Thursday, February 3, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Mystery at Friar's Pardon

Mystery at Friar's Pardon (1931) by Martin Porlock 
(pseudonym of Philip MacDonald) 

Philip MacDonald is best known as the creator of Colonel Anthony Gethryn who appeared in 12 detective novels and one short story between 1924 and 1959.  Among some of the more inter-
esting books are The Link, The Noose (the very first "Collins Crime Club" novel), The Maze (US title: Persons Unknown) and Nursemaid Who Disappeared (US title: Warrant for X). Gethryn was immortalized on screen in the persona of George C. Scott who doggedly pursued a murderer systematically knocking off the men whose names appeared on The List of Adrian Messenger.

MacDonald also created an alter ego - Martin Porlock - and under this pseudonym wrote three varied and entertaining detective novels none of which feature a series detective. The first and most innovative is Mystery at Friar's Pardon.

A haunted house, poltergeist activity, and a legend of previous owners of Friar's Pardon drowning in a locked room in the forbidden East Wing are at the heart of this excellent example of a Golden Age country manor detective novel. Several nervous and suspicious servants, a foppish secretary, the browbeaten niece, her billiard-playing mismatched suitor are among the many suspects when Enid Lester Greene, a harridan of a romance novelist, is found dead in her locked bedroom. She has succumbed to the curse. True to the legend she has drowned, but no water no any trace of water can be found in the room.

This is one of my favorite little known books in the subgenre of the impossible crime.  While it may be filled with typical stock British characters of the period, the writing is so lively and witty it made me laugh out loud several times and not in derision. The locked room puzzle is devilish and well clued. The denouement occurs at a séance staged as a last resort by the amateur detective, Charles Fox-Browne, in order to clear the name of the woman with whom he has fallen in love. It's one of the best confession by entrapment scenes in a Golden Age novel I've read in a long time.

e addition of possible supernatural events and an impossible crime of bizarre nature make me think that this is MacDonald's homage to John Dickson Carr's books. However, this book predates all but three of Carr's better known impossible crime novels that have similar plot motifs. Perhaps this work of MacDonald's inspired Carr! This book certainly seems as if it were right out of the Dr. Fell series.


  1. What I don't know about the Golden Age could fill a library. I'm thankful for you other folks giving me a taste of what I'm missing.

  2. I know I have this book, but from the description, I'm even more sure that I've never read it. It was published in this country under MacDonald's real name, as were all of the "Porlock" books.

    I don't know why this book has escaped my reading it so far. Maybe the title sounded dull. Maybe I'd turned off my brain when I had it at hand and available.

  3. John

    This is me, David Vineyard from MysteryFile. Sorry about the Anonymous but my Google Account is not responding

    The critics were often hard on MacDonald, proably because of the thriller elements in some of his books, but he has always been a favorite of mine both under his own name, as Porlock, and some of the suspense novels he wrote (ESCAPE, GUEST IN THE HOUSE).

    MYSTERY OF THE DEAD POLICE is an old favorite as are several of the Gethryn novels. In addition he was a successful screenwriter penning everything from Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto to working on Hitchcock's film of REBECCA. His own novel PATROL, filmed by John Ford as THE LAST PATROL was remade several times --- once as a western.

    MacDonald has always seemed to me to be one of the least appreciated of the Golden Age writers. Aside from the novels and screenplays he also contributed some classic short fiction, including the only Gethryn short which is something of a tour de force.

    Admittedly Gethry could be a bit much at times, but anyone who tolerated or loved Lord Peter's early persona should have no real problem with him.