The Alarm (1925) by John Rhode

James W Morrison, a well-known former rugby player, but now with a more profitable and dangerous sideline, is dragged along to a society dinner party where he falls head over heels for Aline Scorby, the daughter of his host. She is, unfortunately, married but that does not stop his pursuit of her affections until an unavoidable trip overseas separates them.

That trip is unavoidable as Morrison’s sideline is gun-running and he sets of aboard the Mignonette to deliver a cache of weapons to Portugal. As the ship heads off, a shot rings out from the shore, but Morrison pays it little heed, needing all of his wits to avoid the various forces of authority who might not take kindly to his activities. It’s not until his return when the ramifications of that gunshot become apparent…

I wasn’t expecting another John Rhode review this month, but this one sort of snuck up on me. I was having a couple of days away from home in sunny Southport, near where I used to live, and I thought I’d investigate Broadhursts, an independent bookshop with a rather impressive second hand section upstairs. And, luckily for me, not too much specialist knowledge. You see, The Alarm is a rare book. A very rare book. Hence the fake cover…

It predates the Dr Priestley series and, of the other non-series titles, namely ASF, The Double Florin and Mademoiselle from Armentieres, it’s easily the rarest. How rare, I hear you ask? I had no idea – I’d never seen a copy before, but I hadn’t really been looking. Anyway, I happily paid a fiver for it. And then after letting some people know that I’d got a copy, I basically got an offer for it – an offer for significantly more than five pounds. And while I may collect John Rhode’s work, a) I collect the Priestley and Merrion books; b) I can see a profit when I see one; and c) I’ve read it and it’s rather dreadful…

It barely counts as a mystery – not that it ever really claims to be one – as the gunshot’s relevance is only dealt with in the last few chapters and even then, it’s all rather obvious and predictable. The opening section deals with the social interactions of the various characters involved and then shifts gear to a seaborne thriller and our hero the gunrunner (it’s OK, the guns aren’t for terrorism, they’re for all-out civil war) and his various adventures getting the guns to the good men who need them. It’s really hard to sympathise with the character given his occupation, but I think I was supposed to.

I wasn’t expecting much – those of you who have read a bit of Rhode will know that he improves as he goes on (and then gets worse again in the fifties). Priestley’s debut, The Paddington Mystery, is a right slog, and this is worse. The dialogue is has a dreadful unreality to it, and the descriptive passages are horribly over-written, with most of them containing an additional unnecessary sentence that makes the whole thing drag and does not evoke the reader’s sympathies.

I’ll be honest, based on just the words of the book, this is probably the worst Rhode title that I’ve read. For other, more monetary, reasons, however, this is one of the best Rhode titles that I’ve ever bought…

5 comments

  1. Very interesting find and review! Congrats on your acquisition and impending sale, and I’m glad I don’t need to feel too sad about never getting the chance to read THE ALARM. I just like the idea that it is still possible to find a super-rare book at a bargain bin price. Thought Internet knowledge would have priced everything everywhere out of reach!

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  2. Nice move; I like the Rhodes books too but they’re not all perfect. I bought my copy of the complete Dr Thorndyke stories there, in a very good condition (and it still is) directly from old Mr Broadhurst himself, who was pleased to find a young man (as I then was) who’ d even heard of the good Doctor, for £10; about 1980.

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    • There were a number of the Thorndyke novels there, I’m guessing from the same collection, for a similar price to what I paid for this. No idea what someone should pay for those…

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  3. This is what The Spectator (UK) of 20th June 1925 has to say about this book:
    “All the adventurous chapters of this novel, the storm at sea, the gun-running, &c.,are delightful reading.Those that are concerned with semi-Bohemian journalistic society in London are less successful. The ethics of gun-running do not seem to trouble the author, who is absorbed by the task of writing a really thrilling story.”

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