The Rynox Murder
by Philip MacDonald
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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 master-
minds, double-crossers
and psychopathic mur-
derers.  Indeed, Philip
MacDonald’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
Psycho,
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
ROGUES GALLERY:
PHILIP MACDONALD
Reviewed 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
Mystery
, 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
explanation.

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's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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Further Clues:

Rynox and the Postmodern Mystery (from Tipping My
Fedora)

Brief biography of Philip MacDonald

The 1931 film adaptation of Rynox
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