The Seven Stabs

Having read England Their England, a 1933 novel suffused with memories of the war, I wondered what A.G.Macdonell had been writing during the twenties. A search in the more shadowy corners of wonderful Abebooks produced a copy of The Seven Stabs, which he wrote under the pseudonym of John Cameron.

It’s a detective story of considerable complexity and ingenuity, written in the pleasant and jocular style which was the twenties’ favourite way of dealing with murder. The murder happens, as so often in books of the period, during a country-house weekend party. There is a plethora of suspects and motives, which Scottish Inspector Fleming has to try and sort out. Interestingly, he’s helped by Von Hoffman, a jovial colleague from Berlin, who has an inordinate appetite for beer. Macdonell/Cameron has a certain amount of fun with Von Hoffman’s Germanness:

He bowed and clicked his heels in military style, a trick which always helped to break the ice with strangers in England by making them smile inwardly.

The plot revolves around the politics of Baltania, one of “the little cluster of republics which have been chipped off the vast block of what was once the Russian Empire, and which nestle, side by side, along the shores of the Baltic Sea..” Baltanians are represented as having ferocious and incomprehensible political passions, in contrast to the English, who may be concealing dark financial or sexual motives beneath their polite facades, but are resolutely unpolitical. The politics of small European nations are a plot excuse in all sorts of English thrillers during the twenties – early Agatha Christie, Buchan’s Castle Gay, some of Dornford Yates’s thrillers, and plenty more. Maybe the writers are trading on their readers’ curiosity about the question “How did a silly little squabble in Sarajevo lead to all that?”

Anyway, the book’s ending is very ingenious. You’re lulled into thinking you’re ahead of the detectives, and then wham – a new twist shows how wrong both you and they were.

Sir John Squire thought Macdonell was wasting his talent writing books like this, and urged him to write from his own experience. The result was England Their England – much less neatly contrived, and less consistent in style – less professional, finally, but with flashes of genius. This book isn’t exactly a work of genius, but I might look for a couple of his other ones. Apparently there’s one about poison gas…


  1. Posted August 8, 2006 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Did someone say poison gas? Might be something I need to read! Do you know the title? My guess would be The Professor’s Poison (1928), but the Oxford DNB also mentions that Lords and Masters (1936) and The Crew of the Anaconda (1940) ‘explored the question of rearmament and fear of a holocaust’, so they might be of interest to me too …

  2. Posted August 8, 2006 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    The Professor’s Poison is the one I was thinking of. It sounds like a jolly romp, but with nasty weapons getting out of hand.

  3. Curtis J. Evans
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I’ve read seven of Macdonell’s eight mysteries/thrillers–several merit reprinting.

  4. Posted September 11, 2007 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Are any of the others about the War, or about ex-soldiers?

  5. Roger
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Lords and Masters shows an armaments manufacturer who is a personally decent man trapped by the demands of his profession ending in a vision of a war involving the mass use of poison gas. The Autobiography of a Cad- which was republished on paperback a few years ago, so should be easy to find- is the opposite of England Their England in that it is a [self-]portrait of one of the “hard-faced men who dod well out of the war”. Macdonnell’s own death was ironic- he left London, thinking it would be destroyed by bombing in WWII and was killed by a bomb in Oxford.

  6. Posted September 27, 2009 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the suggestions. Lords and Masters and the Autobiography of a Cad have gone on to my reading list.

  7. Roger
    Posted October 9, 2009 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    Autobiography of a Cad was published as Selbstbildnis eines Gentleman in Germany in 1940. Goebbels, who doesn’t seem to have realised it was fiction, thought it a very revealing self-portrait of the english plutocrat.

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