“Whether or not you ultimately arrest SPOILER is a matter of complete indifference to me.” Dr Lancelot Priestley.
Porslin, Ltd, was a hugely successful company, dealing in “ironmongery of every description”. Well, you could be successful at that in 1937, apparently. But the company is in turmoil due to an explosion at the home of Sir Andrew Wigginhall, the chairman of the board of directors, that all but destroys the house and leaves little bits of Sir Andrew all over the place.
Superintendent Hanslet smells a rat, and, despite the coroner’s report, isn’t convinced that the death was an accident. And when another member of the board of directors “accidently” burns to death in bed, his suspicions seem to be confirmed. With the help of Dr Priestley and Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, he finds himself on the trail of a cold-blooded killer who goes by the name of Shillingstone, a name that seems to strike terror in the surviving members of the board. But is Shilingstone closer than anyone suspects?
Crimes Of The Century‘s #1937book kicks off for me with another (yes, another) book from John Rhode, also known as Death Sits On The Board in the US. As you may have noticed, Rhode, in my eyes, seems to oscillate from very strong (Peril At Cranbury Hall, The House At Tollard Ridge, for example) to the fairly dire (Pinehurst). I’m pleased to say that this one ranks with the very best so far – in fact, it just might be my favourite to date.
There’s a nice structure to this one, as we switch back and forth between the investigation and the suspects/potential victims. Hanslet is a fairly standard police character but is livened up by being partnered with Waghorn, this being his sixth appearance. There’s a sense of Hanslet still needing to be convinced about Waghorn, a graduate of Hendon, a police training college that only opened in 1934, so I figure it’s a similar sort of dynamic to the fast-tracked police officer of today. Either way, it works, and, unlike some of the later books, Waghorn is still learning the ropes here.
The tale takes its time too, set over at least a year – did Priestley, who tended to appear in at least two books a year, solve a different case while this one was ticking over – and when we switch back to the ever-decreasing pool of directors, there’s a sense of fear of an ever-approaching doom. The directors are nicely distinctive (character work isn’t always Rhode’s strength), and there’s a lovely opening sequence to the book when the exploding house occurs in the vicinity of a local policeman who is still suffering from shellshock following the Great War. It’s just a few pages, but it kicks off the book very nicely.
On the down side, the murderer is fairly obvious, and Priestley is his usual annoying self at times – there’s no reason why he couldn’t have sorted things out before the death-toll gets as high as it does, and, well, see the quote at the top of the page. But there’s something of a poignancy to the killer, notably the point that the motive for the killings is far more important to the murderer than to the potential victims.
As I said, definitely one of the best of the Priestley tales so far for me. If you are so inclined, there’s a dodgy nicked-off-the-Internet-Archive ebook version of this one – I’d recommend, depending on your morals, just taking it from the Archive yourself rather than rewarding the company who I’m fairly sure don’t have the estate’s permission. Up to you. That’s what I did, in the service of #1937book. But regardless of my potential ethical misdemeanour, this one is Highly Recommended.