“It will hold you breathless until you have reached its utterly unpredictable climax.” “Do not look at the end!” “The dramatic, utterly surprising final chapters of The List of Adrian Messenger will haunt you long after you’ve finished this unique novel.” Thus blares the large text plastering the front and back cover of my 1961 Bantam Books edition of The List of Adrian Messenger.
As much as The Maze by Philip MacDonald didn’t do it for me, I’ve been intent to come back to the author. Recognizing that The Maze was more an experiment in conveying a mystery purely through raw court testimony, I was interested in seeing what MacDonald could do in the more traditional form. I’m not sure how The List of Adrian Messenger worked its way into my mind as one I should try, but here I am.
We’re late in MacDonald’s career with this one; in fact it’s his second to last of nearly three dozen novels. With the year being 1959, we’re well out of Golden Age territory, although still dealing with his GAD-era series detective, Anthony Gethryn. It’s interesting that MacDonald chose to set the story shortly following the conclusion of the second world war, and I have to say that I wish that more classic mystery authors had passed their later years looking backwards instead of fitting their stories into the transforming culture.
The “list” in the book’s title refers to the names of ten individuals that Adrian Messenger passes on to a friend at Scotland Yard with the mysterious request to “ask about them.” Messenger is dead days later, his plane being brought down by an explosion during a transatlantic flight to New York. Only one passenger on the ill-fated flight survived both the crash and several harrowing hours at sea clutching to floating debris. He’s able to pass on an account of Messenger’s seemingly incoherent final words.
Scotland Yard brings in famed detective Anthony Gethryn to take a look at the case. What initially appears to be an accident that consumed forty lives gives way to suspicions of murder. The theory is built off of the list of names that Messenger passed on to Scotland Yard shortly before his death. Nine of the men named on the list have died in the past five years – all of them in “accidents”, some of which featured high body counts. Gethryn suspects that he’s up against a maniac of some sort; an individual dead set on crossing off the names on the list regardless of the cost to innocent bystanders.
MacDonald actually reveals his killer early on – in a sense. We’re given insight into a nameless, faceless killer who shifts his mannerisms and appearance as he adopts a series of false identities. The goals of the killer remain unclear, and in a sense, you could regard that as the true mystery of the story.
It’s not your conventional mystery, certainly not by Golden Age standards. We’re interested in discovering the “who”, although to a degree we kind of already know. There’s really no question of “how”. Rather, this is more a mystery of “why” – if you choose to really regard this as a mystery at all…
The List of Adrian Messenger certainly is a tale of detection. Detective Gethryn picks apart an endless stream of clues in a marathon effort to track down the faceless killer that he’s christened Smith Brown Jones. It’s reminiscent of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French mysteries – the unrelenting investigation and the reminder that progress is made on the backs of countless man-hours by uncelebrated underlings. The case lurches and stalls, lurches and stalls as Gethryn and his compatriots experience cycles of breakthrough followed by seeming defeat.
While there is a definite mystery, I was somehow reminded more of spy thrillers of the Robert Ludlum sort. We’re on the hunt for a cold, calculated, and faceless killer (assassin) who may strike again at any moment, with countless innocent lives possibly at risk. Throw in some international intrigue and this would be at home with numerous spy novels that came in the following two decades. Perhaps that’s an indication of how the genres somewhat blend, both focusing on the investigation and legwork needed to track a killer/spy.
There is a dying message which tilts matters a bit towards vintage mystery – a seemingly incoherent rambling by Messenger as he lay dying following the plane crash. MacDonald provides a number of interesting turns with this one, molding the reader’s interpretation of those words over and over. There are a few nice pieces of misdirection tucked in there, and it shows that MacDonald had the skill to tuck key clues directly under the reader’s nose.
As far as how this compares to the mysteries I typically read, the closest comparison I can come up with is a Freeman Wills Crofts story as written by Micheal Gilbert. The intrigue was there, as was the pace, and I couldn’t help but think that this would make a good film (and it was indeed released as a movie in 1963, featuring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and Frank Sinatra, to name a few).
As for the ending that the cover bragged about – I really have no clue what the publishers were going on about. The story wraps up fine, but there’s nothing really unpredictable or haunting about the climax. In fact, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect to have happen at the end of a spy thriller.
So, if you’re looking for that next great Golden Age mystery, you’re not going to find it here. It has me excited about Philip MacDonald though – the man can clearly write. The Maze may have been more Golden Age, but it was too sterile. The List of Adrian Messenger was a page turner and MacDonald’s writing style has enough life to keep me engaged. I expect I’ll be returning to him in a few months.