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.