The Polferry Riddle – Philip MacDonald (1931)

The Polferry Riddle opens in a seaside home enveloped by a powerful storm.  As wind shakes the house and rain lashes the windows, three men drink by the fireside while the rest of the inhabitants lay asleep upstairs.  As they head up for the night, the men stumble upon a gruesome scene: the lady of the house lies halfway off her bed, her throat slit from ear to ear.

It’s a powerful opening, and my love of a good storm had me wrapped fully into the scene.  And I remained wrapped throughout an ever shifting romp of a plot that’s the sort where you breathlessly look back at some point and think “boy, we’re miles from where we started.”  Which is a bit unfortunate, because The Polferry Riddle must feature one of the biggest let downs of a solution that I can think of.  And yet I’m still going to tell you that I really loved this book.

The mystery is a little on shaky grounds from the beginning.  Four people were supposedly asleep upstairs at the time of the crime, so we have four suspects to dig into, right?  Well, no.  The story is told a bit in retrospect, and we’re simply informed that the police were never able to pin the crime on any of the four suspects.  There’s never any detail beyond the fact that everyone claimed to be asleep and the police couldn’t prove otherwise.  Which is funny, because The Polferry Riddle occasionally crops up on lists of top impossible crimes, and there’s really nothing vaguely impossible about it, other than the inability to pin the crime on a specific suspect (which is normal for a mystery, right?)

MacDonald’s series sleuth Anthony Gethryn initially resists the urge to get involved in the unsolvable case, deciding on a lengthy vacation instead.  A series of letters and news clippings about the evolution of the investigation eventually ropes him in, and the varied forms in which information comes to the reader was a nice touch.  A lot has transpired since the murder: two of the four suspects have died in accidents; one by drowning and another in a car crash.  A third suspect believes that several attempts have been made on her life, and the fact that she’s beautiful seems to be enough to tug Gethryn into the case.

How things play out from here are a bit of a turn from the norm.  Gethryn quickly identifies the killer even though we have much of the book to go.  However, the detective lacks any actual evidence to pin the culprit with the crime, and there’s a race to prove guilt before another murder occurs.  There are some shades of Darkness at Pemberley in that regard, in particular a chase across England to spoil a kidnapping.

It’s a mix of detection and adventure and things change up enough to keep you engaged.  The solution to the murder disguised as a car accident is pretty clever and worthy of an impossible crime, although to be clear, the crime never comes across as impossible.  The story reached an absolute boil for me in the final chapters: as the pages dwindled down, I knew that I was going to finally get the solution to that opening stormy night murder.  And yet there seemed to be so little room for MacDonald to pull out a twist.  The tension mounted…

And then, wow, yeah, the solution falls completely flat on its face.  Talk about post-climax regret.  To be fair, this isn’t the worst solution I’ve ever read, but it’s wrapped in such a solid story that it may be the most disappointing.  You know how Paul Halter will load a book with four impossible crimes, and there’s this absolute killer solution to one or two of them that sticks in your mind forever, but then there’s one impossibility that is brushed off in complete throw away fashion (I’m looking at you, The Picture From the Past and The Fourth Door).  This is that solution.

And yet still, The Polferry Riddle is a fun read.  Certainly miles better than The Maze, and I liked it more than The List of Adrian Messenger.  I’ll definitely be back with Philip MacDonald in a year or two.

3 thoughts on “The Polferry Riddle – Philip MacDonald (1931)”

  1. I well remember the same feeing of deflation you talk about here, especially at the end of a rollicking narrative (IIRC, I sat up into the early hours reading this in on fell swoop). I would suggest, however, that in its historical context the solution might be more innovative than it appears today, with the…object…not necessarily as commonplace then as now. I don’t know this for a fact, and I can still believe people found this similarly deflating in 1931, but I’m willing to give MacDonald the benefit of the doubt given how seamlessly everything else is joined together here (and how many good surprises he has sprung in other works).

    It would be good to see more of his stuff reprinted, I’ve really come to enjoy him after a very shaky start. This, Rynox, and The Maze (which I really enjoyed) make an interesting case fr his inclusion as among the great overlooked of the Golden Age. And, sure, they;’re not all good — The Crime Conductor is the most ridiculous complex-for-the-sake-of-complexity book I may have ever read (don’t go into that for the impossible crime, either) and I got halfway through The Noose without anything apparently having happened — but on his day I can believe he’s great, and other great books of his are surely out there OOP and desperate for a bit of attention.


    1. I still need to get my hands on a copy of Rynox, I recall your review making it sound well worth my time. I have The Rasp, Warrant for X, and The Mystery of the Dead Police (which may be better known as X vs Rex) waiting to be read. Glancing at MacDonald’s bibliography, I only see another three titles that seem to be readily available to buy for a reasonable price (aside from the ones that I’ve already read), and yet he published roughly 30 novels. So yes, definitely an author that needs to publisher’s attention.

      As to the historical context of the solution – I hadn’t considered that. I’m curious if you’re right.


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