And so we come to the end of April – well, the last Tuesday in it anyway – and the Tuesday Night Bloggers draw to a close their arguments for inclusion in any list of great detectives. If you recall, this was inspired by the upcoming 100 Greatest Literary Detectives, soon to be published, and the omissions that naturally come from only selecting 100 characters (and including at least one very questionable inclusion…)
Any such title will come under some flak for its choices. You could argue a lot about the choices made by Martin Edwards in the highly-praised (with good reason) The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and not just because there are 102 books in the list – honest, go and count them – but at least Martin makes a point of avoiding phrases like “Best” and “Greatest”. Because what makes a great detective? The crimes they solve? The character of the sleuth? The number of cases? Being the first detective from a certain subset, large or small, of our global society? It’s impossible to say – and as I haven’t read the compiler’s introduction to explain the choices, there may be good reason for the omission of some names to me that I would consider shoe-ins. But there is one that I feel has been overlooked. So far I’ve championed three sleuths that would never have made the list – Adrian Monk and Velma Dinkley (and friends) for obvious reasons and Anthony Bathurst for reasons of decades of neglect from uncaring crime fiction fans. Today though, I’m going to talk about Dr Lancelot Priestley. And friends.
Dr Priestley was the creation of Major John Street, writing under his pseudonym of John Rhode. Rhode’s books have been long out of print, bar the occasional reprint. Collins Crime Club have started to correct that with Death At Breakfast (good), Invisible Weapons (good), Mystery At Olympia (very good) and The Paddington Mystery (review very soon, but not very good), but there are sixty-eight other titles still out there.
Priestley debuts in the aforementioned The Paddington Mystery, referred throughout as Professor Priestley
“cursed with a restless brain and an almost immoral passion for the highest branches of mathematics. [He] occupied himself in skirmishing round the portals of the Universities, occasionally flinging a bomb in the shape of a highly controversial thesis in some ultra-scientific journal.”
Of his personal life, we are told that Priestley:
“solved his personal binomial problem by marrying a lady of some means, who, having presented him with April [his daughter], conveniently dies when the child was fourteen, perhaps of a surfeit of logarithms”.
Now I’m all for some mathematical phraseology – see The Mystery Of The Peacock’s Eye – but that’s weird. It’s worth pointing out that Rhode tones down his downright odd style of writing after this opening book. The notion of being a mathematician at times is stretched into other branches of science in some later books – in fact even in this one – and at least once Rhode refers to Priestley having patients (Death On The Boat Train) but speaking as a mathematician myself, it’s good to know that at least one of us is out there catching murderers.
At this point, Priestley has already been helping the police with solving crimes. When Harold Merefield, Priestley’s daughter’s ex-paramour, is implicated in a murder, Priestley gains all the details of the crime from Inspector Hanslet of Scotland Yard, “a friend of mine”.
Hanslet, who will go on to play an important role in the series, is described by Priestley as
“a man of very wide interests, as befits an officer charged with such important duties, and two or three years ago he happened to read a paper of mine on Methods of Psychological Deduction in which, I venture to say, I succeeded in refuting some very widely-accepted theories. Since that time he has often called upon me to ask my assistance in the correlation of scattered facts.”
This describes well the format of the majority of Priestley’s cases, especially from Pinehurst aka Dr Priestley Investigates (the eighth book in the series) onwards. Inspector, later Superintendent, Hanslet will be charged with the case and at some point go to see Priestley. Priestley gives some advice and may (or may not) go and actively take part in the investigation himself.
Priestley regularly holds dinners at his house on Westbourne Terrace (which he stays in even when the Blitz is terrorising London) for himself, Dr Mortimer Oldland, Harold Merefield (who becomes Priestley’s assistant after his first appearance) and Hanslet. After dinner, they discuss crime and inevitably Hanslet’s latest case. Each of the guests will propose theories and then pick holes in the other guests’ ideas and then Priestley will give some wisdom as to the direction the investigation should take. Until around 1945, Priestley will generally take an active role in the investigation in the latter part of the narrative, but he becomes less mobile as the series progresses into the post-war years, letting the police do all of the legwork.
Priestley’s attitude towards crime solving is worth a mention – he sees it at times as a pure puzzle. In a number of books, once he has deduced the murderer, he will distance himself from finding the evidence necessary to convict them, just nudging the police in the right direction. He sees himself as a facilitator rather than as a master detective, but at least one criminal escapes justice due to Priestley stepping back at the conclusion.
“Your progress, Inspector, is not unlike that of a man in rubber-soled shoes trying to cross a frozen pond. You take a step in one direction, but the slippery surface betrays you and you find yourself going off at a right angle.”
It’s worth discussing the police characters as Priestley is a sleuth who ages with his supporting cast – there are thirty-six years between his first and last appearance, so it’s conceivable that he ages in real-time. Superintendent Hanslet – not sure at which point he gets the promotion – is the primary police detective up until Hendon’s First Case [document not found yet] where the younger Inspector Jimmy Waghorn joins him at Scotland Yard. For the next few titles, they share the investigating duties, although, as you might expect from an actual police department, they usually but don’t always work together. For example in Invisible Weapons, each of them investigates one of the two murders. You could argue, however, that in this case it is a plot-driven reason, rather than realism…
By 1939’s Death On Sunday, Jimmy is doing all of the active sleuthing and in the following book, Death On The Boat Train, Hanslet has retired (although is now a regular at the Saturday evening dinners). Waghorn is now in charge, having acquired a wife in Death Pays A Dividend [document also not found yet], but he soon joins the War Office and Hanslet is re-recruited – he is the only sleuth in 1943’s Dead On The Track – but they cross paths in Men Die At Cyprus Lodge but Waghorn is back in charge by 1944’s Vegetable Duck and Hanslet retires for good. By 1949, Jimmy has been promoted to Superintendent Waghorn, but he still acts like an Inspector, never seeming to generate any regular underling to do his work (or at least not that I noticed).
Hanslet and Waghorn are an odd pair of fictional detectives – you could argue that they are the actual detectives in the later stories and Priestley merely a deducer. Priestley’s presence in the later books is so small that one newspaper described the newly released Murder At Derivale (mis-spelled Merrivale) (1958) as a Jimmy Waghorn mystery, with no mention of Priestley. Their abilities seem to fluctuate the match the needs of the plot – witness Jimmy’s thorough information gathering and deduction in the first half of Invisible Weapons while failing to even consider the fact that the person wearing the tramp’s coat (which had been talked about having been stolen) might not have been the tramp himself, but instead needs Priestley to spell that out to him. It seems odd that the slightly less talented Inspector Arnold got his own book in the Miles Burton Desmond Merrion tales, but Waghorn and Hanslet never get to upstage Priestley.
So what are Priestley’s finest cases? Well, as with any list (see the opening paragraph) it’s open to debate, but I’d go for:
- The Robthorne Mystery – the murder of an identical twin
- The Hanging Woman – how does the suicide of a woman tie into a nearby airplane crash?
- Peril At Cranbury Hall – a miscellany of murder attempts before the killer gets it right
- Shot At Dawn – a sailor below deck sleeps through the murder of his ship-mate
- Mystery At Olympia – was Nahum Pershore killed by an arsenic-laced olive?
So should Priestley be treated as a great detective? I certainly think so. Admittedly, a number of cases require him merely to state the bleeding obvious to his police chums, but John Street’s finest creation was very popular in his heyday – Dorothy L Sayers was a big fan, for example. And any crime solving mathematician gets my vote.
My apologies for talking about books that most of you will have a cat in hell’s chance of reading, unless the Collins Crime Club rapidly accelerates their reprint schedule, but I do recommend the first three reprints. And I also recommend not waiting around for The Paddington Mystery to be reprinted in order to start at the beginning because… ah, but that’s a story for another day. Tomorrow, in fact…