Proceed With Caution (aka Body Unidentified) (1937) by John Rhode

No interesting crimes happen for ages, apart from a disappearance in the hop fields of Kent and a serial killer making their way slowly through the members of the board of directors of an ironmongery company, of course. And then two come along at the same time.

Superintendent Haslet is summoned by Sir Stanislaus Wherwell – the Wherwell diamonds and their courier have disappeared on their way from Hatton Garden to Wherwell’s estate without trace. Haslet is sure who the thief is, but they seem to have vanished without trace.

DI Jimmy Waghorn is dispatched to the village of Fallowchurch, where a hearse has been abandoned outside the village pub. This event is soon overlooked when a body is found in a tar boiler, burned beyond recognition. Regardless, our super sleuth soon establishes who the body belonged to and who the killer is. But, like Haslet’s villain, no trace of them can be found…

It falls to Dr Priestley – “that uncompromising scientist who combined an interest in criminology with an unsparing devotion to pure mathematics” – to point out something that anyone reading a Golden Age mystery about two disparate cases will assume from page one. But can even he help track down the villain(s?) behind the scheme(s?)?

It’s Crimes of the Century time again, following on from Tread Softly by Brian Flynn, The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude, Mystery Of Mr Jessop by E R Punshon and Death In The Hop Fields and Death On The Board both by John Rhode – I may have got a bit carried away this month for 1937, and there’s at least one more coming. But for now, we come to the final book from that year written by John Street under his Rhode pseudonym. There are two Miles Burton books as well from 1937 – Death At The Club and Murder in Crown Passage – but good luck finding those. In fact, good luck finding this as well, but it does exist on the Internet Archive. And I only mention that as that dodgy copy isn’t as dodgy as buying a copy (under the US title Body Unidentified) of the ebook that, unless someone tells me different, just seems to be a copy of the archive file with a pretty cover…

Anyway, back to the book. It’s probably the least of the three 1937 books. It starts well, with the setting for Jimmy’s investigation being as well-defined as the locations in Death At The Hop Fields, something that I believe is Street’s real strength. There’s some fine descriptions of pub life, of the working of portable tar boilers… but it slips a bit when we get onto Hanslet’s case, and never really recovers. Street also liked convoluted complex plots, but it takes a while as things become tied up at the end before the book really grips again. It’s rather talky and gets a bit railway-timetable-esque at points. At least this time, it’s reasonable that Haslet and Waghorn need Priestley to point them in the right direction. It’s certainly not a bad book, just an decently average one.

As for 1937-ness, there’s not a whiff of a war on the horizon. You do learn how a portable tar boiler works – well, I found it interesting how roadworks were done back in the day – and there’s a lovely section about the changing times. How the workhouse is now called a Poor Law institute, an asylum is now a mental hospital, an undertaker became “a funeral finisher” – eh? and best of all, a pair of pyjamas is now called a “slumber suit”. Well, that last one caught on, didn’t it?

So, a decent enough entry from Street/Rhode, but I wouldn’t break the bank to get a copy – save up for Hop Fields instead. But it’s still Well Worth A Look.


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