Blackthorn House by John Rhode

Welcome to Mincashire, England, where stands the imposing Blackthorn House. But before we get there, we drop in on the artist Noel Yewdale, who is in a bit of a pickle. His newly bought car, bought from his uncle Kenneth Winslow’s company, has been impounded by the police under suspicion of being stolen. And without a car, how is he supposed to transport the locked chest containing silver plate to its destination?

When the police arrive to confirm that the car is indeed stolen and that Yewdale has no claim to it, they are helpful enough to assist Yewdale in moving the chest out of the garage so that it can be collected. But the chest is emitting a strange smell, and lo and behold, when it is opened, there’s a dead body inside. The body of Kenneth Winslow.

What happened to Winslow to place his body in the chest? Who is behind the car theft ring? Can Jimmy Waghorn (now Superintendent) get to the bottom of things? (No.) Will he need Dr Priestley to sort it out for him? (Yes).

That tartly logical professor, Dr Priestley, is about to celebrate his Silver Anniversary in detection; and he is still appearing in novels indistinguishable from those which starred him in 1925. His creator refuses to be bothered with new-fangled notions of psychology and suspense, and stolidly continues to concentrate on routine and workmanlike puzzle-plots.

The New York Times, July 10, 1949

That’s a rather harsh review from the New York Times to be fair. Not that this is a great book – it isn’t – but it also doesn’t resemble Priestley’s early outings. Here, we are into the phase of Rhode’s writing where we are focusing on the police investigation while Priestley in his brief appearances nudges Jimmy in the right direction and points out the obvious thing that he’s missed.

It’s a different sort of procedural than my previous review, Mystery In The Channel, as there we follow Inspector French from theory to theory. Waghorn has three suspects – Yewdale, Winslow’s butler and Winslow’s colleague – and the three senior police characters each has their own idea as to which is the guilty party. Needless to say, it’s up to Priestley to sort it all out, getting off his bottom to meet some suspects and basically accusing a random character of being the killer – correctly, in fact. It doesn’t show Waghorn or Priestley in their best lights as Waghorn really seemed to have overlooked something badly (not uncommon for him) and Priestley seems to abandon his logical approach in favour of guessing – Curtis Evans refers to it as intuiting in Masters Of The Humdrum Mystery, but he’s more tactful than me.

Not a great outing for our heroes – I feel that Rhode’s books about criminal conspiracies tend to be less effective for me – but it passes the time well enough. Don’t break the bank for this one though…

4 comments

  1. I like all the investigative detail in this one, but, jf JR was going to include Dr. P., I wish he had not had him pull so much out of his hat! But then Christie does the same thing with Miss Marple in 4.50 from Paddington, which I like too.

    So damning to be called “workmanlike” isn’t it? But some workman turn out very good work, year after year!

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    • Definitely. It’s a perfectly good mystery, and, importantly, very readable. It’s just that Rhode can do, and has done, so much better. As I said, I’m less of a fan of the criminal conspiracy style stories, like Proceed With Caution, but if this is the worst you can do (which of course it isn’t) that’s pretty good going.

      I think at the end of the day, it fell down for me on Waghorn, who’s on pretty good form here, just neglecting the killer as a viable suspect for no particularly strong reason. But if as you say, Rhode had the nerve to exclude Priestley entirely, then Waghorn’s realisation of his own shortcomings might have added something to the story.

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  2. A lot of the later books would have been better without Dr. P.! One senses that Street is straining to give him something notable to do. Of course look how little Poirot does in some of the later Christies. Those Great Detectives could be a burden!

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