While Freeman Wills Crofts’ work has caused me much delight over the last few years, that of his fellow ‘Humdrum’ John Rhode/Miles Burton doesn’t inspire in me quite the same raptures. Rhode (as I’ll call him here) writes swift, events-focussed novels, and constructs plots with the same deliberation and consideration from multiple sides…so maybe it’s that his plots always feel like a single idea with some people bolted onto it. Here as in Death Leaves No Card (1944) or Invisible Weapons (1938) I come away with the impression that he read about a single obscure murder method and thought “Yeah, I can get 60,000 words out of that”.
And, hey, there’s fundamentally nothing wrong with that, except that at times these 229 pages do, remarkably, drag a little when it starts to feel like he’s not quite got sufficient interest to join everything together. Crofts would at least give us a forensic police investigation, full of interpretation and the gradual untangling of a complex process. Rhode feels a bit like he has so many murder methods rattling around in his belfry that he simply needs to get one down and then rush out the next one. And the shame of it is that with a little more intrigue — with a few flourishes added around the edges to enrich his plot a little more — Mystery at Olympia (1935) would actually be a rather fabulous little book.
In fairly quick order we have a new type of engine rumoured to be unveiled at the Motor Show being held in the vastness of Kensington Olympia — still standing and hosting huge events to this day — and, in the consequently-intrigued crowd, a man collapsing and dying of apparently no cause whatsoever. Amusingly, it quickly transpires that no fewer than three attempts have been made on the life of our newly-deceased tartar Nahum Pershore but, since none of those attempts in any way account for the symptoms displayed, what could the explanation for all four mysteries be?
Once more, and from another direction, the shadow of crime had fallen upon the ill-omened house at Weybridge,
From here, an examination of Pershore’s family, household, and acquaintances is in order, and Superintendent Hanslet is on hand to conduct such an investigation, with detective interruptions from the perceptive amateur Dr, Lancelot Priestley to nudge things along. There’s some glorious GADing about to be had both in the establishment of the suspects — the old boy has a suspicious niece and nephew, a housekeeper he’s known since nobbut a lad, various ex-friends he’s isolated over seeming trifles, and a possible half-brother in “the Argentine” — and in tropes such as characters quoting from medical textbooks to assure the reader how possible these murder methods are (I’m interested as to whether Carr got this from Rode or vice versa) and sentiments like “women don’t usually favour a gun as a weapon”. In 229 pages, it hits almost all of them, and is a perfect sealed-in-amber microcosm of the genre at this stage in history.
“I know your methods pretty well by now, Professor. If somebody but a drawing-pin point upwards on my chair, and I sit on it, I know immediately what has happened. You would extract the drawing-pin from your anatomy and examine it for traces of blood before you would be satisfied. Isn’t that so?”
It’s just that damned brevity that holds it back. Priestley makes an excellent point on the final page to excuse a lot of the leaping over logic in this one, but lampshading it in that way doesn’t excuse the fact that there’s an excess of repetition — oh, lord, it feels so very exoteric at times, as if catering to those who haven’t been paying attention — and then some frankly shonky reasoning to justify a few of the joins. Delight me as much as you like with wonderful characters like the brisk, garrulous Odin Hardisen and his staccato delivery, or with pithy descriptions like Pershore’s house Firlands being “an outstanding example of the worst type of Victorian domestic architecture”, but if your plot is going to be laser-sighted on such a tight-knit set of actions and events then it needs to hold together with a little more rigour than is shown here (it’s telling that Hanslet’s attitude to following something up in order to be certain of a particular point is to lament it as “weary work”). And your 229 pages shouldn’t be boring at any stage; to manage that given how much goes on here is almost noteworthy.
Some points of interest beyond the plot also present themselves, most notably for me being the two occasions when a preposition is flung aside with all the free-spirited carelessness of the youth of 2019. Separately, and from two different characters, we get the statements “The tin is in the cupboard under the washstand. I’ll show it you” and “I had only to ask him for a cheque, and he gave it me at once”. Clearly language just goes in the cycles, eh? Before long, everyone will stop “chirpsing” and start “making love” in the 1930s idiom again — and, yes, I’m sure no-one calls it chirpsing any more, do you have any idea how old and out of touch I am? Anyhoo. As a glimpse of Rhode’s work, and at the detection genre having thoroughly found its feet enough to be secure in not covering every single base, this has plenty to commend it. If you’re a bit more deeply engaged in this genre, this is a slight and slightly disappointing book that shows the folly of writing 160-odd novels in your career: sometimes, to do something the justice it deserves, you just have to slow down.
John @ Pretty Sinister: Readers unfamiliar with Rhode would do well to start here. It’s an excellent introduction to his style of detective novel with just the right amount of his trademark technical lectures and abundance of odd murder means. If Priestley only shines in the finale that is no real drawback; his solution and accusations are succinct and brilliant. This relatively early book (number 21 out of over 80) is one of the better in the very long series that tend to be middling to awful in his later career.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: The multiplicity of murder methods and half-a-dozen plausible suspects, all with opportunity, keep the book lively; it never gets trapped in a cul-de-sac or lost in a morass, but travels smoothly along open Streets. I’m not keen on the choice of “Who”, a rather minor character. Rhode’s murderers are either obvious or an afterthought, probably because he was more interested in plot mechanics than psychology. That’s the drawback of knowing too much about hand brake levers, back axles, and jacketted turbines.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: But while not being one of the very best, it’s certainly a strong entry into the Priestley canon – it’s reasonably clued and the murderer isn’t that obvious, unlike in some Rhode books. And there are, as ever, some lovely signs of the time it was written. Dr Oldland, an esteemed medical man, using the word “tummy” instead of “stomach”, but it contains possibly my favourite ever idea that would never work today.
John Rhode on The Invisible Event
The Murders in Praed Street (1928)
Mystery at Olympia, a.k.a. Murder at the Motor Show (1935)
Death at Breakfast (1936)
Invisible Weapons (1938)
Fatal Descent, a.k.a. Drop to His Death (1939) [w’ Carter Dickson]
Miles Burton on The Invisible Event