Warrant For X, by Philip Macdonald

Title: Warrant For X (also published as The Nursemaid Who Disappeared)

Author: Philip Macdonald

Publication Data:  Originally published 1938 as The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, Collins Crime Club.  This edition: Vintage (1983).  Many other editions exist under both titles.  The American title seems to have stabilized as Warrant For X and was published in paper by Pocket, #328 (1945).

The book was used as the basis for two films: 1938’s The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, a black-and-white British film, and 1956’s 23 Paces to Baker Street, which departs considerably from the novel.

About this book:

Philip Macdonald was a clever writer who came to the public’s attention with his first mystery in 1924, The Rasp, a very early example of the “impossible crime” genre.  He also was responsible for some very early examples of the “serial killer” novel — before the phrase “serial killer” was even coined.  Murder Gone Mad, for instance, from 1931, chronicles the events surrounding a “psycho killer” who kills a string of people, apparently for no reason, and the mad scramble of the police to track down the murderer — so does X vs. Rex (1933), with the added fillip that the victims are all police officers.  Another, Rynox, known in the U.S. as The Rynox Mystery, has delighted a couple of generations of mystery fans with its light-hearted capers.  (I am aware of at least two other titles under which this book was published, so caveat emptor.  Many Macdonald novels, hatefully, have two or more titles.)

And in 1938, Warrant For X documents a very clever idea that is at the base of this clever novel.  An American playwright is in a teashop and overhears the conversation of two women (whom he cannot see) who are apparently planning a crime.  One, with a deeper crueler voice, is intimidating the other, with a higher, more gentle voice.  He catches a glimpse as they leave of a short stumpy brunette and a tall slender young blonde.  And one of them leaves a glove behind that contains what seems to be a scrawled shopping list.

This is an early example of what one might call a proto-police procedural, or perhaps if one allows such a sub-genre to contain amateurs acting like police this designation makes more sense.  The playright takes his suspicions to the police and is pretty much turned away, so he enlists the assistance of well-known detective Anthony Gethryn (whose adventures also began with The Rasp).  Together, they piece together crucial details from the few details offered by the playwright and from the shopping list, which turns out to contain much more information than one might have thought, and learn that a child of wealthy parents is going to be kidnapped with the assistance of her nursemaid.  And the book moves to an exciting finale, once the police get involved.

It’s hard to describe one of the most appealing things about this book and Macdonald’s work in general — the quality of sheer intelligence.  The extended piece of deduction from the shopping list is the equivalent of, say, the multi-page sequence of deductions from a broken shoelace and, later, the position of a filing cabinet, in Ellery Queen’s The Dutch Shoe Mystery or the long chain of logic about teacups and tea in The Greek Coffin Mystery.  (I have to say that it is dependent upon a fact which was certainly known to Macdonald’s British audience in 1938 but not to the modern non-British reader — that it would have been illegal to purchase lamb or suet on a Sunday.  But in its own context it is entirely fair play.)  And when Gethryn and his crew of detectives go into action, I was reminded irresistibly of a number of adventures of Nero Wolfe marshalling the talents of his ‘teers.  The writing sparkles from time to time with excellent dialogue applied to bring to life a clever plot.

And one thing I have thought in the past about Macdonald is that he was really a very visual writer — which is perhaps why so many of his works were made into films.  (Wikipedia cites 13, including the well-known List of Adrian Messenger.)  When the playwright in the teashop cannot see or be seen by the criminal women, it is clear why — you understand it visually instead of merely being told to accept that they cannot.  The Rasp, for instance, is based entirely around a visual image (I cannot be more specific without spoiling it) that is crucial to the plot, and it is remarkably easy to accept that a witness has seen one thing when they have actually seen another, because you are shown, not told.  Things that are seen by witnesses and recounted seem to recur disproportionately frequently in Macdonald’s novels and thus I think it is legitimate to look at the filmed versions of his novels to understand the novels more clearly.

About the films:

I don’t remember seeing the earlier British production from 1938, the same year as the novel’s release, but I am given to understand that it is quite faithful to the novel.  23 Paces to Baker Street, unfortunately, is another matter.  It premiered on the American station TCM the other night and prompted me to dig out my copy of the novel for comparison’s sake.  The series detective, Anthony Gethryn, seems completely absent and the details of the playwright are sufficiently altered as to make him blind.  Frankly, I have no idea why.  Did Van Johnson want to play a blind man?  (Which he did quite unconvincingly, I may add.)  Was it that the producers felt it was not possible to make the playwright’s inability to see the women seem believable without removing his sight?  I just can’t say.  The film also suffers from a general dumbing-down — the shopping list has pretty much vanished, and Vera Miles is strongly present as a love interest who takes much less room in the novel, the playwright’s butler becomes a major character, etc..  The only nice thing was that the late great Estelle Winwood played the barmaid (the teashop becomes the local pub) and steals every scene she’s in, to great comedic effect and even a nice moment of pathos.

Another film I haven’t seen is what has been described to me as a “giallo classic”, 1972’s Crimes of the Black Cat.  I am informed that the opening and closing of the giallo owe a great debt to this material, which I have found to be a regrettably common practice among the first wave of Italian giallo masters.  If they liked an idea, they adapted it wholesale.  I have no idea what was lifted and how, so I’ll be looking to track this film down.  Another one for the “list”.

Notes For the Collector:

The edition portrayed at the top of this article is the one from which the article was written, as is my habit.  I have certainly owned a couple of nicer editions in my time, including a copy of Pocket #328, which has a dramatic cover in tones of black and red.  The first paperback, a Fontana edition as The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, is less dramatic.  The book is also #5 in the Dell Great Mystery Library.  Perhaps its most interesting publication is as part of the summer, 1940 edition of pulp magazine Detective Book Magazine, which is currently on Abebooks.com for $29. Certainly many other editions, including book club reprints and many paperbacks, exist.  Reading copies of this volume are plentiful.

My contention will be that the Pocket edition is the most beautiful and collectible.  Abebooks has a number of examples in varying conditions from $4 on up.  The UK first edition, the true first, will set you back at the most $140.13 as of October 2012, and the US first, fine in near fine jacket, is a cool $350.

My overriding contention is that a well-written and intelligent book by a skilful author is worth having because it will hold its value.  Good books are a better investment than their poorly-written brothers, even more famous ones.