Friday, 21 December 2012

Forgotten Book - X v Rex

Today the serial killer novel is commonplace, but arguably, its origins are to be found in Golden Age detective fiction. My Forgotten Book for today is one of the very best serial killer stories from the 1930s, X v Rex. Originally the author was named as Martin Porlock, but this was a pseudonym for Philip Macdonald. He had previous as a serial killer novelist, and I covered Murder Gone Mad in an earlier entry in this series. That story does have some merit, but I think X v Rex, which first appeared in 1933, is a superior book.

The key to its success is relentless pace. The way Macdonald shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint, using very short scenes and lots of incident, is very modern. Of course, the style is dated in some ways, but for a book written 80 years ago, it has a remarkably contemporary feel. I also enjoyed the occasional shafts of wit. An example is when Macdonald offers a kaleidoscopic picture of what is going on in Britain at the time of the murders, and mentions that the publisher, Victor Gollancz, "denies that Francis Iles is the pseudonym of Mr Martin Porlock."

One of the other titles given to this book, and which was used in a film version which I haven't seen, is The Mystery of the Dead Police, which really explains what the story is all about. Someone is killing cops, with a great deal of ingenuity. The killer confides in a journal, extracts from which are included, and this gives some insight into his motivation - an advance on Murder Gone Mad, in which the culprit's nature was not handled satisfactorily. Macdonald, as many of his contemporaries were doing, was learning about the craft and structure of a complex mystery through trial and error, and here he shows a great deal of flair. The journal device has been used countless times since then.

Macdonald would later move to Hollywood, and work on screenplays for classic films as different as Rebecca and Forbidden Planet. His lively writing style was ideally suited to the movies, and it is equally effective in this story. The mysterious Nicholas Revel, who assists the police with their investigation, and is also a prime suspect, is a memorable character. All in all, a very enjoyable book. When I re-read it recently, I devoured it quickly and with a great deal of pleasure.



Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I really enjoyed re-reading this one last year, it really is one of Macdonad's best and it does feel very modern in its emphasis on ingenious stage-managed murder methods and so on. I haven;t seen the original 1934 filma daptatation, THE MYSTERY OF MR X, but did once manage to catch the remake starring Peter Lawford as THE HOUR OF 13 from 1952, which is available on DVD in the US.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Sergio. I'd love to watch the Lawford movie, and will try and track it down.