The village of Milton Kirdmore is fascinated by the new resident at the residence known as “Donyatts”. Maurice Robthorne, a retired gentleman, has rented the house for a year, but seems to have little interest in mixing with the rest of the village, which needless to say is enough for the village as a whole to be utterly fascinated with him. Especially when Warwick Robthorne, Maurice’s twin brother comes to stay.
And then, on Guy Fawkes’ Night, a shot rings out from the greenhouse at Donyatts and Warwick is found dead on the ground, shot in the head. A clear case of suicide – the bullet went straight up through Warwick’s head and into the roof of the building. The inquest is concluded and everyone is satisfied – Warwick shot himself. There was no way anyone could have murdered him. End of story.
Hang on, there’s more than two thirds of the book left…
An early Dr Priestley title – the seventeenth, but early relatively speaking, to feature the “militant scientific critic” – and it’s a good example of what John Rhode does well, and, I suppose, one of his shortcomings.
Let’s start with the shortcoming – he’s not great at subplots. He’s got a story to tell about a crime, there’ll be a character or two who’s designed to be the red herring and then there’s the murderer. The murderer will have a remarkably complex plot, usually involving framing someone, but a lot of characters are introduced to add a bit of colour, but never really engage with the plot.
Take the majority of the villagers in Milton Kirdmore – they are an entertaining bunch. Rhode has a nice trick by livening up the inquests by ignoring a lot of the detail and giving us an entertaining sort-of Greek chorus of gossipy-theories instead. But with the exception of one or two of them, they really have nothing to do with the plot. That isn’t a spoiler, by the way.
But on the other hand, what Rhode delivers here is a very tight, clever plot with a small handful of characters that had me looking the wrong way. There’s an obvious route to go with the twin brothers idea, and while it would be a spoiler to spell it out – Priestley only brings it up way after the average reader thought of it – rest assured that the solution is much more elegant than that.
The other thing that I wanted to mention is Rhode’s wit, not something that gets mentioned very often. But there were a number of times the writing brought a smile to my face, keeping the tale bubbling along nicely. For example:
“Bolsom describes him as a retired gentleman.” “Retired from what? Not being a gentleman, I hope.”
Well, it made me smile, anyway.
The Robthorne Mystery is sort-of available to the reader who doesn’t want to spend a small fortune on it – it’s in the Internet Archive. I think it was available as a dodgy ebook (i.e. the person in question made a new cover and use the Archive file) but it seems to have vanished from Amazon. Good. There seem to be less of these now, although searching for them doesn’t always pick them up, for some reason. But good on that too. Get it for free from the Archive if you must, don’t pay someone for it.
Anyway – this is a charming mystery tale, with character, heart and a clever plot. One of the best Rhode titles that I’ve read so far. Highly Recommended.