Dr Lancelot Priestley (had to look the Lancelot bit up – the second book in a row to dispense with a character’s forename) has lost touch with his old friend Sir John Claverton when he receives an dinner invitation. Claverton has health problems and a will with some labyrinthine “only in a detective book” conditions, so when Priestly is told about a possible attempted arsenic poisoning, it’s no surprise when a week later, Sir John does die.
Convinced his friend has been murdered, Priestley’s convictions are thrown when the autopsy shows no trace of poison in the body at all. With no evidence of murder, all Priestley has left is his belief that something is wrong about the situation. Was Claverton murdered? And if so, how?
Cecil Street, writing under the pseudonym of John Rhode, Miles Burton and a couple of others, certainly churned out plenty of mystery novels between 1925 and 1961 – at least 130 of them, so about four a year . Dr Priestley features in 72 of these but Rhode’s work has yet to join the growing list of reprinted authors – there’s one short story available as an ebook – in fact, there aren’t many books available on abebooks at all under Rhode’s name at all. But I managed to pick this one up cheap so I thought I’d give him a try.
Rhode (as I’ll call him) was a member of the Detection Club and a good friend of John Dickson Carr, who he co-wrote Fatal Descent with, a locked elevator mystery with a rather gadgety solution. If you want to know more about Rhode, then Curtis Evans’ post here has links to a number of his own articles about the man, or you could just read Curtis’ Masters Of The Humdrum Mystery, of which one third is about Rhode.
Back to this book and it’s an interesting read – a new (to me) take on the impossible crime. The Claverton household contains some interesting characters and there’s some interesting bits on the social expectations of… something, an idea that Rhode clearly doesn’t agree with. Don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it is murder, and although there’s some science behind the explanation, it’s all fairly clued and an extremely clever solution. The plot drags a little in the middle section but the solution to the impossible poisoning redeems it. Unfortunately Rhode is more interested in the “how”, as the “who” is a little uninspired.
Overall though, it’s a good classic mystery and it does surprise me that no-one has pilfered the back catalogue yet – although with so many books, people might not know where to start. But as one of the authors of The Floating Admiral, maybe the re-issue of that might propel him back onto the shelves (or e-shelves) of a bookshop near you. Recommended, if you can find it.
UPDATE: Wow, just has a look online and good luck finding anything affordable by Rhode. For someone who wrote so many books, there are only a handful that even seem to exist, and most of those have prices that exceed what one would pay for an impulse buy. Rather pleased with that cheap copy of Early Morning Murder that’s staring at me from the shelf now…