Holmdale is a former garden city – the “Garden City” part of the name has just been dropped – one stop on the St Pancras line out of London. And it’s a city that is about to host a reign of terror.
A serial killer is plaguing the city, sending RIP notices for his victims to the police and the local press. The Butcher is catching young people on their own and then… well, basically butchering them. With his M.O. changing subtly from kill to kill, finding the killer’s pattern (if there is one) is proving to be impossible. It falls to Detective Superintendent Arnold Pike of Scotland Yard to find the killer – but soon the Butcher rises to the challenge…
The serial killer wasn’t that common a plot device in the Golden Age. X v Rex, also by Macdonald, is often cited as an early example of it being used, but may I suggest that this one should be the one cited as it predates it by two years? No idea why X v Rex is the usual example, because there’s no question about it – this is a serial killer novel.
To an extent, with a slight updating and a more modern style of writing, this could almost pass as a modern novel – note, that’s not necessarily a good thing – with a reasonable amount of the book spent looking at the reaction to the townsfolk to the Butcher’s killings. The remainder is spent on Pike’s tactics at tracking down the killer – mostly spent around monitoring post boxes for his letters – but there’s a feel of sort of realism about bits and pieces of the police strategies both proposed and used.
There are some very effective sequences here, with one, towards the end, being one of the most chilling sequences that I’ve read recently. I won’t spoil it, but if you’ve read it – it involves the discovery of one of the final bodies – you probably know what I’m talking about. There’s some horrible turns of phrase in the Butcher’s messages, notably concerning the body left in a cupboard. Again, no spoilers.
What lets it down, though, is the ending. Macdonald wrote some good mysteries, such as Mystery at Friar’s Pardon, but this one… well, I can’t be precise without spoiling things, but let me just say that it’s not a clued mystery and one particularly crucial bit of information is left wanting. A recent reprint contains an introduction from L C Tyler that calls it a fair-play mystery, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all.
Anyway, this is worth a read, especially as a piece of detective fiction history, and if you liked X v Rex, you’ll like this one. And remember, if someone proposes X v Rex as the earliest example of a serial killer tale, mention this one instead.
Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHY – It made a “Best Of” list. In fact, in the essay The Grandest Game in the World (1946), John Dickson Carr himself cites it as one of the top ten detective stories ever written. So there…
For alternative opinions, you could pop over to Cross Examining Crime or The Invisible Event
It cannot be as disappointing as the ending to The Polferry Riddle. Nothing can.
I liked a couple of his books, The Rasp being one, but have been let down badly too. I don’t think his heart was ever really in the detection and deduction parts, his interest was elsewhere, but it was a popular genre.
The identity of some of the victims makes this a very dark book, especially when you realise who the first victim is going to be. I enjoyed the methods used by the police and the way the killer anticipates some of them and thus renders them ineffective. I found the ending initially disappointing but on reflection it fits with the rest of the book.
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“The Grandest Game in the World (1946), John Dickson Carr himself cites it as one of the top ten detective stories ever written.”
17 years later he said that he would like to replace it with The Rasp.