Sunday, 1 July 2012

Murder Gone Mad

Murder Gone Mad by Philip Macdonald is arguably a landmark in the crime genre. Published in 1931, it is, as far as I know, the first Golden Age serial killer novel in which there was no rational motive for the crimes.

Murder strikes in the peaceful town of Holmdale in shocking fashion, when an eleven year old boy called Lionel is stabbed to death. The police receive a message from ^The Butcher” about the crime, and this sets a pattern. A series of young people, male and female, are killed by “The Butcher”, and panic sets in.

One of Macdonald’s regular cops, the Scotland Yard man Arnold Pike, is called in to lead the investigation, but although a passing mention is made of Macdonald’s amateur sleuth Colonel Anthony Gethryn, Gethryn does not play any part in the story.

More than 80 years after this book was published, it’s difficult to judge it fairly. The crimes are shocking, but by modern standards, naturally, the material is tame There is a surprise solution, in terms of the revelation of the culprit’s identity, but this is not a “fair play” mystery, and more seriously, there is no explanation of what caused the psychological collapse that led a seemingly harmless individual to commit such shocking crimes. The book is, then, a historical curiosity which may fail to satisfy most modern readers, but Macdonald was a pioneer in this field, and, for all his faults, he remains one of the more interesting writers of the 30s.


J said...

In a new introduction to a collection of three of his novels, Macdonald admits that he could not then (1963) write the book the same way, but would have to supply insight into the killer's psyche and motivations.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, J. That's a very interesting bit of info. He was certainly a talented writer.
By the way, I managed while wrestling with pc problems to publish this post today rather than on Friday as intended, but I'll do a different book next Friday in its place.

Deb said...

I don't care for serial/psycho killer mysteries because the killings are too arbitrary. (I particularly dislike the trend in modern mysteries of telling part of the story from the serial killer's point-of-view and using a different font to designate his voice, which I refer to as "psycho in italics" mysteries.) In fiction, I like a "reason" for the murder; sadly, in reality, too often there is no reason.

The Passing Tramp said...

In the late 1950s Macdonald (or someone for him) also deleted the completely gratuitous anti-Semitic references from the original edition.