#972: Peril at Cranbury Hall (1930) by John Rhode

Peril at Cranbury Hall

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Accompanying an architect in an examination of the faded ancestral pile of Cranbury Hall, prim solicitor Arthur Gilroy happens upon his wastrel half brother Oliver, with whom he has an interview later that evening, who is rather elliptical about the reason for his presence.  The two part on not unfriendly terms and, soon after, a shot rings out that is attributed to poachers taking liberties on the ownerless land.  But when Oliver fails to show up for their meeting, Arthur begins to suspect that “some mysterious tragedy had occurred”…and he might be right, since that shot turns out to have been merely the first attempt on Oliver’s life.

From the book hangover induced by last week’s unexpected, year-defining masterpiece, I leap into the calm, functional arms of Major Cecil John Charles Street, here under his John Rhode nom de plume, and Peril at Cranbury Hall (1930). This is one of a handful of reissues recently put out by the Mysterious Press, and came recommended by Puzzle Doctor, the blogosphere’s resident Street nerd, as a particularly good example to pick from the 140-some books Street put out over his career. And, well, I find myself conflicted on its merits, and not just because it had to follow up one of the very best books I’ve read in a long, long time.

The first half is really rather tedious indeed — someone makes an attempt on Oliver’s life, he feels sore about it and speculates who might be responsible, a lot of slow and ponderous events surround him, rinse and repeat — enlivened only by a seeming pandemic of amorality that sees everyone beholden to someone else on account of some moral or legal shenanigans. Rhode does a good job of keeping this obscure, but after about the fifth time someone has a guarded conversation about what another party owes them, or reflects that there’s something someone better not find out about them, I found myself wishing for some detail rather than all this nose-tapping, nodding, and sly winking at the audience. Some moments of good writing flash out (“I went down into hell with my eyes open, and I’m going to make pretty certain of the heaven that is to follow.”) but I found this mostly drawn out and lacking in interest.

Rhode has an entertaining scorn for the people at large, c.f.:

“The British public is quite prepared to support any fad, provided that it is sufficiently well advertised.”


Society, male and female, but mostly female, flocked to his doors, and was followed by those who strove to ape the ways of Society.

…but it would be a better book if more happened, or if what happened took a third as long. By the time Dr. Lancelot Priestley accidentally stumbles onto the fringes of the affair I was ready to give up and, to be perfectly honest, I wish I had. Flashes of Rhode’s technical ingenuity sparkle through — there’s a borderline impossible crime here in a staggeringly clever way to instigate a car crash — but the problem essentially boils down to Oliver keeping secrets and someone trying to kill him on account of them…and that’s pretty thin beer when you consider the style of mystery that was emerging at this point in the history of the Golden Age.

I have often said, and I don’t imagine for a second that it’s an original observation, that Street/Rhode would have doubtless done better to write at least half the books he did since he’d then be able to double up on plots and give his sometimes too thin schemes some added meat. This way, his simple designs by which he explores an almost Anthony Berkeley-esque thought experiment about how to murder someone would be given more the appearance of novels. The man’s industry is to be admired, and no doubt he would have made a formidable serial killer had he decided to try fact instead of fiction, but it’s at times like these that I really feel the threadbareness of Rhode’s undertaking. Indeed, apart from the later career A Smell of Smoke (1959) under his Miles Burton nom de plume, this might be the weakest effort by Street that I’ve yet encountered.

To be honest, beyond the above I can think of little more to say, so I shall learn from this experience and get out of this review while the going is good. Doubtless better books from this pen exist, and I shall look forward to them in my future, but this is a trip I wish I hadn’t made.


John Rhode on The Invisible Event

Miles Burton on The Invisible Event

17 thoughts on “#972: Peril at Cranbury Hall (1930) by John Rhode

  1. Rhode is so divisive, even with which are his better books. I loved this one when I read it, due to its odd structure, almost like a shaggy dog story. Similarly I love Death In The Hopfields, where the murder is almost a subplot, but I imagine others would hate it. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of Invisible Weapons that some people love.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think I enjoy Rhode/Burton when he’s a little more technical — I’m one of the people who enjoyed Invisible Weapons (though it doesn’t make a lick of sense…!), and I want him to be conjuring devious murder schemes, not gently implying that something might maybe happen 40 pages from now.

      I’ll continue to sift through and hope to find him more to my liking next time; can’t love everything, after all 🙂


        • Yes, The Harvest Murder is an alternative title of Death In The Hopfields. It’s not too hard to find at present, but the most available version is a rather dodgy print-on-demand edition.


          • There’s a dodgy (i.e. illegal, over here at least) e-version of The Harvest Murder and the on demand version is from the same source. Not sure I’ve seen a legit copy for sale – I read the dodgy version from the source (I forget where, the internet archive?) before I knew the full situation. I’d love a proper version of this one (and Death On The Board)


  2. I’m so sorry to hear that you didn’t like this one, Jim! I’ve never gotten around to reading a Rhode/Waye/Street/Miles, and it’s hard to find a consensus on which ones are good…


    • The difficulty with consensus on Rhode is firstly how damn many books he wrote and secondly how profoundly unavailable so many of them have been for so long. In order to agree (or contrast, shall we say) one must first encounter!

      When he’s good he’s very good indeed, but I’d be amazed if he ever wrote anything that was spectacular. Or maybe he did, and no-one’s been able to read it for the last 80 years…


      • I’ve generally heard only good things about The House on Tollard Ridge as well, but unfortunately have not been able to read it yet to confirm if that’s the case or not. It’s the one Rhode I’m specifically hoping is next up to be reprinted.

        Given what I’ve read of Rhode though, I do agree that even if it’s good, it’s very unlikely to be spectacular.


        • It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Rhode reprints, because the choice of titles in recent years seems to have been somewhat random. One way to keep us on our toes, I suppose…


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