The novel concerns the murder of Robert Fransham in a locked bathroom, having called unexpectedly at the house of Dr. Cyril Thornborough and his wife, Fransham’s niece, Betty. Found with a fractured skull, the wound being a distinct and unusual square shape, Fransham was alone in the room, and his chauffeur Coates was standing by the car outside and able to swear that no-one came up to the open window to injure him…so howdunnit? And how to explain the letter found in Fransham’s possession in which Thornborough has apparently invited the old man to lunch…a letter Thornborough denies sending?
In a seemingly-unrelated turn of events, Fransham’s neighbour Sir Godfrey Branstock is then found dead, apparently poisoned in the cellar of his house by sewer gas from a drain. Are the incidents related? Well, of course they are, this is a GAD novel, but how? And with everyone in the locality convinced the doctor killed his wife’s wealthy relative to help ease his own financial difficulties, how does Branstock’s death figure into that plan? Cue Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, Superintendent Hanslet, and genius amateur Dr. Lancelot Priestley…
JJ: Curtis Evans, in his examination of Street’s work as part of Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery (2012), says this novel “demonstrates yet again Street’s murderous ingenuity”, and it is rather ingenious. Rhode is a little pedantic in some of his writing, but I think the essential scheme is very entertining and the book moves at a pretty good pace. We’ll get into the flaws and successes in greater detail, of course, but how would you sum up your response to it in a couple of sentences?
Aidan: I had a pretty similar reaction to the book. I like the imagination involved in creating these two schemes, though I think the second murder is the more creative of the two. The book undoubtedly has problems, but I think it’s an entertaining puzzle.
One thing I especially liked was the narrative structure of the police investigating the murder of Robert Fransham and having to abandon it at the middle of the book, only for a new problem to arise to start the second half. Too many times I think the tendency is to rush the genius in so that he can smooth over troubled waters, but I enjoyed the fact that this was structured differently, with a legitimate blank wall being reached and so the thing being shelved.
I totally agree. The format of having his detectives find evidence and then having Dr. Priestley help interpret it, then having a little more investigation before pulling everything together is a wonderful structure. I also appreciated that there is a sense that some time has passed between the first and second crimes when the story starts back up and we learn Hanslet took over the case at one point. Rhode doesn’t necessarily create the impression of a vibrant department because he uses only a handful of characters, but it is nice that the novel acknowledges that this is not the only case Hanslet has some responsibility for solving.
One thing I didn’t enjoy about the investigation is how Priestly just happens to blunder into the key information at the exact time it’s needed. He goes out the back of 4 Cheveley Street [Fransham’s house] and it just so happens that the chauffeurs are out there talking and it just so happens that one of them had toothache and just so happened to see the incriminating van in the two minutes it was visible in the entire three-week period since it was parked in the garage. The notion of a police department working together becomes relevant here, I feel, because where someone like Freeman Wills Crofts would make these disclosures feel earned by hours of combined police work, Rhode simply has Priestley waltz into the right situation time and again. And it’s equally egregious when he finds the four-inch pipe in the garage that has been assiduously swept clean of every other trace of anything at all…that, I’ll be honest, irritated me quite a lot.
It’s odd how Rhode’s attempts to make Priestley seem more brilliant backfire here; you are right — he gets lucky on several occasions in this story. These sorts of chance discoveries can be quite exciting compared to the duller, plodding style of diligent policing, but they undermine the idea that clear logical thinking alone can resolve a case. I suppose even granted his extraordinary run of good luck, though, it does still take a little reasoning to piece the events together.
Priestley is a little more impressive when he starts to hint at his belief as to how the first murder was accomplished by wittering on about refrigerators. I was curious what you thought of this as a solution to the locked room puzzle Rhode gives us. If the window is left partly open, can you really call it a locked room mystery?
I’ve read another Rhode locked room with an open window — Death Leaves No Card (1944) by Miles Burton — and I minded it more there than I did here. The fact that the chauffeur Coates was on hand as a witness to swear no-one came up the drive helped, as the window in DLNC is unobserved and so the potential for laziness is more pronounced. Sure, it’s not a “pure” locked room, but then the only other option is that a section of the ceiling comes loose and something was pushed through a hole from the floor above to smack him on the head (a solution I considered for a few minutes, especially with an architect in the cast)…and that’s equally as problematic. How about you? Does the window bother you here?
I wasn’t troubled by the window being opened but I never felt truly puzzled about how the murder might have been managed. The more interesting question for me was how the murder weapon was hidden or operated without the murderer being seen. Though I have to admit to being a little worried that Rhode was going to pull the whole ‘door wasn’t really locked’ trick on us at one point, as Linton remarks that the door opened more easily than he expected when he broke it down. But I did appreciate that Rhode is pretty thorough about establishing its rules and features by having a police observer be present when the room was accessed.
I thought there may be some misdirection with timings, since while he’s waiting in the consulting room Constable Linton hears a noise that he takes to be Fransham falling down…but in fact could have been something else. We’re a suspicious bunch, aren’t we? Someone tells us plainly to out face that an event has the interpretation it should appear to have and we immediately start thinking how that can’t possibly be true…!
The apparent simplicity of the locked room had me anticipating some sort of trick. Instead the first crime is merely setting things up for the second, which is a very different sort of murder — a body made to look as though it has died through natural causes. Rhode makes it clear that this is the crime that Anthony Mayland has been able to plan out in detail, but in a way the planning makes him seem all the more guilty because he is really the only character with the knowledge, the motive and the access needed to pull off the murder.
In contrast, one of the reasons that the Fransham case proves so tricky for the Police to solve is that Mayland has no direct ties to the victim. And, in spite of this planning, didn’t the scheme risk unravelling before it even began? It is presented as a certainty that of course Fransham would want to wash his hands upon getting to his niece’s home, but there is a risk that he may discover the forged note before doing so, putting weeks of preparation to waste (and potentially putting him on his guard against future attempts on his life). And what if Dr. Thornborough and his wife did want to take up that London lease? There are just so many ways it could go wrong for Mayland, even if Dr. Priestley had never become involved with these events!
And Mayland has to be a dab hand with a slingshot, too! And if Fransham hadn’t washed his face, or if he hadn’t filled the basin with water so the ice cube could fall in and remain undetected, or if the cube hadn’t fallen in the sink at all and so remained on the floor (Priestley later establishes that half an hour is necessary for the cube to melt, so Linton and Thornborough would have certainly seen it even if they didn’t initially understand it)…man, a lot had to come off over and over again, didn’t it?!
Of course! If Mayland hits the window frame or scores a glancing blow to the head it would have been game over for him. Not to mention when he starts to plan he cannot know the geography of the Thornboroughs’ house or that he might be able to use Alfie’s coat as a disguise (as he wouldn’t know Alfie even existed until he got down to Adderminster)…so what was he thinking he would do when he first conceived of killing Fransham?
And he can’t have known that Dr Thornborough would definitely be out of the house when Fransham arrived, as the doctor’s rounds may have ended early that day, and Mayland’s plan requires he not be present. And how’s it possible to aim the slingshot through a gap when he can’t see where he’s firing? Haha, the more you examine it the less sense it seems to make, hey? One thing I think we can all agree on, though, is how thick-skulled Waghorn is in order to need Priestly to spell out the fact that someone borrowed Alfie Prince’s coat purely so that witnesses would think it was Prince they saw. I know the genius amateur needs to be smarter than the police, but does that mean your police characters have to be so damn stupid?
I have a soft spot for Jimmy Waghorn from my previous experience of him in Death at Breakfast (1936), but it’s fair to say that this is not his finest hour as a detective. I might charitably say that he is being leaned on to try to find an explanation of how Dr. Thornborough was guilty and so is seeking to catch him in a lie, but his own theory of the coat relies heavily on coincidence and the local police’s characterization of Alfie as a witness. The simplicity of the actual explanation though definitely diminishes our belief in Waghorn rather than bolsters our opinion of Priestley’s genius.
As a complete side-note, I’m really not a fan of Rhode referring to him as “Jimmy” throughout — mainly because I find it difficult to take a sleuth seriously if they are referred to in the third person by their christian name. It’s just not done! See: Poirot, Miss Marple, Inspector French, Fell…using their first name is tantamount to hypocorism, and it took me ages to get over Christianna Brand calling Inspector Cockrill “Cockie” in her books. Mind you, “Jimmy” is possibly easier to take seriously than “Waghorn”…
To me it’s all a part of his character. In Death at Breakfast he comes off as being young, inexperienced and keen to please, so it just sort of fits. Perhaps it is also a sort of subliminal cue to the reader that he is not really very good at being a sleuth whereas we can put our trust in the elderly professor of mathematics because he is exclusively known by his surname.
Yeah, and Hanslet is perhaps more trustworthy on account of his superior rank (and so referred to by surname)…that’s a nice justification, good point. Onto the investigation, then, and perhaps its most telling flaw: while the neighbour “Frank Willingdon” Jimmy meets is in fact Anthony Mayland in disguise, the character stood out so starkly to me purely because it’s the only time Rhode attempts to give someone any personality. It could be argued that the excess verbiage and all the tics is why Mayland chose to impersonate him, but from a writing perspective I’d have liked there to be at least one other person with some definable manner of speech or conduct so that this didn’t feel so blatantly like This Guy Is Important, Remember Him.
Definitely. The character stands out as someone who an editor would insist be cut out unless they served some important part in the story because while they are certainly larger than life and so may amuse, the information they impart in their interview does nothing to advance the plot or change our perceptions of the characters involved.
And an astounding amount of what people tell Waghorn or Priestley is simply biographical information which doesn’t really add to the plot in any meaningful way…which I think is why Mayland-as-Willingdon stands out so much: I started immediately looking for how what he was saying, while it appeared to be of no consequence, was opening up possibilities for him to be the criminal. And lo and behold…
Rhode chooses to structure his novel as two seemingly unconnected cases which means he needs two casts of characters to interview. As a result many of those characters receive fleeting introductions, arriving to impart a piece of evidence or confirm a story and then being discarded rather than being built up as credible suspects. Nancy and her cousin, with a little tweaking to their stories, could have been credible killers, as might Fransham’s chauffeur yet he either misses or opts not to take those opportunities and I feel it makes the real killer all the more apparent.
Moving away from the crime and detection, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the naked avarice of Godfrey Branstock’s fiancée Nancy Lanchester and her cousin as displayed at the start of the second half. It’s commonly accepted — even expected — that younger women marry older men for their money, but I don’t remember it being so brazenly put on the page in this sort of book before.
I certainly have read other books from this era that have presented similarly cynical views of marriages with a substantial age difference (the first Poirot novel for instance, though there it is an older woman with a younger man). I think what makes this stand out a little is her cousin’s attempts to reinforce her position by trying to take possession of the property. I rather appreciated that it was directly laid out for us on the page rather than just alluded to.
I don’t remember ever seeing it so baldly and frankly stated, and like you I appreciated it being something that is actively confronted rather than being left for us to imply or hear about second- or third-hand. If we’re going to demonise someone for being a pecuniary bastard, it’s nice to know that they actually are a pecuniary bastard (mind you, see my earlier comments re: doubting something we’re explicitly told…)
You could well be right — this is usually the stuff of innuendo. I imagine that we have to see it to think that there is a chance that Anthony Mayland is a real victim of this situation — Hanslet even takes sides in Mayland’s dispute with her at one point, agreeing that he should retain possession of the property until he is able to get professional advice.
Oh, yes, I hadn’t thought of the whole “Mayland as victim” misdirection, with Rhode putting him in a sympathetic situation so that we overlook his potential motive. Alas, I’ve read a lot of GAD and so Cui bono? is always a siren call…! Are there any other aspects of this that don’t pertain to the crime that you wanted to mention?
A part of the book I particularly enjoyed was the short sequence in which our sleuths consult a handwriting expert who provides remarkably little useful information. Everything is of the ‘it might be this, or it might not’ variety. I am not sure if Rhode intended it to be funny and it certainly doesn’t move the plot forward much if at all but it made me smile.
One of the key things I took away from this book that in no way advances the plot is just how damn huge the ice cubes old-timey refrigerators made were: two inches to a side in some cases?! Good heavens, that wouldn’t even fit in most glasses!
The fact that not all the houses have refrigerators and they are clearly still regarded as luxury items is one of those lovely little details you get that gives you such a strong sense of the time in which it was written.
Also the way that certain cigarettes can only be bought in certain shops, and the people who run those shops are of course fully up to speed with their preferred customers and their orders…as much as I gripe about convenience above, that feels like a very natural consequence of this era and the availability of niche products like those damn cigarettes that no-one seemed to like. I’m also amused by the dismissal of “the reading of light fiction” not counting as a hobby — that’s pretty much the only hobby I have…
One more word about those cigarettes. It strikes me that Mayland tries so hard to implicate Thornborough for the first crime that he ends up drawing far more attention to the staging of his crime. The tidy, neat crime scene narratives he tries to create are really his undoing.
Any final thoughts?
I left wondering about the fate of Dr. Thornborough whose practice is irreparably harmed by the widespread belief that he was responsible for Fransham’s death in spite of the locals acknowledging that he is a good doctor. He ends up becoming a third victim in all of this and yet it doesn’t seem that his life will be repaired by the events at the end. Given he has done little to bring this on himself, other than being a little reckless with his finances, I do wish he had a little closure.
That’s an excellent point; he seems like a fundamentally decent man, and obviously worked hard to get where he was — to have that taken away through no fault of his own is rather callous. The lack of a really human element in the narrative meant that I overlooked this, but it would tie things off nicely if we knew he and his reputation weren’t completely ruined by the experience. Any happier final thoughts?
I am excited that these Dr. Priestley stories are finally getting back into print and I hope that these reissues are successful enough that more will follow. I had a great time reading and discussing this, and I look forward to hearing other people’s thoughts about the book.
So, that’s us, now over to you — whaddaya think of this one? Are we being unfair in our dissection of Mayland’s extreme run of good fortune, or does the whole thing ring false? And what have we missed? Spoilers fully encouraged in the comments below since, well, anyone skipping down there is hardly unprepared for stuff being spoiled. Let’s get into it…
Given that Aidan is also partaking in the Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo challenge, I’m going to exploit this collaboration of ours to fulfil the category Has been read/reviewed by a fellow challenger at any time.