Sunday, 10 August 2014

Penguin no. 79: The Rasp
by Philip MacDonald

     Belford stood where he was left. His lips moved soundlessly. The bank-notes in his hand crackled as the stubby fingers clenched upon them. Presently he raised his head and looked with blurred vision along the path through the trees.
     "Gawd!" he said, the refinement of the servant's hall now completely gone. "Gawd! What a bloke! What a bloody good bloke!"

Like Four Frightened People, this is another old Penguin which features an unfathomably favourable review from the time it was first published. A reviewer for the Glasgow Citizen considered The Rasp to be 'masterly' and 'worthy to stand on the same shelf as Trent's Last Case'. But while I appreciated Trent's Last Case, I didn't enjoy The Rasp at all, and rather than finding it masterly, I found it dull and far-fetched, with an explanation of the crime which seemed interminable and which took me several evenings to get through.

But my real difficulty with the story was in not finding a single character appealing — the female characters are either unfailingly efficient, given to hysteria, or, in the words of the protagonist, Puritan and sexless, while the male characters have been to the War and returned either neurasthenic or unscathed but speaking in the oddest way — a mixture of heartiness and bravado, and with what seems to be a rarely-overcome inclination to mock or patronise those of the lower classes.

It was the protagonist I found hardest to tolerate, although he was clearly conceived as a character intended to inspire admiration. He seemed to be an Ace Rimmer for the 1930s (and you can see this in the paragraph quoted above) — this would be fine in a work designed to amuse, but it is difficult to take when it is intended seriously. Anthony Gethryn seems to have excelled at everything he has ever attempted - sports, politics, painting, writing, and especially in his war service. And of course he is intelligent, charitable, self-deprecating and modest — so modest that he bristles should anyone should think of referring to him as Colonel. Yet somehow that title invariably makes itself known.

And it is on account of this general brilliance that Anthony Gethryn finds himself bored and restless, for nothing is a challenge to a man who excels at everything. When he is asked by The Owl, a newspaper of which he is co-proprietorto undertake an investigation into the violent death of John Hoode, Gethryn doesn't think twice: The Owl may be in search of a scoop; he is just looking for adventure.

There are others interested in the story for it concerns the (locked-room) murder of the Minister of Imperial Finance in the Government, but the slain man's sister has her own reasons for keeping them away. So every member of the Press finds himself banned except Gethryn, and you have to conclude that his life is a charmed one — someone he meets gets him access to the house, and someone he knows turns out to be staying there, and so he is welcomed onto the investigation while all his competitors are kept well away.

And even though it would be entirely reasonable to criticise the police for having messed up the investigation, after they arrest the wrong man and fail to recognise the significance of even a single piece of evidence, Gethryn won't hear a negative word spoken against them, or at least against anyone above the level of sergeant. He concedes that anyone could make such mistakes - anyone other than himself clearly. He can intuit that the man they have arrested is not guilty because he has spoken with him, and his suppositions are invariably correct, for that is the way the story has been written; other people's conclusions seem always to be wrong.

I was never convinced of Gethryn's perfection, irrespective of the devotion he inspires in every fellow character, because it seemed to me that he was inclined to put himself and his interests at the centre of everything. He is quite willingly, for example, to hide evidence if he deems it to be necessary in order to protect a woman he has known for minutes but with whom he has fallen in love. You get the sense that it is not justice he is after, but only a simulacrum of justice which doesn't interfere with any of his plans.

First published in Penguin Books January 1937.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1107: X v. Rex

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