#791: Death at Breakfast (1936) by John Rhode

Death at Breakfast

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Is it damning Cecil Street with disgustingly faint praise to say that he has become the author about whose work I am most likely to say “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I expected”? Whether writing as Miles Burton or as John Rhode, he generally gives you a moderately interesting puzzle that would have been better if a little more time were devoted to its structure and contents. My admittedly small sampling of his work doesn’t display the variety of Freeman Wills Crofts nor the creative construction and elucidation of R. Austin Freeman, and that’s…fine. But given the materials at his fingertips it’s also…a little disappointing.

Death at Breakfast (1936) is, then, exactly what you would expect. A man wakes up convinced that this is the day he will become rich, dies shortly after commencing his breakfast — faultless titling there, John — and the doctor summoned to the scene detects signs of poisoning. In short order, cue Superintendent Hanslet (do we ever learn his first name?), Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, and amateur criminologist and genius-on-the-sidelines Dr. Lancelot Priestley. It will be exactly as you’d expect that things are not what they seem, and for part of the runtime that’s somewhat delightful.

Rhode has, to my eye, a very keen sense of domestic arrangements and the way crime can impose upon these to baffling effect, and the opening stages of this story work this superbly. The investigation into Victor Harleston’s death is well-structured, rigorous, and logical, and displays some great ideas that are uncovered by competent, intelligent policing — Waghorn’s observations about Harleston’s shave, for instance, is neat if not exactly mind-blowing. A couple of mis-steps, like getting hung up on how someone could know that a new model of razor was due to be released in the coming weeks when it doesn’t matter in the least, aside, the opening hundred pages gives a good mix of basic characters outlines, hints of motive, and an obvious pattern that will clearly be overturned as things progress.

And then…well. Firstly, it seems Rhode is trying to take a leaf from the book of fellow Detection Club alumnus John Dickson Carr by introducing atmosphere via an historical precedent from 1851 on which everyone fixates at length and, hurrum, atmosphere isn’t what Rhode does. Where Crofts would delight in the railway journeys to and from Torquay, telling you about setting and detective both in the process, for Rhode they are over in an instant (“Having thus obtained the necessary permission, Jimmy travelled down to Torquay” — boom, done); equally, beyond a non-commital mention of “economic conditions” there’s no sense of time or place, and characters simply appear, do their bit, and bugger off (compare Tom herein with the similarly-deployed DS Ormsby in The Box Office Murders (1929), say — worlds apart) without being more than a name with a skill. Nothing really stands out, it all just…happens; In a few months — hell, weeks — I’ll be confusing events in this one with just about every other Rhode I’ve read.

Hanslet and Waghorn, too, are an odd pair. Each content to pursue their own line, and each careful where matters of procedure are concerned, Rhode pushes their differing approaches a little bit too hard (lambasting his junior at about the halfway stage, Hanslet actually says “You watch me and I’ll show you…”) only for it to make no difference since they’re both required to become quite exceptionally dense so that Priestley can swoop in at the end and lay the transparent scheme even more…transparent. My favourite moment in the whole book comes when Waghorn, launching what he’s certain will be the incisive line of question that will make a suspect buckle asks “What time did the tide turn last Friday evening?” — and I was half expecting the man to reply “The presbytery has lost nothing of its charm, nor the garden its brightness” and we’d turn out to’ve been in some weird spy thriller the whole time. Alas.

We hit all the expected notes: the policemen have differing opinions of guilt based on little more than surmise that they should be above, obvious lines of enquiry are neglected, Preistley is subject to speculations that he may be losing his touch when he doesn’t agree with the Stupid Waton’s ideas and is reduced to a narrative gadfly throughout — doubtless vexed by the dull-headedness of these two who are about to let someone chouse justice — and you tolerate it all with a sort of rictus grin and the sinking feeling that it’s not going to get better. There are certainly points of interest — blood groups are numbered here where I thought they had always been lettered, trains from Torquay form Paddington now take 27 minutes less on average than they did in 1936, Priestley’s criticism of trial by jury is a surprisingly ascerbic moment in an otherwise gentle tale — but it rarely enagages by doing anything terribly interesting or, fatally, anything surprising.

And yet, for all that, it’s a remarkably functional piece — easy to read, easy to follow (however, the speculative hoops Hanslet and Waghorn jump through to keep their pet theories alive did make my eyes glaze over at times), mindful of practicalities, and difficult to dismiss as entirely without merit. It’s difficult not to enjoy for what it is, but it hardly makes me want to rush out and seize more Rhode/Burton. Puzzle Doctor recommends The Robthorne Mystery (1934) as Rhode’s magnum opus, and nebulous rumours continue to whirl that this and others might be on the way from Dead Street Press, so I hope there’s something in their (potential) selection that inspires a bit more excitement in the man and his work. I still can’t shake the feeling that he would be better regarded today if he’d written about a quarter of the 160+ books he did, but come back on Saturday for more on that front.

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Laura @ Dead Yesterday: Jimmy frequently laments that they keep finding more clues without coming any closer to a solution. What he actually means is that the new clues aren’t bringing them any closer to their preferred solution, which is something else altogether. Come on, Jimmy, if your evidence doesn’t fit the theory, change the theory to fit the evidence!

Jason Half: Superintendent Hanslet assumes the rather utilitarian role that many official police characters perform in these stories: he is very capable of collecting evidence and advancing theories, but his energy with these tasks is directly proportional to the limits of his thinking. (This must be so in order for the brilliant amateur detective to take the reins and deliver the solution before the plodding copper can.) The paradox here is that Rhode paints Hanslet as a man who, upon hearing that feline blood is found at the scene of a mighty fight inside a room, has a mind nimble enough to imagine a tussle with an escaped tiger may have occurred, but is not intuitive enough to think that a person may have used cat’s blood for the purposes of misdirection. It’s a strange tightrope walk between intelligence and ignorance, and I’m not sure that the author keeps his character convincingly in the air at all times.

D for Doom @ Vintage Pop Fictions: This is golden age detective fiction at its purest. No romance sub-plots, no time wasted on characterisation, just an intricate plot that works like clockwork and a remorselessly logical detective (although despite his devotion to logic I personally find Priestley to be quite entertaining as a character). Death at Breakfast achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve. Highly recommended.

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John Rhode on The Invisible Event

Miles Burton on The Invisible Event

4 thoughts on “#791: Death at Breakfast (1936) by John Rhode

  1. I actually managed to track down a Popular Library and an Avon edition of some Rhode novels, and I have to say, your review doesn’t exactly make me excited. But then, I kind of suspected what I would get. Still some nice looking books and I’ll try to get around to one this year.

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  2. It has been possible recently to get The Robthorne Mystery in what appears to be a print-on-demand version from Amazon. Personally I’d put several other Rhode titles above it in terms of merit, including The Davidson Case and Death in Harley Street, but whether those will be easy to obtain in the near future is hard to say…

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    • Duly noted, many thanks. It feels as if recommending Rhode has been something of a fool’s errand for a while because he’s been so damn hard to find, and so there’s no consensus or even really any understanding of what the “good” ones are…and when they are recommended a part of me had always gone “Yeah, whatever, I’m probably never going to be able to find it…” and I tend to forget them pretty quickly.

      But maybe, maybe…

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