The Corpse In The Car by John Rhode

Lady Misterton is an interesting lady. She lives with a companion/housekeeper, a small retinue of staff and a large collection of cats, both dead and alive. One of her habits is to be taken for a drive in Windsor Great Park. On one such trip, she tells her chauffeur to stop the car, and sends him back to her house to fetch her bag. When he makes it back to the house, the bag is not there – it seems Lady Misterton had it with her all the time. On the way back, the chauffeur is knocked down in a road accident but it wouldn’t have made much difference. For Lady Misterton is dead inside her car – with no sign at all of the cause of death…

Superintendent Hanslet is called in, despite it seeming to be a case of natural causes, and finds enough questions to investigate it properly. Well, investigate with his usual ability anyway, but fortunately it interests Dr Priestley enough – but can even he find a killer who it seems can kill without trace?

And now for something completely different – a guest review.

“Fairly good story – I reached the right solution about ¾ the way through. Pity the car on the dust cover does not fit the one in the tale.”

No idea who wrote that, but it’s on the front page of the copy I’ve got of this one, written in biro. Not entirely sure who the review is for – it’s a bit detailed for a note to oneself, but each to their own.

Anyway, after a bit of a break, I’m back to John Rhode. I’m slightly surprised this one isn’t more available, as it was reprinted in the UK in 1973. Unfortunately, the dustjacket – right – misses the word “The”, just calling it Corpse In The Car, and as the previous owner/reviewer points out, that’s hardly a car from the right period. I am rather curious to know if any other titles were re-released at the same time – there’s no info inside as the contents seem to be a reproduction of the original text. But if it was the only title re-issued, then it’s a damn good choice.

“I prefer to await the result of the Home Office analysis. If that proves to be negative, my interest will be effectually aroused. I shall suspect that, at last, the truly scientific crime has been committed. And it would give me great pleasure to pit my wits against those of a scientific and careful criminal.”

This is top-rate Rhode, probably the strongest of the standard Rhode tales. I think the less-standard tales such as The Robthorne Mystery and Peril At Cranbury Hall just pip it, but this comes very close, on a par with books such as Shot At Dawn and Poison For One – two books that immediately precede this one in fact. Rhode was on a bit of a streak at this point – 1935.

This is the twentieth Dr Priestley tale, and Priestley is still in his active phase. I think the nature of the mystery is what excites him enough to be physically involved in the investigation basically from the start, actually interviewing witnesses rather than hearing about the interrogations second hand. Hanslet meanwhile is up to his usual trick – namely guessing who the killer is and then bending his theories to accommodate any problems with the evidence, rather than considering that someone else might be guilty.

There’s a nice range of suspects, none of them obviously guilty, but when Priestley finally starts to zero in on the method, then I think the alert reader will spot the murderer. It hardly matters though, as I was completely hooked by this one, despite all the weird cat taxidermy.

Points off for the sequence where Priestley euthanises a cat to prove a point – that’s him off my Christmas list – but this is Rhode on fine form. Well-formed characters, some decent red-herring suspects, proper (but understandable) science and a plot that never slows down. Definitely one that should be in the next tranche of re-issues from the Collins Crime Club. But until then, good luck finding a copy…

9 comments

      • Why spoil a good book by reading about the solution in advance? After all, nothing is forever and at some point it may well be available. I’d rather live in hope that it is available in the future at some point.

        And in answer to the question, yes, there are some clever ideas involved…

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  1. I was lucky enough to find a copy of this in a local bookshop a few years ago – along with Men Die at Cyprus Lodge, In Face of the Verdict and Night Exercise (in a US edition called Dead of the Night – better title, but shame about the spoiler in the cover art)! Quite a treasure trove for Rhode enthusiasts.

    I agree that it’s one of his best titles.

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  2. There are spoiler warning in Masters! I foolishly believed at the time when Masters was published, six years ago, that I would be able to get Rhode’s books reprinted. I came even more to appreciate the complexity of Street’s plots while describing them in the book.

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    • Indeed, and the spoiler warnings are very well done. Personally, if there is the vaguest hope I’m going to read a mystery, then I avoid spoilers like the plague – I just can’t get into my head why one would rather be told the solution to a book they haven’t read.

      For people interested in Masters Of The Humdrum Mystery, I would say (if you don’t have the inclination to read my actual review elsewhere on the blog) that you really ought to read it. Ignoring the spoilers, there is plenty to enjoy here, and certainly for Crofts and Connington, those books are more obtainable and well worth your time.

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