Praed Street, near Paddington, London. Back in the late 1920s, you would not want to be trying to sell property in that locale. First, one Jim Tovey, a greengrocer, is killed by a single stab-wound through the heart outside the local pub. The Ben Colburn, a tobacconist, is poisoned by a shard of glass inserted into the stem of his pipe. Both Tovey and Colburn are found to have a mysterious token in their possession – Tovey’s marked “I”, Colburn’s marked “II”. And the residents of Praed Street come to dread the appearance of the token marked “III”, never guessing that the killer will make it all the way to using the token marked “VII”.
Enter Dr Priestley, who has been immersed in his latest publication. Something about the case rings a bell for the good Doctor, but even he finds himself in danger, threatened by the mysterious Black Seaman…
Right, let’s kick off the New Year with some good old John Rhode, namely this, the fourth title to feature Dr Lancelot Priestley. Well, the second half of the book does, the first casts one Mr Ludgrove in the sleuthing role – Priestley doesn’t show up until there’s a good half-dozen corpses in the morgue. It takes a lot to grab his attention. Instead, Mr Elmer Ludgrove, herbalist, is the man vaguely bothering the police with his inquiries – he fits the amateur sleuth quite nicely, mildly odd but basically normal and inquisitive.
This book should be more available than it is, given that it is one of the two John Rhode Green Penguin titles – the other is The House On Tollard Ridge – but, as you might expect, it’s as rare as common sense coming from one of my cats. I have spotted a couple of affordable copies out there over the past year or so, and several extremely unaffordable ones too, so there is hope. But there is a caveat to this – it’s not a typical Priestley case.
On the plus side, it’s an early attempt at the serial-killer/proper mystery genre, and, according to my expert source on all things Rhode, the first use of what has become a well-used motive in crime fiction. It’s an exciting, fast-paced read – it has to be with six murders in 120 pages – and the reader is gripped from the start.
On the minus side, it falls off a bit when Priestley turns up. Not in the same way as when, say, Inspector Alleyn enters the room, but flaws start to appear in the narrative. For a deductive detective, Priestley does very little detection here. He remembers something about the victims that we are not privy to, then meets the murderer twice, the second time getting the upper hand. He does absolutely nothing to deduce the murderer’s identity, which feels as if Rhode changed his mind about something at the last minute – one aspect of the killer’s explanations and plans really doesn’t make sense. While the reader is quite capable of guessing the murderer – and the hint laid out in the early sections stood out a mile to me – it is always going to be a guess. Oh, and the murderer, in an attempt to undermine Priestley’s theories, makes something vanish which is never really explained.
But as I said, exciting, fast-paced, just lacking on some deduction. Still, it’s Highly Recommended, if you can find a copy.
Just The Facts, Ma’am: At Least Two Deaths By Different Means.
Availability: Not currently in print.