One evening, responding to a phone call from the local hospital requesting that he identify a man involved in an accident, Mr. James Tovey, Fruit and Vegetable Merchant on London’s Praed Street, discovers he’s the victim of a prank and that no such call was made by anyone at the hospital. On the short walk home, he encounters a group of men outside the local pub and…there endeth his story, for he is stabbed and dies shortly thereafter. With the group all claiming innocence, and talk of a scar-faced sailor seen in the vicinity, the event is put down to a senseless tragedy until circumstances link it to another death on the same stretch of road. And another. And another.
Yes, ma’am, what we have here is a good old-fashioned serial killer novel — perhaps one of the earliest written in the Golden Age, Rhode himself calling it “an entirely novel sensation” — and one that trumps the likes of X v. Rex , a.k.a. The Mystery of the Dead Police (1933) by Philip MacDonald by actually making the crimes appear to be the work of a single perpetrator. The murders occur in the first half (Part I is called ‘The Crimes’), with Rhode taking the time to explore the people and the setting before dispatching each victim in turn. Certainly there’s nothing extraordinarily deep in his characters, but his later works (when writing as both Rhode and Miles Burton simultaneously) seem shorn of this effort, and some of the descriptions are delightful:
At no other stage in the earth’s history has superstition owned so many votaries. From the most rapt spiritualist to the man who refuses to walk under a ladder, the world is full of people who allow superstition to play an important part in their lives.
Indeed, the most telling thing about this book when compared to the later ones I’ve read from the same pen (under either name) is how charming Rhode’s prose is — almost as if not rushing out six books a year was an opportunity to allow good writing. The sense of small communities along Praed Street is captured well in the exchanges between the voluble tobacconist Samuel Copperdock and the urbane herbalist Elmer Ludgrove. The latter is something of an agony aunt for all and sundry in the region, and Inspector Whyland is drawn to him in the hope that some news of the murders might be communicated via this back channel (those with criminous knowledge tending to be, y’know, nervous of the police), with Ludgrove suffering confessions and demands for money for information throughout. It’s mostly through Ludgrove’s experiences that we’ll follow the unfurling of the crimes, with no small amount of celebrity attaching to him via the deaths as their import grows, and many people seeking him out to discuss some point or other.
Perhaps, he reflected, that the looker-on sees most of the game, and these men, viewing these circumstances from a distance, might have hit upon some point in the evidence which had escaped the observers on the spot.
Then, at regular intervals, we jump away to follow a victim about to come to their end by any number of interesting ways. While these chapters contribute some very enjoyable reading (“Shortly afterwards the electrician arrived, and his thoughts were diverted into other channels”), they also stir in the first problem: after the second murder we follow the killer away from the scene, onto a train and away from London. Then, later, Inspector Whyland is moved to muse “Could [Person X] have committed the murder?”…and, no, they couldn’t, because we’ve been told Person X’s movements and we know that they don’t tally with the killer’s movements from earlier. And this wouldn’t be such a problem if I didn’t get the impression that Rhode also wants the reader to be fooled (we spend a long time pursuing this Person X theory, let me tell you…) rather than just to see the police baffled.
You can’t deny that Rhode is, however, extremely fair in the information he presents that will clue the attentive reader into the killer’s true identity — possibly over-fair, in the same way J.J Connington was last week — so that upon the advent of Dr. Lancelot Priestley at the halfway stage (Part II is called ‘The Criminal’) we’re really just waiting for the motive to be revealed and for the ‘surprise’ unveiling of our murderer. Priestley’s investigation is…fine, though the four chapters spent in Dorset are tedious and serve only to provide the world’s most obvious red herring, even if an attempt at Maximum Excitement to be wrung from his refusal to share his thinking with the police for Reasons falls flat. While the casual revelation of the motive is a delight in its off-handedness, it’s also a shame to see Priestley harp on about speculation rather than evidence and then misuse the word “proved” in a manner so clumsy that I’m amazed he showed his face in public ever again.
Some of the contemporary touches which I take such delight in fill out the experience of this novel, like the casual mention of the Thursday “weekly half holiday” for people engaged in a trade, and Rhode peppers some fictional delights alongside these: the hilariously cloth-eared utilisation of the threat of murder in an advert by a life insurance company, say, or the casual brutality of a newspaper report on one of the murders in which “[the victim’s] Christian names and the titles of his published works were incorrectly stated”. Equally, is that a casual mention of a lesbian relationship at the start of chapter 6? I like this more involved John Rhode, it must be said; Mystery at Olympia (1935) could have done with more of these filigree’d touches to the edges of its universe.
All told, then, this early swipe at the spree killer in a fair-play novel of detection has a lot to recommend it; for once Rhode isn’t simply trying to cram an ingenious method down your neck and move on, and but for the One Goes Mad in Dorset gest which stalls the narrative to near-standstill there’s little to fault it on. I understand this one is pretty tough to track down, but if you stumble upon a copy and want to see a more relaxed John Rhode doing some genuinely creative writing with more than just the method of dispatch you could do much worse. We just have to cross our fingers for more Rhode/Burton reprints in the hope of discovering how much this represents his early years.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: There is far more activity and action here than there would be in later Rhodes, which is both the book’s strength and its weakness. Dr. Priestley is personally involved to a degree he would be in very few cases (c.f. The Paddington Mystery, The Claverton Mystery), even going so far as to flee the country in a vain attempt to baffle the murderer, with whose original motive the reader feels some sympathy.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: For a deductive detective, Priestley does very little detection here… He does absolutely nothing to deduce the murderer’s identity, which feels as if Rhode changed his mind about something at the last minute – one aspect of the killer’s explanations and plans really doesn’t make sense. While the reader is quite capable of guessing the murderer – and the hint laid out in the early sections stood out a mile to me – it is always going to be a guess.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The murderer is easily spotted as was the then original, well hidden-and clued motive that will be viewed today as hackneyed, but you can’t slam Rhode for coming up with it first.