The Ellerby Case (1927) by John Rhode

Sir Noel Ellerby came to see Dr Priestley about an odd occurrence – his house was broken into but nothing was taken. And the next day he died of a heart attack.

When Inspector Hanslet asks Priestley to help confirm that the death really was by natural causes, his interest is piqued. For it seems that Ellerby was helping His Majesty’s Customs and Excise investigate a sinister case of saccharine smuggling. As Priestley’s investigations proceed, it is clear that he is up against a dangerous criminal who thinks several steps ahead and can dream up the most devious of death-traps, whether it be death by water, fire or even hedgehog…

You may have heard of this one – it’s the one with the poisoned hedgehog. But if you will forgive an indulgence – I wouldn’t normally describe in detail events after the halfway point in the book – I feel I need to explain this event in some detail to you. Because a) this is a blooming rare book and b) it is just bizarre…

So, if you don’t want to be spoiled, I’ll be brief. It’s Rhode’s third Priestley book (and casually spoils the second, Dr Priestley’s Quest) and he is more interested in the criminal scheme at this point rather than crafting an elegant whodunit. Unfortunately there are a few elements of the smuggling plot that gave me flashbacks to Freeman Wills Crofts’ woeful early work, The Pit-Prop Syndicate. Basically the whodunit aspect is basically, was Ellerby’s heir involved? There’s one other character that I’m really not sure if Rhode was using as a suspect, but I don’t think so as nobody really considers their possible guilt. As in The Murders On Praed Street, the inventiveness of the killer is the draw here, but he does it better in that book.

So, overall, interesting to read a writer finding his style for the series, but it’s definitely a lesser work.

Right, Hedgehog time. No spoilers for whodunnit, but massive spoilers for the events of one chapter…

So there you are, a master criminal who is concerned that the legendary Dr Priestley (who has, admittedly, solved a grand total of two mysteries to date) is on your trail. Your plan to drown him failed, and you are plotting your next attack.

So obviously, you eschew methods such as hitting him with a brick or shooting him. Everything you have done so far has made the deaths look possibly accidental or natural. No, you notice that for some reason, the master sleuth has decide to start breeding and training hedgehogs, and you have a brainwave.

Remember, you are concerned that Priestley will out-think you – you know how clever he is. So why on earth would you consider that hog-napping one of his pets, covering its spines with curare and then PAINTING IT GREEN before returning it is a good idea? Would you really expect Dr Priestley, a genius, remember, to say “Oh look, a green hedgehog, never seen one of those before, I’d better pick it up”?

I don’t quite know what’s worse, the plan or the very fact that this is basically what Priestley does and is only saved by dumb luck. In fact, Priestley survives two of the three attempts on his life by dumb luck, which doesn’t put him in too good a light. No wonder he retires into immobility in later books…

So, as I said, a curiosity, but should Rhode end up being reprinted en masse, perhaps don’t do the books in order. This is still a lot better than some of the later books, but it’s hardly representative of the writer.

16 comments

  1. Thanks for the warning… I suppose the criminal might have hoped Dr Priestley would be aghast by the ill-treatment of his poor pet and attempt to pick it up for a spindly cuddle? Then again, my main question would be: I can understand Dr Priestley breeding hedgehogs – even Poirot attempted to cultivate marrows – but you mentioned ‘training’ as well? What is he training them for…? (To hurtle themselves against villainous criminals?)

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  2. ‘…but you mentioned ‘training’ as well? What is he training them for…?’
    Obvious, he was training his hedgehog Spiny Norman to haunt Dinsdale Piranha.

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  3. Bizarre murder methods that probably wouldn’t work seem to be par for the course in Rhode’s books – see Invisible Weapons (first murder) and Mystery at Olympia, of books that are currently easily obtainable,
    and Bricklayer’s Arms, The House on Tollard Ridge (second murder) and By Registered Post (second murder – possibly the Most Unfeasible Murder ever?) of those that aren’t.

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  4. Is…is the painting the hedgehog green a way of disguising the curare? Having never poisoned anyone with curare — I prefer strychnine — I wonder if it has a distinctive green hue or something.

    Interesting to note, too, that Rhode’s leapfrog with spoilers continues into the next book, the above-mentioned Murders in Praed Street, wherein he names the killer in this book…

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  5. I love this for the hedgehog. I’m the one who originally publicized the hedgehog business on the net, many moons ago. Also Dr. P. getting so out and about and nearly extinguished in those death traps is great fun. But we are definitely in thriller territory. You either give these period thrillers some leeway for silliness or you don’t.

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