Friday, November 25, 2016
Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER (1959) by Philip MacDonald
No question about it, re-reading this after many years, nothing much has changed - it remains a thoroughly splendid book. There - I said it and I'm glad. Even better then the first time around. It is and should be viewed a classic. Period.
Better, of course, than the movie with those tiresome rubbery make-up tricks meant and failing to intrigue (if you've seen the film you'll know what I mean) - a movie only saved by the wonderfully warm and intelligent performances of George C. Scott, Jacques Roux and Colin Brook. I recommend the film based on those three actors and the spiffy, fast-moving plot (different in many ways from the book) DESPITE Kirk Douglas' ham-bone turn and the rest of the make-up jiggery-pokery. Honestly, if they'd only gone forward with the film in a straight forward way, John Houston would have had another classic film to brag about.
But back to the book:
Which has a richer and more complex plot than the film and becomes the sort of thing you don't ever want to end. Don' you love when that happens? I know, I'm getting googly, but bear with me.
Anthony Gethryn is the gentleman detective/crime-solver par excellence (happy to work with Scotland Yard) conceived by the very underrated Philip MacDonald (who also wrote and co-wrote excellent screenplays), a writer mostly forgotten these days. It's really a shame that MacDonald's books are no longer available in new editions. I, for one, would love nothing better than a whole shelf devoted to his trade paperbacks - stand-alones and Anthony Gethryns. As it is, I pick them up as best I can online.
(I've reviewed MacDonald's other classic, WARRANT FOR X, and would have gladly linked it for you, but for whatever reason, Google - in its infinite wisdom - now no longer permits me to search the blog by name or title so I can't find the damn thing and neither will you. I don't know why this is happening but at some point I hope the powers that be will wake up and change whatever they did and go back to the way it was.)
Anthony Gethryn is, of course, the kind of sleuth we love. He is brilliant, elegant, upper class and worthy of all we've come to associate with gentleman detectives from the golden age. He has manners! He has a family and lives in a wonderful house in London. (Though home and family are conveniently absent this time out, since I suspect they would have only curtailed his agility.)
I can't even begin to express just how much I love this book except to say that I am going to begin rereading it yet again in a few days time just as soon as I finish with several library books whose deadlines are fast approaching. More about those in later posts. (You can keep track of what I'm reading by checking the blog's left side bar near the top under 'Finished Reading', and also my Page: 'Books Read in 2016'.)
Something odd: I had remembered the ending of THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER film as being a bit better than the ending of the book, but upon this second re-reading, I've decided I was wrong. The book has a better ending. Totally different and in a way, more satisfying.
Okay, and now The plot:
"This tale hinges, like so much in humanity's sorry history, on a piece of paper. In this case no broken treaty or injudicious epistle from one Personage to another, but a slip upon which Adrian Messenger wrote the names and addresses and occupations of ten men."
Messenger is an English author currently at work on a memoir. A day or so before a fateful trip to America, he lunches with a friend, General Firth, who works in an advisory capacity at Scotland Yard - Special Assistant to the head of the C.I.D. (Both Messenger and Firth had shared hair-raising war time activities and know each other to be the sort who wouldn't waste each other's time with nonsense.) They have an enigmatic conversation which results in Messenger giving Firth a list of ten names and asking him to quietly and unofficially check on whether those ten men are still living at those ten addresses within the United Kingdom.
More than that, Messenger will not say. Except that the thing he's working on is so preposterous no one would believe it anyway - and no, it's not a conspiracy of any sort. Once Messenger returns from America, he'll have more details.
But Messenger is destined to gather no more details. Once his plane is over the Atlantic, an explosion takes care of it and the passengers bound for America. All except for one survivor, journalist Raoul St. Denis who, fortunately, overhears Messenger's final rambling words as both men and an unconscious woman (who later dies and has nothing to do with the story) dangle on a crate floating in the sea.
It is assumed, at first, that the tragedy is the result of a horrible malfunction of plane-ware.
General Firth, in the meantime, has done his duty by Messenger - he's instituted a stealthy check of the names on the list and the results trouble him enough that he wants to consult.
In turn, he and Sir Lucas (aforementioned head of the C.I.D. and old crony of Anthony Gethryn) arrange a dinner meeting (naturally at one of their clubs) with Gethryn.
"There was something in your voice, my friend. What is this - a problem?"
"That," said Lucas cryptically, is what Firth wants to find out."
And find out they do over the next exciting pages of this thrilling escapade of a book. I know, I know, my hyperbole is running amok - but honestly, I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I have a strange fascination for stories featuring competent people faced with an enigmatic problem they are determined to solve for no other reason than because something is wrong which must be set right. It's my kind of story and I'm always on the look-out for one I may have missed. It's the kid in me that fell hook line and sinker for tales of this sort, ages ago. I am enamored of rational men (or women) using their guile, intelligence and wit to do the right thing. Old fashioned, especially these days, but there it is.
Back to the book:
Troublesome odds: All of the men on Adrian Messenger's list have, one by one, over the previous five years, met accidental deaths. The odds of which trouble not only Firth, but immediately fascinate Gethryn. Though Lucas drags his feet a bit, he too finally comes to see that the odds of that sort of thing happening by chance are absurd.
Eventually, Gethryn and the lone survivor of the plane tragedy, journalist Raoul St. Denis, meet in person, though they had actually 'met' before during the War when both were underground operatives connected by long distance radio and false names. St. Denis is/was an explosives expert who will fall in love (at first sight) with Jocelyn Messenger, a painter of miniatures once married to Adrian Messenger's brother, killed in the war. Long story short, they all get involved, in varying degrees in the hunt for an unknown and very efficient killer. A man who has been getting away with murder (on two occasions, mass murder) for years and left nary a clue. Not a serial killer of the sort we're used to reading about, so it's not your average tale of a man driven by blood lust or sex or politics or even delusion. As Messenger himself says in the beginning, "And anyway, if I'm right it's a far older sin than any politics..."
In the end, here's my advice: grab a copy anyway you can find it - if you're lucky, your library might have one, though mine didn't. Now and again a copy shows up on Amazon or Abe Books and there's your chance. Mine was only four bucks (a rackety old paperback). But you have to move swiftly.
Then allot a long afternoon to one of the cleverest thrillers ever written. Events in the book happen between one Christmas and the next, so this would be an appropriate title to add to your seasonal reading list even if, well, the holidays don't have anything to do with things except in passing.
And another thing:
One of Philip MacDonald's many writing strengths is his way with settings, convivial or otherwise. He has the Agatha Christie knack of almost immediately being able to lift you up and set you down in whatever surroundings are required. He is especially good at drawing the reader in as if he or she were a guest and welcome to our adventure.
It was a darkening and bitter half past four when, back in London's outskirts again, he crossed the river at Putney and headed for Chelsea; fifteen minutes later when he rang the bell of Number Five Whistler's Walk, and two minutes later when the little Scotswoman, after a short conversation over the inter-house phone, led him across to the studio.
Charming outside, this was even more so within. It was long and high and the whole northern section of the roof was glass. At one end fir logs crackled in a fireplace of dark red brick and at the other a big stove glowed. Around the stove and under the glass roof was all the pleasing litter of a painter's workplace, but about the hearth were order and comfort; deep chairs and a sofa and a low round table upon which stood a tea service on a silver tray.
And he entered, Jocelyn rose from one of the big chairs and from the other side of the hearth, on the sofa, Raoul St. Denis raised a hand in greeting. Permeating the comfortable glow of the place, lending an invisible nimbus to the man and woman already in it, there was an atmosphere of felicitous and personal excitement which for want of a better word Anthony was forced to describe to himself as 'romantic.' He answered Raoul's gesture in kind, and smiled at Jocelyn as she came to meet him. And looking at her was suddenly smitten, albeit with a pleasantly wistful benevolence, by consciousness of his years.
All this and a fascinating hunt for killer who will stop at nothing - what more could you want?
Todd Mason will be doing hosting doings for author Patricia Abbott at his blog, Sweet Freedom this Friday. Don't forget to check in to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.