Messers Mowerby and Crosland own a boat together. One navigates, one deals with the engines, and they spend plenty of time sailing around, despite not really knowing each other that well. And one evening, they sail up the River Ridding, towards Riddinghithe. The tide turns and they drop anchor for the night.
The next morning, a passing fisherman chances upon the boat. Mowerby is sound asleep – very sound asleep in fact. So asleep that he appears to have missed the fact that at some point early in the morning, as Crosland walked on deck, somebody shot him through the head with a long range rifle. Is Mowerby lying? And if so, how could he have produced a long range shot while still being on the boat?
Shot At Dawn has such an evocative feel to it as a title. Sounds like a military execution, or something similar. That’s not the case here, as John “Literal Title” Rhode has used it as somebody is shot. At dawn. Nothing more than that. But despite his lacklustre titling skills, this is one of the better cases for Dr Priestley.
Of course, he doesn’t show up for the set-up and Superintendent Haslet has the task of sorting out the facts and getting puzzled enough to rope in Priestley to help solve the puzzle here.
We’re in the early-ish days of Priestley, so he can be bothered to actually visit the scene of the crime – in fact he spends two days bobbing around on it so that he can draw a graph (which is produced for graph-fans in the text of the book.) This bit was clearly a hit with the fans as he later wrote The Two Graphs, which, I can only presume, features two graphs. How exciting.
Back to this one, and it’s one of Rhode’s cleverer mysteries, especially on the whodunit side. If you spot what’s going on (like me, mostly), you’ll see a version of one of Rhode’s standard tricks, but it’s used much more subtly here – I think the murderer is apparent for the last quarter of the book or so, but I’d already guessed as much so maybe I was reading too much into it. It’s certainly much less obvious than the last tranche of In Face Of The Verdict.
One of the more impressive aspects of the tale is that at times it gets quite technical, from how to tell how far a rifle is fired from to the effect of the tide on which way a boat is pointing, and despite this, I never felt that I was being lectured at or that I couldn’t follow what was going on. This is in part to the fact that Hanslet is ignorant about boats and hence the experts have to explain things to him carefully. And slowly.
At the end of the tale, Priestley behaves like an absolute arse (again) with his “I know the killer but it’s up to you to find the evidence” attitude. He’s only a whisker away from “I know the killer and from what I’ve told you, you should have worked it out. Bye!”, an attitude that makes it surprising that Hanslet ever goes back to him for help, especially given that… no, shouldn’t say that. There might be a reason for this that – Peril At Cranbury Hall implies that Priestley got it wrong in the previous book (The Davidson Case aka Murder At Bratton Grange) so maybe he doesn’t want to commit himself. There is a clear chronology to these books – another earlier case is referred to here a couple of times, although I’m not sure which one, and as time goes on, Hanslet gets an associate, Jimmy Waghorn, who eventually takes the lead investigator duties. Also Priestley becomes more and more of an occasional adviser rather than an investigator. I do wonder how much of that has a reason and how much is the writer naturally changing styles. Maybe I should have read these in order…
Oh, and as an interesting point, my version of this one, a Crime Club paperback has a dust jacket! Never seen one of those before. And apologies if I’ve peaked your interest in this one – £45 is the cheapest I could find on the interweb, so do keep an eye out for it. If you can get a copy, this is Highly Recommended.