The Maze – Philip MacDonald (1932)

TheMazeI’m a sucker for the idea of a murder occurring within a maze.  I suppose I’ll have to wait for John Dickson Carr’s All in a Maze or Murder in the Maze by JJ Connington to actually experience one.  Philip MacDonald’s The Maze is more of the abstract kind, referring to the task of sifting through the testimony presented at an inquest.  His idea is an interesting one.  Most mystery novels would have us observe the investigation from the point of view of a character, taking in the setting, cast, and mannerisms, sprinkled with private observations.  What if you stripped all of that away from a detective novel?  What if you left the reader purely with the evidence of the case?

MacDonald makes a statement in his introduction that this would put you on a level playing field with the detective.  You would have access to every last drop of information that the investigators have – no more, no less.  Could you solve the crime?

The Maze is an interesting experiment, although it is much more an experiment than interesting.  The actual novel is composed of transcribed testimony from a coroner’s inquest.  There is no description of anything beyond the statements made in court.  You’ll never observe the actions of a character, nor even really understand what they look like.  Instead, you have to piece those residual elements together from the recorded dialog.  You’ll also have to piece together the story, as patches are filled in over time as each character testifies.

The circumstances of the murder are surprisingly basic.  Maxwell Brunton headed into his study at 10pm.  His family members and most of the servants retired over the course of the next hour or two.  Brunton was found dead at 2:30 am by his secretary who swung by the study to jot down a quick note.

That’s it.  There were ten people in the house – guests, family members, and servants – and the chapters play out with each taking their turn as a witness during the inquest.  The questioning focuses on the events of the day leading up to the murder, although there’s nothing really notable besides a squabble or two.  There, I just saved you 130 pages of reading.

It’s a strange experience though, and becomes more and more comfortable as the chapters go by.  At first, it’s nearly impossible to get a sense of story.  You have no idea what any character looks like, or whether they are young or old.  It’s just names.  There’s no real description of the setting in which the murder occurs.  Yes, there is a floor plan of the house entered as evidence, but that’s quite sterile compared to the lush descriptions most stories provide.

With each testimony though, MacDonald does start to build a sense of the characters.  Through the back and forth with the coroner, you get an inclination of who each suspect is.  The manner of speech, the attitude, the observations – each of these aspects of the testimony sketches out the character.  It’s weird in that way though.  Quite a few characters are merely names on a page until late in the book simply because they haven’t testified yet.  It’s like you’re slowly feeling your way through a room while blindfolded and over time building a model of where you are.

Although it’s less compelling of a read for those reasons, that’s also the experiment that makes the book worthwhile.  The mystery itself isn’t anything unique – perhaps in some ways lesser than the norm – but how about the solution? 

It kicks off in a somewhat jarring way.  The identity of the killer is dropped with such casual aplomb that I had to re-read the sentence multiple times to make sure I understood what was happening.  The solution is unquestionably the most vibrant spark in the whole telling of the tale, but as thirsty as I was for a clever resolution, it just came up dry.

Philip MacDonald, through his armchair detective reviewing the testimony of the case, offers up what I’ll characterize as a solution.  If I’ve ever seen another case so built on arbitrary speculation then I was no doubt reading an early Ellery Queen novel.  Everything is built on assumptions that certain things “must have” happened.  A particular character, given some trait, must have acted in a particular way because… well, solution.  A particular event, given the circumstances, must have happened, because… solution.  And from these frail assumptions, somehow the detective is able to stitch together a detailed twenty page discourse of exactly how it all went down.

For a book positioned as the ultimate fair play detective mystery, I was expecting something really different from the ending.  Yes, the solution that the detective pitches could well be correct, but it just as easily could not have been.  In his introduction to the novel, Philip MacDonald states, “If you get the right answer – not merely a ‘guessed’ answer, but an answer for which you are prepared to put forward reasons – then you are as good at this job as A.R. Gethryn.”  But really all that we get out of detective Gethryn is a lengthy piece of speculation.

Well, speculation of the most asinine sort.  Detective Anthony Gethryn, in his wrapping up of events, delivers an assessment of a particular character that feels so audaciously rude that I thought I was reading a denouement by Roger Sheringham’s evil twin.  It’s stunning and practically funny for it, although I was at the same time somewhat offended.  A sign of the times I guess.

So, I wouldn’t outright recommend The Maze to you – your time is probably better spent reading more enjoyable stuff.  However, if someone was compiling a list of books that characterize the breadth of golden age detective fiction, this would be an obvious choice for inclusion.  I have a whole stack of MacDonald books that I’m still looking forward to reading, as I understand The Maze to be a different approach for him.

My edition

I have what is probably the easiest copy of The Maze to track down – the 2017 Collins Crime Club edition.  It features a three page introduction by Julian Symons borrowed from a 1980 Crime Club release.  Not only does it provide an overview of the story, but it also gives some background on Philip MacDonald’s career.

Apparently someone at Collins Crime Club knows their way around a vintage book, because this is the best physical specimen that I’ve seen in a modern print.  The book is small by present day standards; still an inch or so larger in each dimension than a vintage Avon, Dell, or PocketBook, but tiny compared to what everyone else is pushing out.  The paper stock is great – truly unusual for a book these days – as is the binding.  On top of that, you have a classically illustrated cover that makes you feel like you’re reading an actual book from the era.  My one complaint is that it is a hardback – I personally always go for a paperback for reading convenience – but the small form factor even makes up for that.  Hopefully other publishers take notice, because this is really the quality of book that I’m looking for.

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10 thoughts on “The Maze – Philip MacDonald (1932)”

  1. I can remember enjoying this a lot, but it was so many years ago that I can recall nothing else about it. Guess I ought to give it a second (third?) read. I think the copy I used to have was a Green Penguin.

    Nice to hear that Collins’ Crime Club is pushing out decent editions. I picked up a few of their titles in the 1980s or 1990s, when they had a uniform pseudo-gold cover design and were shoddily printed on paper that was more like thin card — beware of paper cuts!

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  2. I very much enjoy the playfulness Mcdonald brings to his not very challenging plots. He’s not a master craftsman, but he had an idea and he sticks to it and sees it through, which I appreciate. There’s one fabulous clue in this which still tickles me, and I think I enjoyed it more than you for the exercise it represents — undeniably flawed though that exercise turns out to be, as you rightly say.

    I love these CCC hardback editions. I’m furiously hoping they start producing them again, because they were easily the highest quality reprints on the market. The BLCC titles are more interesting to me, but the physical sensation of these hardcover excels anything else.

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    1. You might need to rot-13 that clue for me because I honestly can’t think of what it would have been. I did notice you mention it in your review and it left me puzzled.

      I still need to track down Rynox. I think my next MacDonald read might be The List of Adrian Messenger.

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      1. The clue in question was:

        gur jvgarff uvqvat va gur phcobneq, pynvzvat fur pbhyq frr vagb n ebbz gung fur pnaabg frr vagb orpnhfr gur qbbe bcraf gur jebat jnl

        And Rynox is also one of the recent CCC reprints, so no excuses…!

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  3. Oh well, I liked this much more than you just as I like early EQ much more than you. At the same time, I am not that sold on Brand. Differing opinions, eh?

    Regarding your point about ‘a solution’, can’t that be said about every mystery? Is there really any book in which the solution offered is the only possible one? The detective’s analysis of the case is almost always based on a few assumptions, but we accept it if it satisfies and call it ‘fair’ if it is adequately prepared for.

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    1. That’s definitely a fair point regarding whether a solution is the only possible one. And of course, in the case where the killer doesn’t confess themselves, we all want the detective to launch into a long explanation of events that fills in all of the missing details – even if they couldn’t really be certain about all of them.

      What rubs me wrong about The Maze, The French Powder Mystery, The Dutch Shoe Mystery, and some of the false solutions to The Greek Coffin Mystery is that the detective treats a somewhat weak possibility as fact. I’m not going to cite the specific examples because I would risk spoiling multiple books, so here’s an analogy – “the killer must have been an American because we know they walked down the right side of the hallway.” That could be a nice piece of reasoning if the mystery takes place in a locale where it is more conventional for people to walk on the left… but that doesn’t mean they have to.

      Each of the books that I listed hang a big portion of their case on an assumption of that nature. And in each case, I couldn’t help but think “but what if that just happened anyway?” Vague spoiler for The Maze. In the case of The Maze we’re told that a person doing a particular action must have moved in a particular way. More often than not, yes. But not necessarily.

      Anyway, I don’t want to nerd out on you – we all like these books in different ways and I happily gloss over flaws in books I love all the time. Not Christianna Brand books though. Those are flawless!!!!!

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  4. I agree with all the comments on the tendency to treat Gethryn’s deductions as certainties when they are anything but that. Another thing which annoyed me is that, although the main part of the book is a transcript of the various characters’ testimonies, and so presumably all written by the same person, the name of the French woman is spelled differently depending on who is speaking about her.

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    1. I think that’s deliberate — they’re saying her name wrong to highlight how little regard they hold her in. If you remove that misspelling, I’d argue a fair chunk of character would be lost from those testimonies.

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