The Vanishing Diary (1961) by John Rhode

Freddie Hapton fell to earth on Wednesday January 4th 1961, after the plane that he was test-piloting did not exactly pass its test. He finds himself near the town of Alderscar in the North East of England (in Bentshire, apparently) and finds himself a guest of the Greystoke family, and soon becomes embroiled in their family problems.

The family is basically split in two, each with a claim on an old diary, apparently written a member of the family who was a close friend of the Empress Engenie. The diary has been locked in a special box sealed by two padlocks, a key to each being given to each side of the family. But when it is finally time to open the diary, the box is discovered to have vanished. And, rather more importantly, Patricia, the daughter of one side of the family, is found dead… Enter Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn.

Was that always the case with Scotland Yard? When someone dies from unexplained causes, a Superintendent is summoned from Scotland Yard all the way to the Newcastle well before the inquest establishes that there has been foul play? Seems rather unlikely and it’s sort of an odd choice as the opening chapters establish Hapton as the point of view character, so it’s rather odd that almost immediately after the crime is committed we cut to Jimmy and his investigation. I suppose it’s necessary as the plot entails Hapton as a suspect – it’s clear to the reader that he’s not – but I suppose to involve the rather immobile Dr Priestley, we need to focus on Jimmy.

Barzun & Taylor (can you guess what I bought myself for my birthday) refer to The Vanishing Diary as “dull in the extreme” – this is the only review I can find on this one – and to be fair, it’s not great. But it’s not that bad either. Workmanlike, I suppose the phrase would be, but it’s a perfectly competent mystery novel and Priestley, despite never leaving Westbourne Terrace, gets a reasonable amount of page time. It’s a little odd that Jimmy goes to see him quite as often as he does, because (a) nothing Priestley adds is exceptionally complex and (b) Newcastle is quite a distance from London, but Priestley seems a little less condescending in his old age and these scenes are the highlight of the book.

But at the end of the day, I ddin’t particularly care who did it and the revelation is hardly a surprise. Given the original macguffin, and the possibility of two locked rooms – Rachel is locked in her office, but disappointing, locked with a missing key, and the diary/padlock situation has potential too – it’s disappointly straightforward. But having said that, given that this is 72nd out of 72 for Dr Priestley, there is still plenty to pass the time here, but the charm of Death On Sunday is notably absent.

Rhode seems to have dropped a level in his writing some time after the war but kept that new level for a long time, never really dropping massively below it as far as I have discovered. There’s no sense of the dramatic decline that afflicted Dame Agatha or John Dickson Carr, just the sense that he had got into something of a rut. In fact, I rather enjoyed his final two books as Miles Burton, Legacy Of Death and Death Paints A Picture and so far, the only late book that I didn’t like was The Fatal Pool (for its clumsy misdirection). As for this one, well I wouldn’t recommend anyone pay what I did for it but should it every cross your way for a pittance, it’s Worth A Look. And then sell it for a small fortune…

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