This review is part of The 1924 Club. To discover more, and see all the reviews so far from across the blogosphere, visit my hub post or Karen’s hub page. Do keep new and old 1924 review links coming, and thanks for all the contributions so far!
When I was thinking about which obscurer authors I could sample for The 1924 Club, Denis Mackail came to mind. He is best known now as the author of the Persephone title Greenery Street and as Angela Thirkell’s brother. My housemate Kirsty had recently been reading and enjoying his books, and I had been intending to read more ever since I read Greenery Street in 2004. Despite a few of his titles on my shelves, I still hadn’t got around to it – but I didn’t own his 1924 novel The Majestic Mystery. Indeed, looking at the prices online for the very few available copies, I was surprised that anybody owned it. And then I discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that it had been released as an unabridged audiobook. I signed up for free trial at Audible and was able to hear it.
The difficulty with blogging about an audiobook, of course, is that it’s much harder to check back for details – and much harder to give quotations. So this will necessary be a sketchier post than if I’d read the hard copy – forgive me! And there will also be some spoilers, though I shan’t say whodunnit.
The Majestic Mystery was Mackail’s only detective novel, if such it can be called – it belongs to the ‘amateur sleuth’ realm, and few sleuths come more amateur than this. Peter is our man; he has been on holiday to The Majestic Hotel with his friend James; they are both journalists on a newspaper, keen to rise above the literary pages and start covering front page news. And front page news takes place in front of them – in the form of the murder, by shooting, of a theatre manager who is staying at the hotel. Peter happened to be in the corridor at the time – so why didn’t he hear a gunshot, and should he be protecting the pretty young woman who ran out of the room just before he entered?
The hallmarks of a brilliant detective story are many and various, but – in the best – characters behave logically, and blind alleyways take place despite (rather than because of) the characters’ actions. Well, in The Majestic Mystery nobody seems to follow much logic. Peter decides to protect a woman solely because she is pretty – he has just met her, and has no idea whether or not she is innocent, and it causes all manner of delays and confusions. He sees somebody hide something down the back of the sofa, but can’t be bothered to cross the room to find out what it is. He tells all manner of lies for no obvious reasons.
And yet he is extremely affable, as is James – indeed, they are extremely similar. They come from the same school as a lot of A.A. Milne’s characters – witty, well-meaning, whimsical. They are incapable of being particularly serious, even in the face of murder, and do seem unusually stupid at times. The plot may be littered with unlikelihoods, but the writing is a delight. I wish I could quote it, but it’s the sort of light-hearted, insouciant, and extremely amusing prose that I love reading so much. Mackail does have an extremely light touch, and it more than makes up for a flimsy plot.
So, what sort of detecting does take place? As with seemingly all non-Christie practitioners of the genre, coincidence plays a large part. People also can never be at a scene without leaving some object behind them. And then, to cap it all, the only reason the mystery gets solved is because the culprit decides – apropos of nothing – to confess all to Peter about a year after the event.
Perhaps you can see why Mackail didn’t return to whodunnits. His is far from the weakest I have read, and there is a neat and almost plausible twist, but his strengths lie in prose rather than plot. A great detective novel can have good prose, of course, but what it really requires is a brilliant use of plot.
I should put in a word for the narrator Steven Crossley, who does a brilliant job both with the narrative and with the different voices. I’d definitely listen to him again, and he is pretty prolific. If you fancy joining in the 1924 Club and can listen to eight hours before the end of the week (!) then I certainly recommend The Majestic Mystery as being great fun, if not great genius.