The Dovebury Murders (1954) by John Rhode

The town of Dovebury had just had its annual fete but Mr Tidworth, a retired accountant who had just moved there, was concerned that Mr Headcorn, a long-term resident, had fiddled the finances and pocketed a significant amount of funds that were to go to good causes. Meeting up with Mr Headcorn, he has a couple of glasses of sherry, a bottle that Headcorn had just acquired through a “thank you” voucher. Unfortunately, the sherry had oxalic acid in it…

Enter Jimmy Waghorn. Convinced Headcorn didn’t kill Tidworth, he is faced with a baffling problem. How could someone kill Tidworth in such a way when they didn’t know he was going to Headcorn’s house, they didn’t know if he liked sherry or not, they didn’t know that Headcorn wouldn’t drink it and nobody really had a motive to kill Tidworth. What a baffling problem – it’s only when Dr Priestley points out the bleeding obvious that Jimmy gets on the trail of the murderer…

Ah, Jimmy Waghorn, the point of view character for the later Priestley books – if you recall, Priestley has long since given up moving and is basically appearing two or three times a book when Jimmy pops round and will steer old Jimbo onto the right track. And this is the problem with the later Priestley books – Jimmy bloody Waghorn and his oscillating intelligence…

OK, I’m going to go a little bit into spoiler territory here – only for the first half-ish of the book, nothing more, but there is something here that just needs critiquing. It takes half the book – slightly more than half in fact – for anyone apart from Priestley to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Headcorn was the target instead of Tidworth. It’s the obvious most likely scenario and yet Priestley’s inner circle, when he reveals this suspicion, actually gasp at the prospect. Surely it’d be the other way round, that if Tidworth was somehow the intended victim, it’d be gasp-worthy. And everyone Jimmy explains it to later are astonished by this amazing leap in logic. Even the bloody murderer tries a “but how could I have murdered Tidworth?” defence…

Oh, that was so annoying, which is a shame as the second half of the book (after Jimmy heads off on another red herring) contains one of Priestley’s better hidden murderers, which the reader, if they hadn’t all but switched off at this point, is given enough clues to spot. It all ties together nicely, with some good logic and Jimmy’s intuitive leap to spot the killer – well, he must have had his Weetabix that day.

So a book that drags its feet badly in the middle section – the opening is good and the ending is rather clever – and Rhode’s writing is still engaging and interesting. Just a shame the only way to fill the page count is to make everyone so bloody stupid and Priestley so cryptic that it takes two visits for him to pass on his suspicions…

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