X v. Rex by Philip MacDonald

X v RexOne night, in the village of Farnley, Surrey, the call comes in to the police station of a burglary. The three duty constables promptly head out to find that it was a hoax call. When they return, they find that the Sergeant, who remained at the station, has been shot dead.

This is only the beginning of the reign of terror of the mysterious X. As his attentions move to London, it seems that no policeman is safe from him. Soon, many more officers are found dead and the police seem powerless against this mysterious individual.

Enter Nicholas Revell – a man of mystery with his own priorities. Only he has some insight into how to catch the mysterious X – but will the police follow his advice whilst they still have enough officers left to catch the villain?

After a load of Golden Age mysteries leading up to the recent Bodies From The Library event (which I will stop mentioning at some point) there were a number of recommendations that were given for authors that people might not have encountered. And Philip MacDonald was one of them.

Philip MacDonald wrote a load of crime novels, mostly in the thirties – this one was originally under the pseudonym Martin Porlock – and has some alternative titles, The Mystery Of Mr X and Mystery of the Dead Police. It’s one of the earliest novels featuring a serial killer – by the end, the mysterious X has claimed at least ten victims (I lost count but it’s at least ten). And the plot is nigh impossible to review without spoiling things. Let’s give it a go though.

The writing style is fascinating, hopping all over the place from character to character. It’s not always obvious when we meet a new character what exactly they have to do with the plot – if anything. There is some imaginative stuff here – notably the chapter that basically lists a series of events that take place over the course of a few days and then goes back and picks out the important ones for the reader.

The characters weren’t desperately convincing to me – given the sheer volume of them, they most seem to be there to service the plot, none of them being given enough time to establish themselves properly. The lead, Nicholas Revell, is one of those characters who only exist in books – a seemingly omniscient rogue, charming the pants off the ladies, annoying most of the men, tracking down the villain, all with his own agenda.

The plot… I’ll just say that going into the book assuming it was a mystery, I was extremely disappointed. If you were to apply the Decalogue to this, then it fails in at least two major categories. But it’s not trying to be that sort of book, so I can’t really criticise it for that.

But it’s fair to say, I didn’t find this to be the classic that people say that it is. Yes, it’s an original style and I’d really like to read one of MacDonald’s more traditional mystery tales. This feels like an experiment – maybe that’s why it was originally published under a pseudonym, Martin Porlock – but for me, it’s an experiment that contains some great parts but parts that do not combine to make a cohesive whole. Certainly interesting but not my cup of tea, but for the opposite view, do see what Sergio had to say about it.


  1. You asked in the previous post,”Why is this any different than Death Walks In Eastrepps or The Viaduct Murders?” Well, now you know !
    It is more a thriller than a mystery. However, it is suspenseful till the end.As you mentioned, the writing style is fascinating and unique.
    A major disappointment for me was that while the motive for one person’s actions becomes clear at the end, the motive for another person’s actions remains unanswered.
    In my opinion, a better choice for you would have been Mystery At Friar’s Pardon. It is a clever and well-clued locked room mystery.


    • This is the book that was recommended hence I read this one. And the motivations for someone aren’t clear but, if you’re talking about who I think you’re talking about, are hinted at generally enough for me.


      • Yes, on rereading I find that the motivations are hinted at generally enough. I read it a long time back.


  2. Glad you enjoyed this one, even with reservations – it is a major book for its day and still feels quite modern it seems to me. And I do like MacDonald’s post-moderny asides tot he reader too! And if you think he knocked off a lot of victims in this one, you should try THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER – it’s about ten times as many! THE RASP is probably a good example of a more conventional mystery, featuring his series detective Anthony Gethryn, though MacDonald is more celebrated as an innovator (and for his suspense short stories).


    • For such an important book, there’s a surprising lack of coverage for it on the web under any of its titles. It’s certainly entertaining enough to try MacDonald again at a later date.


      • The multiple titles and author names don’t help and the fact that MGM had the film rights (they filmed it twice in fact) may have in fact kept it out of general circulation.


  3. I went through a MacDonald phase about 20 years ago when I discovered my first one at the library–I read every one I could find (that was a big, whopping four out of his 25 or so books) and enjoyed them. But it’s been quite a while and I know my tastes have changed a bit. It’d be nice to do a reread to see what I think now.

    Glad you liked this one with reservations.


  4. […] This book is brought to you by my 2016 Reading Slump, which is seeing me failing to get enthusiastic about anything I’m reading at present; an alternative perspective may be handy, then.  Sergio at Tipping My Fedora – that wiser, saner, more reasonable head – hugely enjoyed this, however, and you can see his contrasting thoughts here.  Puzzle Doctor probably represents the middle ground – he’s the Mummy Bear, if you like, with the lukewarm porridge – and his thoughts on this are here. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.