Showing posts with label John Rhode. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Rhode. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I'd Rather Buy a Jaguar, Thanks

Just had to share this with my readers, many of whom are collectors like me or who just like to buy old mystery books every now and then. I doubt, however, any among you has the spare change to pick up the book advertised below. And it's so attractive, too. Foxed pages, chipped and foxed DJ. Definitely a keeper.

Just in case you're wondering it is indeed scarce, but there is a reputable seller with a copy minus the DJ who is selling it for $245. Standard pricing for a copy of any book without a DJ is to deduct approximately 75% from the price if it did have a DJ. So the naked copy is rather a steal. That is, if you believe this book is truly worth the equivalent price of a 2013 Jaguar XF with all the extras. Even a first edition of Fer De Lance in DJ (a much more important and collectible book in the genre) would never fetch over $60,000.

Click here for more details on this book. While visiting that page (yes, it's on that infamous auction site) you can view more pictures of this damaged book that someone thinks is the Hope Diamond of mystery fiction.

UPDATE (May 17, 2013): The seller appears to be playing a game with this item's listing. Each day the price drops. Tim Prasil caught it at £39,5000, today I see it has been further reduced to £38,750. How do you spell crackpot?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Murder from the Grave - Will Levinrew

Professor Herman Brierley, chemist and amateur criminologist, is one of the most obscure of the American scientific detectives. He made his debut in The Poison Plague in 1922 when the story was originally serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly. In that tale Brierly stops a mass murderer from decimating the population of New York with an exotic poison launching him on a career of investigating bizarre and grotesque crimes. Multiple murders, especially murder by poison, became the specialty of the series. Murder from the Grave (1930) is no exception.

While it may not be as utterly outrageous as the second book in the series, Murder in the Palisades (1930), it presents the reader with an opening tableau rarely encountered in a detective novel from this period. A murderer strikes in five different cities in New Jersey and New York over a period of only three hours and manages to kill four of his seven intended targets. Levinrew invented spree killing, in essence, decades before that criminal phenomenon was headline making news.

As the title suggests the murders appear to be the work of a person who has died. Rodney Borger, the cruel patriarch of a feuding family, visits Brierly to ask for his help in trying to flush out the person who he suspects of poisoning seven of his relatives at a dinner party a few weeks ago. He is convinced someone is trying to get to his money. But Borger has worked out a revenge. He also reveals to Brierly a will outlining his curious terms for his legatees. In order to inherit any money or property the surviving oldest Borger must live in the family estate and specifically in Rodney's bedroom for a prescribed period of days. During that time the survivor cannot leave the house. Brierly smells lunacy in the air, a little bit of paranoia, and is hesitant to take on the case. His delay proves fatal to Borger. He dies a few days later long with four other Borgers, all apparently the victims of yet another poisoning binge. The burning question, of course, is how the poison is being administered at different locations almost at exactly the same time.

The first Professor Brierly detective novel
The book is really more of a howdunit than a whodunit. The victims, intended victims and suspects are all members of the Borger family who we learn are descended from the infamous Borgias, the Italian Renaissance family known for their adept skills in concocting and administering poisons. Cute, right? But the emphasis is always on the eccentric character of Professor Brierly and his reporter colleague Jimmy Hale who serves as the book's Watson. No other character in the book (and there are many) rises above the level of a surface sketch or an utter cliché. In some cases we never get to meet the character thanks to the rapid elimination of family members at the hands of the maniacal poisoner.

The most jaw dropping part of this book is Brierly's unconventional method for detecting poisons. He tastes the food! Not only that he has other people taste the food and some of them do so willingly because they trust him. In one case, however, he is not so forthright. He dupes a woman into tasting coffee that he has doctored with tobacco from one of Hale's cigarettes so that he will jar her taste buds into "remembering" the flavor of the tainted coffee she drank the night of her attempted poisoning. She screams in terror when she detects the same flavor and accuses Brierly of trying to kill her. "Calm down, dear lady," he tells her. "You have merely confirmed my suspicions of nicotine poisoning." Ah, the days of the arrogant borderline sociopathic fictional sleuth! How I miss them.

The book has some fair play detection, some interesting chemical experiments, lots of taste testing (!) and a bit too much grilling of the suspects. But the murders themselves and the mysterious method keep the reader glued to the pages. Brierly learns that the mad killer has used a variety of poisons and has found a fiendish way to introduce those poisons into each household. I was impressed by the method having guessed a portion of it early on by heeding the few clues dropped rather obviously in the narrative. Admirers of the detective novels of John Rhode, the master of the murder means, might find the death traps in this book to be the most ingenious parts of Levinrew's sensationalized murder tale. Those hoping for a touch of the supernatural alluded to in the title will not be disappointed in the final chapters.

Paperback retitled version of the
ultra rare Murder at the Palisades
I am slowly working my way through my collection of Scarlet Thread Mysteries after doing an illustrated feature on the art work which you can view here. When writing about them I realized that I have never read any of them. No time like the present! You can look forward to all seven books I own being reviewed over the coming months this year. Improvements in the storytelling will be a blessing for the remainder of the Scarlet Thread Mysteries, but I am not too optimistic. Perhaps having low expectations for this imprint will fend off any future disappointment.

The Professor Brierly Detective Novels
The Poison Plague (1929)
Murder at the Palisades (1930)
    also publ as The Wheelchair Corpse (1945)
Murder from the Grave (1930)
For Sale - Murder (1932)
Death Points the Finger (1933)

READING CHALLENGE NOTE:  This will serve as one title off the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge for 2013. This one fits the category Murder Is Academic since Brierly is a chemistry professor at a New Jersey university.

Friday, September 14, 2012

FFB: Antidote to Venom - Freeman Wills Crofts

I wonder how many vintage mystery readers out there are like me and read every page of a book. I mean every single page, my friends. I read the dedications and make notes of odd messages then do research on the mystery men and women mentioned. I read the copyright pages looking for unusual notations. And I always read author notes and prefaces. If I didn't I would never have known that Antidote to Venom (1938) was Crofts' "two-fold experiment" in crime fiction. In his own words " is an attempt to combine the direct and inverted types of detective story and second, an effort to tell a story of crime positively." Curious that second part, don't you think? I think he succeeds even if it comes about in the most manipulative fashion.

First, a crash course on terminology. The inverted detective novel is a departure from the traditional whodunit which focuses on the murderer and his motive. Instead of the murderer's identity being kept hidden until the final chapter we know the murderer from the onset and are privy to all his thoughts and plans. The suspense comes in following the detective as he tries to uncover the fatal mistake that upsets the apparently perfect crime presented to the reader through the murderer's point of view. R. Austin Freeman and his detective Dr.Thorndyke were the models of this subgenre during the Golden Age. The TV show Columbo has become the modern day equivalent and is how almost everyone has become familiar with this version of the "howdunit" or perhaps more accurately "howdhescrewup."

George Surridge finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage. He finds his only joy at work in his busy life as director of the Birmington Corporation Zoo. But he is in deep financial straits. His wife Clarissa has been living well beyond their means and George has kept secret from her his gambling problem. He owes an awful lot of money to debtors. But then there is his ailing aunt and her modest estate. If only she would die soon he could have about £8000 that would more than cover his debts and allow he and Clarissa to live comfortably again. George begins to daydream of murder plots.

One day he meets Nancy and a pleasant day of chit chat and an impromptu tour behind the scenes at the zoo soon leads to secret trysts at country inns and teashops. Before they know it the two are engaged in a full blown romance. George's criminal thoughts about murdering his aunt are displaced by his deceitful cover-up of his secret love life.

When his aunt's illness worsens leading to her death George finally thinks the legacy due him will solve all his problems. But he learns from his aunt's lawyer, David Capper, that the money is gone. The lawyer admits he stole from the woman to cover some bad investments. There is nothing left. The two of them are in similar predicaments, each needing to pay back debts with expediency. But there is another option - Capper's rich uncle. Coincidentally, this rich uncle also happens to be Professor Burnaby who was working with George in obtaining snake venom for use in his medical research. The lawyer proposes a murder by proxy scheme that will provide each of them with money they need. George will need to do four things one of which involves the deadly Russell's viper at the zoo. He will be clear of any possible guilt as he will have no motive for the death of the professor. Capper assures George he will also have an alibi the night of the murder. Driven to desperation and thinking he will be in the clear George agrees to become an accomplice to the murder.

Russell's viper (Daboia) -the snake procured
for murderous means in Crofts' book
The rest of the book details the amazing detective skills of Inspector French and the local police. At first the death of Professor Burnaby is seen as a freak accident. The snake appeared to have escaped through negligence on the part of the zookeeping staff. It also helps Surridge that a keeper had recently been let go for dereliction of duty. The local police see the snake theft as a mad revenge scheme gone wrong and look to the fired zookeeper as suspect number one. George of course is sweating bullets throughout the entire investigation. French suspects something more serious than a mere accident. Too many things seem too coincidental. Above all he is bothered by one thing: how did the snake bite the professor and then end up drowned in a rain barrel that was yards away from the body? French demands not only an autopsy of the professor's body but one for the snake.

Map endpapers in the 1st US edition (Dodd Mead, 1939)
(click to enlarge)

I haven't had much luck with finding books by Freeman Wills Crofts that were exciting or engaging. He is primarily known for detective novels in which trains and boats and their timetables are examined and studied ad nauseum as part of the murder investigation. I have been bored by a lot of them and never finished those. Luckily, there isn't a train table in sight in this book. And for once with Crofts I was completely caught up in his story. George is both an object of pity and fascination. As presented his criminal thoughts and philandering ways are completely understandable. He is shocked by his actions and yet cannot stop himself. It's a fine examples of a character who is completely human falling victim to inexplicable desires and wholly succumbing to them transforming into a person he never thought he'd ever become. For a writer often derided for his shallow characterizations I think Crofts pulled off one of the most difficult jobs in crime fiction -- a compelling portrait of a sympathetic murderer.

While there are some convenient inspirational moments and leaps of imagination in French's mulling over the oddities of the crime the real detection in the book outweighs those minor quibbles. Much of the best detective work is in French's research about the snake and the examination of a workroom of one of the suspects. I liked all of the zoo background which is most likely authentic based on Crofts' acknowledgments to a herpetologist who helped him with research.

The murder method alone is one of the most astonishing and bizarre deathtraps of this period in detective fiction.  It puts to shame the mechanical ingenuity of the gizmo in Fatal Descent by Carr and Rhode, a machine I still cannot understand. I think Crofts can be proud of this thoroughly diabolical and unfathomably constructed device for killing someone.  Even with a detailed schematic I couldn't see how anyone could dream it up - let alone build it and make it work. I imagine John Rhode letting loose with an impressive whistle when he read this book seventy plus years ago.

And about that bit about Crofts' "an effort to tell a story of crime positively"? I can't really give it all away. Let me just say it all has to do with guilt and justice and, oddly enough, an eleventh hour moment of prayer perfectly placed to achieve Crofts' desired effect. To me it seemed too pat and neat. It was an ending manipulated through coincidence and contrivance. A story of a crime positively told? Perhaps, but better to have labeled it the story of a crime with a moral lesson.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Humdrum Summer Surprise

Two days ago I received my copy of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery by fellow blogger and vintage mystery scholar Curt Evans.  It's an in-depth study of three unjustly denigrated Golden Age detective novelists - Cecil Street (who wrote under the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton), Alfred W. Stewart (who wrote as J.J. Connington ) and Freeman Wills Crofts.  It's a true labor of love for Curt who spent the last ten years of his life researching, writing and trying to sell the book to a daring publisher.  Finally it paid off.

The "humdrums" is a derogatory term created by mystery writer and critic Julian Symons in his 1972 study of crime fiction Mortal Consequences (published in the UK as  Bloody Murder). He lumped together several "dull" and "unimaginative" writers of detective novels mostly from the late 1920s - 1930s and derided them for boring characters, flat writing and tepid plots.  As Curt (and many of us vintage mystery bloggers) will tell you -- nothing could be further from the truth.

A close reading of these three men's books will reveal exactly the opposite. Rhode was ingenious in coming up with bizarre murder methods and, when he put his mind to it, concocted ingenious plots with fine examples of logical and scientific detective work. Similarly, Connington was good with tricky plots and in his early books at least displayed an offbeat sense of humor.  Crofts was the genius of the alibi and the timetable and he loved to write detective stories about trains, boats and ships at sea.  In Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery Curt discusses in detail the best books by these writers and proves Symons to be biased and snobbish in his dismissal of them as "dull" writers.

And now you can own a copy!  It's published by McFarland & Company, a publisher of mostly academic non-fiction books, and can be purchased directly at their website.  They offer an oversized paperback edition or an eBook version. Or you can try amazon. Since it comes from an independent academic press the price is a bit steep at $49.95. Unfortunately, the book is not offered at any discount prices online. But for those who are truly interested in learning more about these three writers and their fertile imaginations I say it's worth every penny.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sign of Fear - August Derleth

With only a few quibbles I think Sign of Fear (1935) may be the best of the Judge Peck books. Derleth's series about the Wisconsin judge seemed extremely formulaic to me with his love of Gothic households, families ruled by stern matriarchs doing their best to keep in line the back biting relatives, and closets filled with a battalion of skeletons rattling all too loudly. Murder Stalks the Wakely Family, The Man on All Fours, and The Narracong Riddle all seem to be variations on a theme so overplayed that the last book in that list is a very close rewrite of the second. I was planning on reading the entire series but quickly tired of the repetition. Then I found the Sign of Fear – one of the rarest of the Judge Peck books – in a bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi and had to buy it. As I pored over the pages it became clear that here was a book that breaks away from Derleth's comfort zone and manages to put some truly original spins on his version of the fair play detective novel.

First, the matriarch is absent from the family. Instead we have two unmarried brothers and a female cousin making up Derleth's usual haunted family. Second, there is a mysterious murder method that is not made known until the halfway mark. Third, there is the anthropology background and some fascinating lore on ancient Peruvian superstition and religious symbols in South American culture. Finally, there is a bravura courtroom performance in which Judge Peck acts as defense attorney for one of the brothers who is accused of murder. It all makes for a highly enjoyable mystery.

Incan artifact (© F. D. Rasmussen) 
Christopher Jannichon, archaeologist, has been called back from Peru to his Wisconsin home by a series of strange postcards containing weird markings and ominous warnings. When he arrives at his home he finds similar markings drawn in the snow on the grounds of the Prairie estate and learns his brother Cornelius has also received similar anonymous postcards with odd symbols. The dominate symbol is described as "a cross topped with a cedilla" (though the illustration on the DJ shows a cross topped with a circumflex), known to both brothers through their extensive reading of Incan culture as the "God-help-us!" mark. It is clear to the Jannichons that someone is threatening them and they speculate it may have to do with Christopher's research in ancient Incan life. They consult with Judge Peck who is invited to stay the weekend when several relatives and friends are planning to visit the two Jannichon brothers. That night their cousin Edna suffers a mysterious fatal attack. She is found dead on the floor of her bedroom an expression of terror on her face. Beneath her body is a slip of paper with one of the "God-help-us!" symbols drawn in red ink. The threats have come true, but was Edna the intended victim?

The detection here is well done and, for the most part, follows all the tenets of fair play. Judge Peck learns that both Edna and Cornelius used a similar face powder (Cornelius has sensitive skin and used the powder as an aftershave emollient). On the night of the death Cornelius told his housekeeper the jar of powder in his room was not his and to put it back wherever it belonged. Judge Peck is sure that the powder found in Edna's room was the means of death somehow altered though no sign of poison is found during the post mortem. He is also certain that Cornelius was the intended victim since the powder was originally in his room. Then Christopher suffers a similar attack in which he has difficulty breathing and nearly asphyxiates. He is saved just in time. There seems to be a mad murderer in the Jannichon household armed with some mysterious means of causing death. The investigation will uncover a long lost relative, a convoluted inheritance, and a family history of respiratory ailments that are crucial to the solution of Edna's murder and several murder attempts of other characters.

Judge Peck does an admirable Perry Mason
imitation in Sign of Fear
As is the case in John Rhode's best books it is the painstaking detection, collaboration between medical experts, and Judge Peck's keen intuition that lead to the discovery of a truly diabolical murder method. In the gripping courtroom sequence that might have been lifted out of a Perry Mason novel Judge Peck calls forth witness after witness slowly building his case and making a startling revelation that brings a collective gasp to the entire courtroom. Though there are a few pieces of the overall puzzle that come as last minute revelations in the testimony of two witnesses I still laughed in amazement; Peck's solution makes for a stunning surprise.

If you want to read a Judge Peck book I suggest that you make this your number one pick. Most of the Judge Peck books are extremely scarce with Sign of Fear and Three Who Died being the most uncommon of the series. This book is nearly impossible to find and I count myself among the lucky to have found a copy. There is only the US hardback edition (Loring & Mussey, 1935) and not one paperback reprint in either the U.S. or the U.K. If you're lucky a copy may turn up in a library somewhere.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Vegetable Duck - John Rhode

Around the middle of the 1940s Dr. Lancelot Priestley, John Rhode's professor of mathematics and sometime detective, became more of an armchair detective and less of an active participant in the intricately plotted crimes he encounters.  In these later books Priestley usually appears at the halfway point and serves as a consultant to the primary police detective. In the case of Vegetable Duck (1944) -- also published as Too Many Suspects in the US -- Priestley has only three scenes in which he makes subtle suggestions to Inspector Jimmy Waghorn. Priestley does one bit of dazzling detective work involving the mystery of an envelope with an inexplicable damp stain, but otherwise he merely entertains the police and forensic investigators at three different dinner parties and makes deprecatory remarks or frowns at Waghorn when he delivers his mostly wrong findings. But Waghorn is no dullard policeman, he picks up on Priestley's hints and finally gets it all right.

The book is almost an inverted detective novel. Waghorn does what so many real life policemen seem to do – they pick a primary suspect and become so obstinate in wanting that suspect to be guilty that they rearrange the evidence to fit the suspect conveniently overlooking things that "don't fit" rather than examining the true circumstances of the crime by including all of the evidence and using that to determine the proper criminal. On several occasions Priestley points out Waghorn's faulty reasoning and his fixation on one particular suspect who just happens to have a shady past.

There are multiple puzzles in this engrossing detective story. It's one of those rare detective novels in which the story is completely concerned with the solution of those puzzles with little filler action or the kind of local color usually found among the minor characters. The cast of characters is rather large as the story tends to shift locales frequently. Among the most interesting in the colorful supporting cast are Sir Oswald Horsham, the forensic expert; Frederick Massingham, a shifty private detective; Ellen, the garrulous cook and servant in the Fransham home; and P.C. Purbeck, a wily constable in the town where Charles Fransham relocates after his wife's death.

The murder investigation is primarily focused on the death by poisoning of Mrs. Fransham who dies while eating the vegetable duck of the original title. This is a dish of a large squash stuffed with mincemeat and vegetables. At first it is though that she somehow ingested food doctored with a prescription liniment for her arthritis that included two highly toxic ingredients. (I wondered what physician in his right mind would prescribe a medicine that seemed to be made up of nothing but poison, but this is dismissed by nearly everyone in the book. Strange.) The actual poison turns out to be the fairly innocuous digitalis, a heart medication which can be deadly in higher doses and fatal to someone without a heart condition. Savvy murder mystery readers will almost immediately pick up on the herbal origins of digitalis as I did and come to the conclusion that gardening and knowledge of plants will feature in the plot. In fact, one, of the characters is an avid horticulturalist and through him the reader learns all about raising vegetable marrows, specifically the unusual method a gardener employs to achieve super-sized marrows used for displays or to enter in gardening competitions. This method is exploited by the murderer in one of the many fiendish murder methods that are the hallmark of Rhode's books.

Waghorn's primary suspect is Mrs. Fransham's husband, Charles, who was involved in an accidental shooting that most people, including retired Superintendent Hanslet, believe was a disguised murder.  Hanslet provides Waghorn with the background of the shooting death revealing in the storytelling process the usual convoluted will in the plot. Money seems to be the central motive for the wife's death.  As the investigation unravels and becomes further complicated suspicion shifts to a little known son from Fransham's first marriage who had a less than loving relationship with his stepmother.  Waghorn refuses to heed Priestley's warnings of his rash behavior by jumping from suspect to suspect as he pieces the evidence against each man. Only in the final chapter does Waghorn see his folly and begin to pay attention to some apparently meaningless coincidences that turn out to be crucial to the correct solution.

Most of the book is deals with scientific experiments and discussion that reminded me of the best of R. Austin Freeman and J. J. Connington.  A trial and error experiment with test portions of the woman's final meal being injected into laboratory frogs recalled the elaborate camera experiment in The Sweepstakes Murder by Connington and a variety of esoteric scientific examinations by the brilliant Dr. John Thorndyke in Freeman's books.  But there is also an elaborate finale in which several characters are figuratively unmasked that made me think of some of the more outrageous denouements in Christie's work like Murder in Mesopotamia. There's a lot that will appeal to a wide variety of crime fiction readers in Vegetable Duck whether you like puzzles, scientific detection or endings that have an element of the surreal.

This completes the first part of my three part 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. Links to the previously reviewed books are listed below.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King
The Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas
The Moon Murders - Nigel Morland
Killer's Wedge - Ed McBain
Exit Charlie - Alex Atkinson
Murder in Shinbone Alley - Helen Reilly
Vegetable Duck (aka Too Many Suspects)

Friday, December 2, 2011

FFB: Peril at Cranbury Hall - John Rhode

The more John Rhode I read the more I am beginning to admire his skillful handling of certain aspects of the detective novel. His reputation of being a boring writer - one of the "Humdrums" - is truly undeserved. His best books can be found in the mid 1930s to late 1940s. Rhode's use of ingenious murder methods, diabolical death traps, and labyrinthine plots keep me coming back for more. Yet often Rhode lets his hand show several times. In Peril at Cranbury Hall (1930), for example, he has not yet acquired the talent for misdirection that is the hallmark of his contemporaries Christie and Carr. That is not to say that the book should be completely dismissed. There is more than enough here to satisfy most devotees of the traditional fair-play murder mystery novel.

Oliver Gilroy has recently been released from a seven year jail term for fraud. His half brother Arnold Gilroy, a lawyer, is engaged in acquiring an old mansion Cranbury Hall and its grounds for use by Dr. Richards and Professor Verclaes as a nursing home where they will cater to wealthy patients in search of the professor's anti-fatigue "miracle cure." The treatment itself sounds less like bona fide medicine at a nursing home and more like an elaborate con. Cranbury Hall will be transformed into something akin to a luxury spa/hotel designed to make the patients addicted to the comforts and indulgences like fine dining, massage treatments, and an enormous swimming pool, rather than the "miracle inoculations."

While Dr. Richards and the professor will handle the care of the patients, he tells Arnold that he will need a business manager and suggests Oliver for that position. Dr. Richards confesses that he also knows that Arnold has been manipulating the will of his dear departed Aunt Hilda and is planning to cheat Oliver out of his share of her estate. Armed with this knowledge and proof of the true will in a government registry open to the public (but unknown to Oliver) he blackmails Arnold into hiring his half brother.

Then a series of bizarre accidents befall Oliver and it appears that someone is trying to kill him. Dr. Priestley and Harold Merefield just happen to come across Oliver after he suffers a near fatal car accident – the third strange incident that nearly kills the ex-con. From Muriel Verclaes, the professor's daughter, Priestley and Merefield learn of the other accidents and Dr. Priestley is intrigued enough to investigate the possibility of foul play.

Rhode spends much time in letting the reader in on everyone's thoughts and actions prior to the appearance of Dr. Priestley who steps into the story well past the halfway mark. As the story progresses nearly every character will reveal a secret and his reason for killing Oliver. In fact, nearly everyone in the book turns out to be dishonest, a crook, or a cheat of some sort. There is an interesting use of the Iago-like power of suggestion too, put to great use in Christie's Curtain and by Rhode again in his superior Death in Harley Street (1946).

I was reminded of some of the less tightly constructed detective novels of George Bellairs and John Russell Fearn while reading Peril At Cranbury Hall. The clues are prominently displayed as if Rhode had spotlights shining on each one. There is no attempt made to hide anything, no misdirection, and no camouflage. Any sharp-eyed, attentive reader can figure out what's going on fairly quickly. This may be slightly disappointing to many readers, but perhaps a highlight for someone who has never solved a fair play detective novel. In other words, this is a great book for anyone interested in a training manual on how to solve a fair-play mystery novel.

For those who crave real puzzles there is a complex cipher that plays an integral part in the story. An entire chapter is devoted to the explanation of how the cipher works and there are ample opportunities for the reader to join Harold in decoding at least three different messages. However, you need patience and more of a mathematical mind than I have to understand how it works even with Priestley's detailed explanations. I attempted to try my hand at one, but gave up after about three minutes when I got mostly gibberish. I later discovered I misinterpreted the cipher rules and was inverting some letter pairs.

Finally, there is the puzzle of the fourth murder method -- the only successful one which dispatches Oliver Gilroy. Unfortunately, for me this was ruined on the title page of my reprint edition with an ill-advised illustration that gives it all away. Since I had read a murder method similar to what is used in an Agatha Christie novel the actual means was not as gasp inducing as perhaps it was intended. To echo something Patrick (At the Scene of the Crime blog) once said when he encountered a similar illustrated spoiler on an Edmund Crispin novel, there should be a special place in Hell reserved for book designers and illustrators who create these unnecessary ornamentations.

There is no denying that the death traps created in Peril at Cranbury Hall are the one of the main attractions of the novel. Rhode always is impressive in this regard. But it is Dr. Priestley's astonishing  revelation about the multiple murder attempts that truly makes this book one of Rhode's better accomplishments. This violation of one of Father Knox's Ten Rules for Detective Fiction recalls a book by C. Daly King and another by Agatha Christie, both too well known for me to mention outright without ruining what should be a real surprise. Although most of the many mysteries can be easily solved there is this final twist that may be Rhodes' crowning achievement in this particular book. While not on the same level as something like The Claverton Affair (so far the best Rhode I have read) I would say Peril at Cranbury Hall is well worth a read if you are lucky to locate a copy.

NOTE TO COLLECTORS & BOOK BUYERS: This is one of the more difficult to find titles in John Rhodes' prolific output. Although there seem to be two copies for sale at reasonable prices at a site in the UK, I found five other copies for sale on the internet and all of them are priced over $100. One without a DJ (the Dodd Mead first US edition) although described as FINE is, I think, exorbitantly priced at $225.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

JACKET REQUIRED: Rhodes Less Taken

I'm perhaps a little late with this one as a follow-up to some good reviews of John Rhode's  books by my fellow vintage detective fiction bloggers: TomCat at Detection by Moonlight and Patrick who writes At the Scene of the Crime, but Dr. Priestley has been on my mind of late. I have about eight of his books all begging to be read. I've reviewed only one Rhode and one Miles Burton - Cecil Street's other pseudonym. He's deserving of many more reviews and much more attention than he ever gets. In the meantime, yet another gallery of vintage DJs and two paperback covers all from books featuring Dr. Lancelot Priestley.

Please click on the images for the full size. Forgive the rips and chips and creases. These things are damn old and I'm lucky to own some of them.  Thankfully, they've managed to survived this long so you can all ogle and gasp in awe.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

IN BRIEF: Tragedy on the Line (1931) - John Rhode

Fairly routine story about the death of Gervase Wickenden, a wealthy single man, and the battle for his fortune between his heirs - a motley group of nieces and nephews. His body found alongside train tracks not far from his home, the face crushed beyond all recognition, can only be identified by his clothing and personal effects. An inquest rules the death an accident. Enter Dr. Priestley who smells foul play. He and his secretary, Harold, discover a bullet hole in a fir tree opposite the accident site and are determined to prove that Wickenden was shot and that the "train accident" was done after the murder to obliterate any signs of a bullet wound.  It's a bit repetitive in the telling with lots of rehash and recapping as if it were a serial (This is a unfortunate practice of Rhode/Burton in his early books).

For me the best part of the book was the character of Nancy Wickenden -- an outspoken, no-nonsense, modern woman who dares to live with a man and remain unmarried. Her dialog is sparkling and witty. The scene where the uptight and conventional Supt. Haslet visits her apartment and finds a different man and woman (Nancy's brother and his girlfriend using her place in lieu of a hotel) in the apartment is hysterical from a 21st century point of view. Also, Wickenden's lady friend to whom he was engaged is a lively and modern character.

Priestley plays a peripheral role providing the police with the impetus to pursue the case then disappears into the background until the end when he serves as the murderer's confessor in the rather Anthony Wynne-like final chapters. The murderer, suffering from injuries received in a motor vehicle accident and with only hours to live, tells a long-winded tale of the past revealing Wickenden to be a sadistic rogue who allowed his seemingly devoted wife to suffer a cruel death when he tired of her. The crime turns out to be a vendetta years in the making similar to the one constructed by the killer in Queen's Tragedy of X. Even the most astute reader would never be able to figure any of this out and it's far from the kind of "fair play" plot expected from a writer who was a member of the Detection Club.

This was the first Rhode book I read from start to finish. My judgment is that he gets a raw deal as a writer whose books are boring. Tragedy on the Line held my interest all the way despite its unfair ending. I have also read The Claverton Mystery which is a remarkable detective novel on many levels. However, Priestley overall seems too intellectual and lacking humanity in a kind of Holmesian way for him ever to be one of my favorite detectives in the genre. Though I should add once or twice he shows a sense of humor in Tragedy on the Line and, at end of this book at least, exhibits a tender compassion.