Sunday, 16 June 2013

Penguin no. 1107: X v. Rex
by Philip MacDonald

'I said wrecked,' said the Secretary of State for War. 'And I meant wrecked. Don't you see, man, where this may lead us? Aren't there thousands of men and women, some vicious, some foolish, some lustful, some mad, all of whom have been praying night and day for some such collapse of authority as we're faced with? Don't you realize, man, that it wouldn't be beyond the truth to say that the whole of England's social fabric rests upon her trust in policeman? For trust in policeman is trust in the Law, which means the country's trust in herself.

The first police officer is murdered in Farnley which ten years before had been a small country town near London, but which had undergone a dramatic increase in population during the intervening years. At work in the new police station, a marker of the town's recent prosperity, and unaware of the danger he is facing, the police sergeant sends all three of his on-duty constables to investigate a burglary reported to be under way at a nearby house; they return to find him still sitting at his desk, and suspect him of having fallen asleep. But he is dead, having been shot through the forehead. It soon becomes apparent that Sergeant Guilfoil's murder is only the first in a series specifically targeting policemen in uniform. One month later a patrolling police officer is found dead in a deserted Mayfair street, having been strangled with a white handkerchief. A few days later another deceased policeman is found, this one the victim of a knife attack.

The account of these consecutive murders is interspersed with excerpts from the murderer's diary in which he records the mounting excitement he feels with each success. He is intent on collecting police officer victims and commemorates each successful kill with a knot tied in a ribbon. There is no thought of the men whose deaths he has caused as individuals with lives independent of the uniforms they wear while at work.

The diary is also a record of his arrogance and his certainty that he is too clever to leave behind a useful clue. The variation in the method he uses on each victim is intentional and carefully planned, as is the varying location; he plans to alter both method and location with every murder so as to not leave any footprint or pattern which could be used to track him. But he feels such pride in his successes that it is a frustration for him not to be able to own them publicly. His diary therefore becomes his confessor, also providing him with the pleasure of thinking on the shock people will feel when they eventually read his tale after his death. For now he contents himself with listening to the conjectures of strangers and reading the theories of the journalists, and enjoying his secret knowledge that they are all wrong.

And so the murders continue, and in time the public and the press begin agitating for 'strong measures', but what these would actually entail is always left unspecified, as there is a gulf between those content to call for solutions and those who must provide them. No new measure the police implement seems to have any effect in preventing the murders, as they must institute measures which will protect against any possible contingency, but the murder need only detect a single flaw in their defences. And because it is his obsession, the challenge of finding a way to get around the defences is something he enjoys. Every knew measure increases the degree of difficulty of the subsequent murders, which only enhances his pleasure and reinforces his sense of superiority with each additional success.

One point being made is here is that policemen were fairly vulnerable in the 1930s. They patrolled quiet and dark streets on their own, armed with little more than a whistle and a torch, and with no means of alerting anyone not immediately nearby should they come under attack, yet the presence of the police on the streets provided the citizens of London with an illusion of security. This story explores the implications for society when the police are revealed as being incapable of defending themselves.

I found the tone of the book a little too jaunty and facetious for my taste; the characters seemed always inclined to display a lot of attitude in their conversations, and I could never conceive of any of them as real people. But it is an interesting premise, as there is no clever, disinterested and altruistic amateur detective in this story to provide the police with a solution to their problem. We have instead the opposite - a man whose possibly unethical interests lie in bringing the spate of police murders to a close. 


  1. Wow! This sounds amazing and I was dying to read it till I got to your final paragraph about the jaunty tone, which seems a bit of a pity as the concept is fascinating. I've just been watching an excellent BBC series called The Fall, which also takes you into the mind of a serial killer. I shall certainly keep an eye out for this, anyway. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Harriet,

      I don't know if he was trying to lighten the tone of a book which deals with a series of fairly unpleasant crimes, or if facetiousness was particularly appealing to a 1930s audience, but it did seem misplaced. However I was interested in the way he explored the implications of the public's gradual awareness of the vulnerability of the police and what this would mean for society, so I thought it was worth reading.

  2. Replies
    1. It was originally published in 1933, under the pseudonym Martin Porlock (and at one point in the story the suggestion is made that Martin Porlock could be the pseudonym of Francis Iles). The Penguin edition is from 1955 when they published a whole series of crime titles in covers bearing these unusual vertical stripes.

  3. I have read through a number of your entries and find them all very interesting and entertaining. As with the above commentator, I wonder about the dates of publication of the books.


  4. Philip MacDonald was a first rate mystery writer in the Golden Age of detective stories. He was also very inventive. He wrote one of the earliest if not the earliest serial killer novel(Murder Gone Mad, 1931). He also seems to have been the first author to write a novel about a race-against-the clock attempt to save a man who is about to be executed for a murder he did not commit(The Noose, 1930). He is best known for his series detective Col. Anthony Gethryn. But for some reason he is not very well known today, which is unfortunate.



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