#590: Mystery at Olympia, a.k.a. Murder at the Motor Show (1935) by John Rhode

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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.

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See also

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.

17 thoughts on “#590: Mystery at Olympia, a.k.a. Murder at the Motor Show (1935) by John Rhode

    • I agree with John’s assessment linked above that this is a good first — or even early — Rhode to read. It would be a pretty good early GAD book to read, too, since it does so much that we expect and mostly conforms to expectations. Anyone looking to start with Rhode or classic detection could do much worse, though both doubtless produced much better.

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      • It’s funny, because your review came across as fairly critical to me and left me thinking “yeah, probably won’t bother.” It would probably be a different matter if these Rhode books weren’t so hard to come by for a reasonable price.

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        • This is is a recent reissue, so it’s pretty accessible, I believe, but I take your point about Rhode/Burton in the main. There are these three or four from Harper, the two in the BLCC series, and a handful from Ramble House and apart from that he’s not easy to find for the casual reader.

          Thing is, I can easily believe that he wrote some fabulous books. For ingenuity and surprise methods he’s probably the top practitioner in the genre, and given how much he turned out I’m sure there are some classics in there…the trick now is to find them!

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  1. Although I enjoyed this one, I have a problem with it, in that the murder method would be pretty unlikely to work in practice.

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    • I…know what you mean, but I suppose that’s the nature of this type of mystery: it is a mystery, most of the time, because something unlikely to work actually comes off. In the majority of cases where this was attempted, the victim would probably go “Oi, wot the bloody ‘hell d’ya fink yor doin’?” and the perpetrator would be caught red-handed. But, as I’m about to explore looking at the Knox Decalogue, that’s not the sort of thing GAD traded in, and very much not the sort of book we’d want to read.

      There are all manner o fonwderful books that come off only because a 1-in-whatever chance occurs — The Seat of the Scornful by JDC, say — but, even though it is only a 1-in–whatever chance, it’s interesting as a mystery because of the slim odds involved.

      And I think writers were aware of this overburdening of unlikelihood, and it possibly became a sticking point that in part resulted in the decline of the genre. But, c’mon, don’t you want to read about nifty, unlikely murder methods? The response in the genre was those sorts of books where someone is found standing over a stabbed body with a knife in their hand and, after 350 pages, it turns out that they were the murderer!! Big woof, who cares (and, yes, I know Dame Agatha wrote one such highly-regarded book…)?

      I don’t always need exactitude in my GAD — the absolute conviction that this would come off 8000 times in 8000 attempts — I just want realism…and “realism” has to include long odds, right?

      Sorry, I’ve gone on a bit…

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  2. I’ve nothing to say about this one, except I seriously need to return to Rhode, but what I can say is that you’re in for treat with your next read! Barry Ergang was spot on when he said Home Sweet Homicide is the only detective novel you don’t want to end, because Rice never wrote a sequel.

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    • I enjoy Rhode when I read him, but I do finish one and then sort of forget about him until I scan my TBR looking for someone I haven’t read in a while. But he’s fun, even if the titles so far available aren’t going to make me a convert just yet.

      The Rice I’m intrigued by. Not read any of her novels, just some short stories, so I’m a little wary of how screwball the whole thing might get. But it’s been enjoyable so far.

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      • You can’t really judge Rice’s other work by Home Sweet Homicide, because even among her own work it stands as a one-of-a-kind mystery. I believe the Rue Morgue Press edition mentioned Rice might have written the book as a sort of apology to her children for her shortcomings as a mother. Whatever her motivation was, she produced something truly special. And, for me, Home Sweet Homicide is The Never-Ending Story of detective fiction. So I look forward to reading your take on it.

        I’ll make it an early New Years resolution to finally read Rhode’s The Robthorne Mystery in 2020.

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  3. 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”.
    I can’t help but think that if I ever attempted to write a mystery novel it would be a similar situation. You have to appreciate those authors like Carr, Christie, and Brand who provide an actual story.

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    • Yeah, plotters who can’t write and writers who can’t plot should really’ve teamed up, hey? Imagine the wonderful things that would have resulted…and, as you say, appreciate how phenomenal when some authors could simply do both again and again.

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  4. Popping back in here to say I just finished this book. You know, I had a very good time with it. Sure it’s not perfect and I found Hanslet a bit too obtuse and pig-headed at times but I didn’t think it dragged much and overall I came away feeling satisfied.
    That’s four of his books I’ve read now – of the two Miles Burton BLCC, I liked the energy of Secret of High Eldersham a lot more than the plodding nature of Death in the Tunnel. Invisible Weapons was fine for the most part, but specific set of circumstances necessary to make the crime possible remain a major stretch.
    I want to read more though. I have Death at Breakfast and Fatal Descent as well as hardcovers of Motor Rally Mystery and Venner Crime that I picked up cheap. It is a pity the Crime Club reprints have dried up though as they were very nicely produced.

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    • These Crime Club ones were lovely, weren’t they? Would have been great to have a few more highly-regarded titles out of them, but I suppose Rhode is a bit of a tough proposition for all but the GAD-inclined.

      I have another of his in Green Penguin — er, Praed Street? — and am looking forward to it, but unless more become readily available I’m not sure I’d go to great lengths to track him down. I’ve seen him when he’s bad (A Smell of Smoke) and am not willing to take an expensive risk like that again 😀

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