Death On The Lawn (1954) by John Rhode

Death On The LawnRobert Thwaite, a successful businessman, always had high ambitions for his son Edward, but Edward seemed determined not to achieve them. Edward is offered the family business and an arranged marriage, but he decides to head to Canada instead to follow his dream of being a lumberjack – sorry, a farmer. Because that’s the career that lazy layabouts dream of, obviously…

Anyway, instead Robert all but adopts his nephew, Dick Layton, who thrives at the business. But five years after Edward left, a woman, Ida, arrives claiming to be his widow. When she nurses Robert through a serious bout of pneumonia, it seems that there is a new member of the household. Several familial twists later, things seem to have settled down in the house. And when he’s sitting on his favourite lawn chair, basking in contentment – someone shoots an arrow in his back…

Book 59 out of 72 of the Dr Priestley series. It’s been a month since my last Rhode review and I quote from a comment from John on that review: “All that I’ve read [of Rhode’s work] were written between 1929 and 1949. And I intend to stay there to avoid the clunkers. all that I’ve read were written between 1929 and 1949. And I intend to stay there to avoid the clunkers.” This one is from 1954. Uh-oh…

I picked a later one despite John’s warning because a) I’d already bought it and b) it’s 1954 over at Crimes Of The Century at Past Offences and I want to play along again. So, is this part of Rhode’s alleged twelvish year slump? Well…

It starts off extremely well, with the first 30-40% of the book as pre-murder set-up. Usually, this doesn’t bode well for me, but the build-up is very effective here, giving the reader plenty of time to muse on potential motives and killers (as anyone with half a brain cell can spot that Robert is going to be the victim). As we headed to the murder, I had all sorts of ideas going through my head and was rather intrigued to see where this was going.

Turns out, it was going downhill…

As soon as Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn turns up, most of the suspects fade into the background. It’s fair enough, as they had no opportunity to commit the crime, but Golden Age detective fiction isn’t really about realism. You expect that as soon as someone says that no woman would be strong enough to use the massive longbow, then the author will be looking for a cunning way for that to happen. But instead, once that fact is elucidated, then it just eliminates all the female characters from suspicion. And, indeed, most of the book. Even when it transpires that, given where the shot came from, nobody could have used the longbow, so some jiggery-pokery was involved, we still don’t look any further than the individual that, as with most Rhode books, is the obvious suspect for the majority of the narrative until the real killer is revealed towards the end. And, while this is a family blog so I’ll use my words carefully, when that killer has such a male-cow-droppings motive, it really does feel like a bit of a cheat.

Oh, and it’s padded as well, with Waghorn being told the family history over at least two chapters and we learn possibly one fact of use. It’s possible the author could have been doing a clever read-between-the-lines trick, but I don’t think so. I think he’s just padding out a thin plot, as bringing in a sub-plot regarding another suspect wouldFatal Pool have been too much bother. This had the potential to be an interesting “traditional” Golden Age tale with some intriguing motivations, but once the murder occurs, then it’s business as usual for Rhode, namely a detailed coverage of the investigation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I’ve enjoyed this approach a lot in the earlier books, but as with The Fatal Pool, the case hinges entirely on one critical point. In The Fatal Pool, I can understand our hero overlooking it, but here, it’s almost as if the crucial interpretation is wilfully ignored. But given the thinness of the motive, it’s just about understandable.

Oh, and the elusive Dr Priestley only shows up in twice, once when everything is solved. He gives Jimmy a hint as to something to consider, but this is definitely a Jimmy Waghorn mystery, rather than a Dr Priestley one – the appearance only serves to pad things out and to air some pretty obvious questions.

Overall then, it’s a case of wasted potential here. A promising opening dovetails into too focussed an investigation and a thin motive for the murder. The current going value for this one on Abebooks is <checks> – blooming ‘eck, £48. Rest assured I didn’t pay that for my copy (also first edition, no dustjacket). Not the best introduction to Rhode’s work by some distance, and at that price – Not Recommended.  Although it is, on reflection, still better than The Fatal Pool…


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