The List Of Adrian Messenger (1959) by Philip MacDonald

“Ten names, ten probable occupations; ten addresses. Scattered to hell and gone all over the kingdom…”

Adrian Messenger has a list, which he passes to a friend at Scotland Yard without any explanation – just a request that information is collated on those names. Messenger implies that something terrible is afoot, but he needs time to get his facts straight. But on his way to get information, the airplane carrying him explodes in midair.

Amazingly two passengers survive, one getting the chance to hear Messenger’s dying words. Colonel Gethryn finds himself drawn into the investigation – for it seems that nine out of the ten names on the list have died “accidentally” in the past five years. Nothing seems to link the names, there is no evidence of foul play… is this the act of a random killer or is there a deadly plan, five years in the making, about to come to fruition?

You may have seen the John Huston film of the book, starring all manner of Hollywood celebrities of the day (sort of) – I haven’t, but I was directed to this one after a discussion of MacDonald’s other serial killer books, X. v Rex and Murder Gone Mad, where I had an issue with the motivation of the killer. This one, I was assured, was better.

The thing is… it’s not easy to tell a story of a serial killer with a legitimate motive. Killing all the heirs to a fortune so you can inherit does rather point the finger at you, doesn’t it? And there are only so many juries that one needs to take revenge on. Neither of those is the motive here, by the way, no spoilers. Other than this plan is so bat-guano crazy that… well, just don’t think about it. Taking five cautious years, hoping that the people who are on the list who haven’t died yet won’t twig what’s going on – and then (not sure this was explained, I might have dozed off) somehow finding out that someone has got wind of it, blowing up their plane and then hoping that when they went to Scotland Yard, they were so irritatingly cryptic that your secret plan might still be safe. And is the end goal really worth killing a football team’s worth of people for?

There is some good detection going on here – although some of the sections of it are a bit dull, as we are mostly watch a variety of investigators compare notes – and they’re not notes that the reader can really decipher – until we get to the climax. And I’ve got an issue with that as well – what exactly was the plan? It ended very conveniently for our heroes, but I really couldn’t tell if it was a happy accident or some deliberate plan…

So first of all, this is a thriller, not a play-along mystery – no one ever said it was, but thought I’d clarify this – but apart from the opening and closing sections, it’s not desperately thrilling. Goodreads, for the most part, seems to disagree, but for me, this was a disappointment. I think I prefer the other two books…

12 comments

  1. I would give the film a try if you get a chance, it is quite enjoyable and seems to be on TV fairly often. If nothing else you can try to spot which of the characters are the disguised stars (not too difficult), although I have just learned from reading the Wikipedia page for the film they cheated a bit.

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  2. (continued)
    When you click on above, you go to a page where it is mentioned that the video can’t be played on this site , but a link is provided to watch the film directly on you tube.

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  3. ” somehow finding out that someone has got wind of it, ”
    Actually, the culprit need not know hat someone has got wind of it.The someone was another person on the culprit’s list (in fact the last person) and had therefore to be killed.

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  4. “but I really couldn’t tell if it was a happy accident or some deliberate plan…’
    There are several sentences in the last 3 chapters which clearly indicate that it was a deliberate plan.

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  5. I tend to agree with your review. The book has been somewhat over-rated in the past. It has some good features but does not pull one along as it should. Perhaps it is the success of the film (very good by the way) that has enhanced the reputation of the original story.

    A better title to try is The Maze in my opinion. A simple mystery nicely laid out by Macdonald.

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  6. I loved this book and also the movie of the same name. Another MacDonald favorite of mine is “Warrant for X” which story also was made into a film called “23 Paces to Baker Street.” He’s an acquired taste, for sure.

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  7. The movie is no masterpiece but it’s worth seeing. I liked it more than the book. PM is a very, very hit and miss writer for me. I liked a The Rasp but hated The Polferry Riddle.

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