The Rynox Murder
by Philip MacDonald
He sometimes wrote under the name
Anthony Lawless—a fitting alias for an
author who clearly preferred the villains.
Just look at his books,
filled with sinister
masterminds, double-
crossers and psycho-
pathic murderers.
Indeed, Philip Mac-
Donald’s specialty
was the modern serial-
killer-thriller, a category
he may not have in-
vented but did much
to popularize. Back in 1959, the same year
that Robert Bloch published
MacDonald was similarly exploring the dark
side of the criminal psyche in his book
The List
of Adrian Messenger, later made into a
memorable film. But MacDonald had already
created a classic account of a serial killer a
quarter of a century earlier in his 1933 work
Mystery of the Dead Police. His Murder Gone Mad
(1931), chosen as one of the ten greatest
detective novels by John Dickson Carr,
similarly showcased MacDonald’s skill at
creating fictional criminals who were truly
frightening—in this instance, a gruesome
killer known as The Butcher.  MacDonald
also contributed to a number of important
screenplays, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s
Rebecca, winner of the Oscar for best picture
in 1940.  True, MacDonald could create
striking heroes—his best known detective,
Colonel Anthony Gethryn appears in a dozen
novels and was played by George C. Scott
on the screen.  But this author will be best
remembered for his unsurpassed skill at
infusing the detective genre with elements of
horror stories and psychological thrillers
Essay by Ted Gioia

Author Philip MacDonald knew all the formulas
for detective fiction.  He crafted intricate
whodunits, locked room mysteries, macabre
thrillers and was especially well-known for stories
about serial killers, in which he mixed generous
doses of abnormal psychology
into his tales of crime and
detection.  He also took his
talents to Hollywood, working
on everything from Charlie
Chan movies to episodes of
Alfred Hitchcock’s Presents.

But if MacDonald was master
of the mystery story rulebook,
he broke most of those rules in
his unconventional 1930 novel
The Rynox Murder.   Long before the rise of the
postmodern novel, MacDonald anticipated many
of its techniques.  He wreaks havoc with
conventional narrative structure—opening the
book with its epilogue and closing his novel with
an account of the story’s beginnings.  He reveals a
postmodern zeal for texts within the text, devoting
a substantial portion of his story to an array of
disparate documents—diary entries, business
correspondence, personal letters, police reports,
memoranda, etc.—which impart a sense of
discontinuity and authorial absence to a novel.   
But strangest of all, he reveals a cavalier disregard
for all the expectations readers typically bring to
detective stories.

The criminal is identified almost from the start
of the book—a shocking disclosure that violates
the most basic covenant of mystery fiction. And
those who think that a detective story must end
with the apprehension of a culprit are setting
themselves up for another disappointment here.  
Yet even more disconcerting:  readers may not
even be sure which crime is under investigation.  
This novel starts out as a murder mystery, but as
it progresses it seems to turn into a far different
story about blackmail.  Or is it a story of fraud or
conspiracy or disputed intellectual property rights?  
It is quite telling that this book, later sold under
the title
The Rynox Murder or The Rynox Murder
, originally did not even use the word
"murder" in the title—it was initially published
in Britain as
Rynox, An Exercise in Crime.   

MacDonald was an even-handed author, often
giving as much attention to his villains as his
heroes, and
The Rynox Murder is no exception.  
In the early pages of the novel, he closely follows
the movements and activities of Boswell Marsh,
a violent and short-tempered foreigner who has
a long-standing grudge with a London businessman.  
The firm of Rynox Unlimited is developing a new
synthetic rubber manufacturing technology, and
Marsh believes that he is the inventor of the
process.  He makes angry phone calls and sends
threatening letters to Francis Benedik, founding
partner of Rynox.  Finally, Marsh travels to
London, purchases a gun, and contrives to send
Benedik's servants away from his adversary’s
residence.  Marsh arrives there late in the evening,
determined to settle scores, and after a violent
confrontation, Benedik is killed in a shootout.

The evidence incriminating Marsh is over-
whelming.  The gun, the bullets, the motive, the
accounts of more than a dozen witnesses all point
to him as the obvious murderer.  Indeed, there is
no other suspect.  This seems such an open-and-
shut case, that one hardly deigns to apply the label
"mystery" to a crime with such an obvious

But at precisely this point, MacDonald starts
adding strange complications to his tale. Peculiar
subplots, new characters, unforeseen incidents
enter into the story—and gradually change the
complexion of the novel. A grizzled, hard-
drinking captain arrives in town with new
information. The police pursuit of Marsh runs
into puzzling obstacles. The fortunes of Rynox
Unlimited seem to be especially charmed in the
wake of their senior partner’s demise. What is
going on here?  And how will our author pull
together all these loose threads?   

In the final pages, MacDonald does just that—
with a plot resolution that is so complex that
he needs to insert several pages of annotated time-
lines to explain everything.  I won’t give away any
spoilers, but suffice to say that the ending is just
as unconventional as everything else in this tightly
structured tale.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
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Further Clues:

Rynox and the Postmodern Mystery (from Tipping My

Brief biography of Philip MacDonald

The 1931 film adaptation of Rynox
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Other articles and feature:
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Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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