Death Of An Author (1947) by John Rhode

Who would kill an author? Goodness knows, as every author that I’ve ever met (which is quite a few, #humblebrag) is absolutely lovely. Nigel Ebbfleet, the author in question here, is a similarly nice bloke. After years of writing, he has finally written that elusive successful book, Unborn To-morrow, a book that means he can retire and live off the royalties, despite that unnatural hyphen. He arranges with his agent to finish his current book and then retire to Lawn Cottage in Wryminster to live out his days.

After Ebbfleet is killed by an explosion while chopping wood (yes, you read that correctly), Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn finds himself with very few suspects. The only person who would benefit financially was nowhere near Wryminster when the explosion – and a previous attempt at Ebbfleet’s life – occurred. With no evidence and no motive, can Jimmy – with a little help from Dr Priestley – possibly find the murderer?

The forty-fifth Dr Priestley mystery, but that really is a misnomer. We are at the stage in the series now where Priestley is basically welded to his chair in Westbourne Terrace, partaking his wisdom to Jimmy whenever he comes round to dinner. At this stage, Jimmy is in charge – note the Superintendent title – and honestly speaking, this is a Jimmy Waghorn mystery, not a Dr Priestley mystery. Priestley does help out with the murder method, which is simultaneously a great idea and really stupid, but the rest of the investigation is all Jimmy. Admittedly, he doesn’t have to do a lot of sleuthing as events effectively drop the solution in his lap, but he doesn’t do an awful lot wrong here.

The structure of the book is a little odd, as we spend the first few chapters in the company of Ebbfleet, only to switch focus when someone discovers his body. Compare this to The Bloody Tower, where we kick off with the body being found. Obviously we wouldn’t want the same story every time, but by giving an insight into Ebbfleet, we feel a little more concerned about his murder. Jimmy’s investigation then focuses on two people, Ebbfleet’s heir and his agent, but given that Rhode gives us some insight into the agent’s motives, we are pretty sure he isn’t the guilty party. Jimmy clearly can’t read those bits, but it does seem to be an odd choice from Rhode. When a third suspect appears, there is a genuinely interesting idea introduced in the form of the motive – not something that I recall seeing before, even though it’s a simple idea – but the final resolution of the tale is more than a little strange. Obviously I won’t go into details, but it seems the narrative has moved a long way from where it started by the end of the book.

This is an engrossing enough read – it’s always worth pointing out that Rhode was an interesting writer, making even aspects where people are just sitting around recapping what has gone before perfectly enjoyable – even with the odd ending, with, as I said, a very interesting idea at the heart of it. Not his best, by some distance, but still worth your time.

Availability: There’s a dodgy pdf knocking around on the Internet Archive, but if you want a paper copy for yourself, be prepared to stretch your purse strings. Oh, and be careful of the Ulverscroft edition, as it’s large print.

Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHO An Academic, despite Dr P not doing a lot in this one…

10 comments

  1. There are a number of Rhode titles being sold on the Oxfam website (don’t worry PD, they’re all ones you’ve got). Some prices are better than others, but the sheer quantity (relatively speaking), makes me wonder if they all came from the same source.
    That aside, this does sound like an interesting one for murder method and the author element. I’m wondering if it is more unusual for authors in mystery novels to be victims or killers?

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    • I don’t actually own my own copy of The Robthorne Mystery – 39 quid is rather steep though, despite it being my favourite Rhode title.

      As for murdered authors… no GA examples spring to mind, but it’s late and I’m tired…

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  2. “every author that I’ve ever met…is absolutely lovely”
    …and nearly every author depicted in fiction isn’t, for some reason. I – genuinely – wonder why.

    “After being killed by an explosion while chopping wood … Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn finds himself with very few suspects. ”
    Is someone who’s been killed in any condition to notice suspects? It was a moment before I realised who had been killed. Are there any ghost detective stories – stories with dead detectives investigating their own murders?

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  3. E. C. R. Lorac’s “Death of an Author” may – or may not – fit the pattern here, but the nature of the plot means that it’s hard to be more specific without spoilers.

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  4. I remember a mention of a book like that years ago, but thinking about it I’ve probably confused memories of “Sunset Boulevarde” and Robertson Davies’s “Murther and Walking Spirits”. All the same, they look interesting, so I’ll add them to my “to be looked for” list.
    Thank you.

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