Night Exercise aka Dead Of The Night by John Rhode

The Wealdhurst Home Guard are preparing for an invasion. While England waits for the inevitable German incursion, the Home Guard are undertaking drill after drill. When Major Ledbury arranges a night exercise, things don’t go exactly as planned.

The unexpected arrival of Colonel Chalgrove, the local Group Commander, is rather unwelcome – his antagonistic attitude sets everyone on edge. After touring the locale, and criticising every aspect of Ledbury’s set-up, he retires to watch the war games from afar… and is never seen again. Has he been murdered undercover of the exercises? Where is his body? And who exactly is the detective here?

The first in my series of reviews entitled “Do Mention The War” covering mystery fiction written during wartime and using the current events as an active part of the setting of the novel. Here Rhode takes the Home Guard, in particular an exercise in preparation for the expected German invasion, as the background for his tale. Despite the cover blurb on the US first edition, this is not a Dr Priestley tale, indeed it’s the only non-Priestley novel released under the John Rhode pseudonym.

One of John Street’s strengths – often overlooked – was his observational skills. His background detail is one of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most from his work, such as the hop-picking set-up in Death In The Hopfields, and it stands to reason that he would write about the turmoil that was happening in the country. He wrote at least five such titles featuring Dr Priestley, from Death At The Helm to Men Die At Cyprus Lodge, and at least three featuring Desmond Merrion (no idea about Death Of Two Brothers, Dead Stop or The Undesirable Residence). Merrion for a while is enlisted Naval Intelligence and Priestley makes a point of not evacuating his London residence despite the Blitz. Jimmy Waghorn, Priestley’s current police contact, left to work for Military Intelligence and the old guard, Superintendent Hanslet was brought out of retirement. But in this tale of the Home Guard, Rhode ditched his regulars and the plot structure benefits from it, as a primary part of the plot is whether Ledbury is the sleuth, a bystander or, indeed, the murderer.

The extent of the military exercises is fascinating – this is no Dad’s Army, but an extensive series of preparations, with one side trying to outwit the other. The opening sections are fascinating, although if ever a book could have benefited from a map…

The mystery itself isn’t the book’s strength. The plot builds up well, but never really settles down and it’s never a good sign when the murderer is revealed and you have to go back and check who exactly that character was, and the location of the missing body – well, I’m using an image of the original release as my copy has a picture of the body’s location on it. Not a big a spoiler as the cover of my copy of My Late Wives, but not far off…

But it’s the atmosphere that is the book’s strength, the sense of the necessity of these preparations for when the Germans invade. Not if, but when – there’s a sense from the characters that such an event is inevitable. This was published in 1942. Regarding dates, the Blitz occurred in 1940 and 1941 – did the end of that part of the War alleviate the fear of invasion or mean that the change in Axis tactics make people believe that a land invasion was next? I’m assuming the second as the ending of the book…

Right, I’m leaving some spoiler space here. The finally paragraph has nothing to do with the mystery element but delivers a very odd twist at the end. But if you don’t want to read ahead, then this is Well Worth A Look.

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After everything is sorted out, the alert goes out that the invasion has begun. OK, so it could be a false alarm, but there’s no indication of this in the writing. Did Rhode expect the invasion was inevitable? Did he expect it to be beaten back – after all, the Home Guard here are presently as extremely competent (apart from Chalgrove). It doesn’t read as a propaganda piece though, not overtly at least. Is Rhode trying to predict upcoming events that will be current when the book is published? And if so, who was he expecting to read it unless he was certain of British victory?

To be honest, I don’t know enough about the expectations of the man in the street to answer this question – that’s a bit of a shame given the point of this strand on the blog. Anyone else have an answer or theory for this?

10 comments

  1. The novel sounds interesting and I wish I could answer that question at the end for certain. My instinct is that people still believed in the possibility of an invasion attempt because compulsory enrollment in the Home Guard was allowed in 1942 and anti-aircraft guns were provided to Home Guard units the following year. Those precautions indicate to me that people took the possibility seriously, even if the chances were decreasing.

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    • But actually writing that it was (possibly) happening… it sort of implies that Rhode thought it was not just likely, but inevitable. In which case he must have been certain it would have been futile, or no one would have read his book.

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      • That is a good point. He may perhaps have anticipated an invasion that might be eventually repelled, providing an eventual audience for his story. Does it read at all like a ‘careful we don’t let this happen’ sort of ending?

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      • Not really. The lead character gets a coded message with the already established codeword for Get Ready along with an additional codeword that basically adds that it’s not a drill this time.

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  2. The novel first appeared in the US in September, so was probably written in early ‘42 I’m thinking. I think it’s meant to take place earlier though. I’ll have to post part of a contemporary view, very positive,that makes a similar point.

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