Every year, for a month or so, a crowd descends on the village of Culverden every weekend. They come primarily from the deprived East End of London, to visit the countryside and to make a bit of money picking hops. They stay in huts, away from the village dwellers, drink outside the pub rather than inside – unwelcome in some ways but a vital part of the economy nonetheless.
But one hop-picking weekend, a burglary occurs and valuable jewellery is stolen from Paddock Croft. Oddly enough for a detective tale, the thief is promptly identified due to his fingerprints being left all over the scene, especially the jewellery box that was robbed. But he seems to have vanished into thin air – no trace of him anywhere Culverden or in his usual haunts in London.
What could have happened to him? No one has seen hide nor hair of him since the day of the burglary. And if he’s dead, then why is there no body?
John Rhode wrote three books in 1937 – this is another #1937book for Crimes Of The Century – and the second one that I’ve read so far this month. And it couldn’t be more different than Death On The Board. That book tells of a creative, if a little challenged in the sanity department, killer. This tells of… well, it tells a very small tale. And it tells it rather beautifully…
I’ve mentioned before Rhode’s eye for detail, for taking an aspect of life at the time – namely hop picking in this case – and spinning a yarn around that setting. As a fan of history, I find this a lot more interesting than the usual modern novel set during the time, usually featuring a plucky young gel – it’s a snapshot of life that is usually only found in a local history book.
There’s the man running the local pub, who always claims to want to move on and never does, who resents the hop pickers and yet still puts complex arrangements in place to serve them and prevent problems with the locals. There’s the fact that near everybody smokes – the pub even purchases cigarette packets by the sack! The casual use of the phrase “four of their surviving children” with regard to a family who would have grown up through the Great War and the Spanish Flu epidemic. The fact that the hop-pickers were so plentiful, they were followed by sutlers, namely mobile tradesmen catering to their particular needs. The fact that “swearing on the public highway” seems to be an arrestable offence. The use of the phrase “infernal machine” instead of “fire-bomb” or “incendiary device”. It’s such a vivid picture of a small section of the world that has long since disappeared, it’s absolutely fascinating to me.
And you can tell how much I enjoyed the background, because there isn’t much plot to go round. Jimmy Waghorn and Superintendent Waghorn are called in to investigate the theft, but it isn’t around three quarters of the way through the book that they (prompted by Dr Priestley) consider that maybe, just maybe, the thief might be dead. In fact, Priestley does all the heavy thinking here, but to be honest, the police contingent, for once in Rhode’s work, do come across as pretty useless – apart from their scene of the crime officer who recognises the criminal’s fingerprints from a case eight years previous. Doesn’t look them up, he just remembers them.
But even though the story is quite slight, there’s still a reasonable whodunit here, with a sting in the tale, and another obscure point of law (following the one from Tread Softly that strangling your wife during a nightmare isn’t manslaughter) but I can’t say what it is without spoiling things.
So, a book that couldn’t be more different from Death On The Board, but a book that is just as strong. I can see some readers being a little frustrated at the slow pace – it’s something that I’m not a fan of usually – but it just works here. People who think Rhode is a one trick pony need to read these two books back to back. Of course, you might need a bank loan before getting them…
Oh, and if you read this, you’ll find out what a noggin is. But I’m not spoiling that either… Highly Recommended.