“POISON FOR ONE is the sinister and compelling title of Mr John Rhode’s latest detective story, a story that many of his readers will say is the best he has ever written. For sheer ingenuity and masterly handling of a most difficult and baffling problem, this intriguing poison drama that centres round the mysterious death of Sir Gerald Uppingham at Brucklersbury Park would certainly be hard to surpass. How Dr Priestley , with very little in the nature of a real clue to work upon, builds up a solution by cool and calculating methods of deduction makes enthralling reading.”
Ah, the Golden Age blurb. Never guilty of hyperbole, honest. But Poison For One is one of Rhode’s better regarded tales – but is the reputation deserved?
This was one of three titles written by John Street under the Rhode pseudonym in 1934, the others being the excellent The Robthorne Mystery and the almost-as-good Shot At Dawn. He also cranked out two Miles Burton titles, To Catch A Thief and The Charabanc Mystery – good luck finding those two!
The plot concerns a typical Golden Age set-up of a country house party. I say typical, but it’s not that typical of Rhode to be honest. When Sir Gerald Uppingham, after an evening entertaining his business partners and their wives, locks himself in his study. Once the door is broken down the next morning, guess what? Uppingham is dead from cyanide poisoning. Cyanide is a by-product from extracting albanium from its ore, so suspicion falls on Uppingham’s partners – which of them poisoned Uppingham’s cough medicine, found in the study? And why did Uppingham take the medicine given that he didn’t seem to actually have a cough?
This is one of the pre-Jimmy Waghorn tales. For those new to Rhode, Dr Priestley generally acts as an adviser, active in the earlier books, more passive in the later ones, to the police, who carry most of the page count. Superintendent Hanslet takes the lead in the earlier books, being joined by the younger Jimmy Waghorn in Hendon’s First Case. Hanslet then retires, leaving Waghorn to take over, only to return during the war-time tales as Waghorn joins the war effort. Thereafter, Hanslet retires, joing Priestley’s group of dinner guests who work as his discussion group.
Here Hanslet is on his usual form, namely getting a suspect and failing to consider a good many things due to his obsession with the suspect, notably the mechanics of the crime, which are deceptively simple. In some ways, there are similarities with Inspector French’s pursuit of the villain in The Sea Mystery, only Hanslet needs hints, nudges and eventually intervention by Priestley to bring the killer to justice.
This is one of Rhode’s best mysteries – fairly clued and with a surprising (for about 80% of the book) murderer. I think he’s a little heavy-handed with motive as when I twigged that, I was certain who the killer was, but still, this is a very strong performance from the author.
The one thing… Rhode was very strong on the technical and scientific side of things, but the chemistry here is utterly hogwash. The business about extracting “albanium” from its ore producing cyanide – no idea what metal “albanium” is substituting itself for, but no metal produces cyanide as a by-product. I found it very odd that he’d include something like this, as he could have introduced the cyanide as being used for the extraction, which is the case with gold extraction – thanks to my university science chums for that one – who needs Wikipedia?
Regardless, this is a strong entry into Rhode’s canon. The narrative drags a little around the midpoint, but redeems itself in the final third. It’s not the easiest one to get hold of, but if you see a bargain knocking around, then do take a chance on it. Highly Recommended.