edition left off the Egbert letter while retaining MacDonald's introduction. It sounds like an oversight because you need the letter. I will know more when I buy The Maze.

    As far as clock-race goes, this issue has come up a number of times, but I have yet to see anyone come up with an earlier one than The Noose. Perhaps you can float this issue among your friends. The essence of the form is that it is a clock-race; you have very little time before the execution to do the investigation. It is not just that you are freeing an innocent man from jail.

    1. The old GAD Group is not as active as it once was, but just dusted off my old username and asked them if they're aware of a clock-race story that predates MacDonald's The Noose. So let's wait and see.

    2. So far, the only answer came from Xavier Lechard (from At the Villa Rose): "Your commenter may be right however as all the books of that kind of the period that come to my mind are post-1930. Philip MacDonald was always ahead of his time so it would be no surprise that he created a whole literary trope out of whole cloth."

      You're probably right, Anon. Still surprised how late this trope was introduced into the game. Somehow, I expected it to be much older. And now I feel compelled to read The Noose.

  3. Interesting review, as I have had this book on my radar for a few months now but have let to take the plunge and buy. Whilst it's experimental intrigues me I am unsure whether it will suit me or not, as I am not a fan of Van Dine and I do like my characterisation.

    1. Yeah, fans of character-driven mysteries will not get much satisfaction out of this one. It's really a treat for the armchair detectives who wants a fair shot at beating the detective to the solution.