Hendon’s First Case (1935) by John Rhode

Hendon Police College was opened in 1934 with the  aim of training officers to enter the police force at senior level, rather than by working their way up from an entry level position. This was resented by a proportion of the serving constabulary, not least Superintendent Haslet, who was initially distrustful when Hendon foisted James Waghorn upon him. He soon becomes friends with James, or Jimmy, as he is not the sort of Cambridge graduate that Hanslet expected.

Jimmy soon finds himself investigating his first case, when a pair of research chemists are struck down with severe cases of food poisoning on the same night their lab is broken into. When one of them dies, Jimmy’s instincts convince him that it was murder, despite there being no way of ensuring that their meal contained the required ptomaine produced by decaying meat. Hanslet’s more traditional methods tell him there is no case to investigate, but it will fall to Dr Priestley to get to the truth of the matter.

John Street, with his John Rhode hat on, often brought current events into his books, and the opening of Hendon was one such thing. The Dr Priestley books are odd, because even at this relatively early stage in his career – the 21st out of 74 – Priestley is confined to sitting around at home, being visited a couple of times by Hanslet for advice. Later on, he does get off his backside to sort things out, but that’s almost as an afterthought. The characters who get the limelight are Hanslet, and, from this book onward, Waghorn – they share it until the end of the war when Hanslet retires and then it’s all Jimmy. One advert for the later book Death At Wellington Road referred to is as a Jimmy Waghorn mystery. So despite these books always being referred to as Dr Priestley mysteries, he is rarely the main character.

This book concentrates on the differences between Hanslet and Waghorn’s approaches, one methodically (despite acknowledging that hunches had helped him in the past) and one determined to prove that somehow an impossible murder was committed, despite not having any evidence. They are both strong characters, but as I’ve often said, Jimmy has one distinct personality flaw – namely that when the plot demands it, he can be annoyingly stupid. And the final part of the plot certainly demands it here.

The front cover of the book states this is the first case solved by the new Police College at Hendon – maybe this veers into spoiler territory a tad, but that is utter hogwash, as Jimmy does almost the opposite of solving the case. The book is a great read, but the impossible nature of the poisoning is blunted by the rather obvious murderer and murder method. It also doesn’t help that at this time, ptomaine being a result of spoiled food was undergoing a bit of a scare in the national press, whereas the modern reader probably won’t realise that this is the only source of the poison, which might have helped confuse the reader of the day. Oh, and, poison fans, ptomaine is also a pile of hogwash, its existence disproved in the 1910s, but that didn’t stop there being a couple of scares about it decades later.

It’s worth pointing out as well that the cover seems to imply that the crime is solved by scientific methods – nah, that doesn’t happen at all, the picture is just indicating that the victim is a chemist…

Regardless, this is a decent offering from Rhode, although not really deserving its place in Martin Edwards’ The Story Of Classic Crime In 102 100 Books. It’s good, but the best Rhode titles are better, if you get my gist.

7 comments

  1. The solution is weakened by it requiring a scientific advance which certainly wouldn’t be made for many decades.
    I’d guess that the best-known recent reference to ptomaine poisoning was in the song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” by Allan Sherman…

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    • I don’t think that weakens the solution. What does weaken it is the general readership’s lack of knowledge that the actual murder method needs such an advancement – I spotted the method very quickly and never considered that it was “impossible”.

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  2. Looking at your blog (bibliography section), you have reviewed a number of Rhode (and pseudonyms) titles. Which are your favourites? Thank you.

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  3. Would you compare Dr. Priestly to Jacque Futrelle’s “The Thinking Machine” at all? I heard that comparison on another site and that sounds up my alley!

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