FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Not long ago I felt the urge to read another novel by that king of the humdrums, John Rhode (1884-1964) and, from the specimens on my shelves, chose THE CLAVERTON AFFAIR (1933). Judging by Rhode’s foremost admirers, it was an excellent choice. “A fine example of good early Priestley,” say Barzun & Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME. “The puzzle is sound, the atmosphere menacing in a splendidly gloomy way, and the treatment of spiritualistic seances above reproach….[This is] a book to hang onto.” I found it somewhat less impressive.

   As in almost every one of the Rhode novels, the protagonist is curmudgeonly Dr. Priestley, whose rarely seen first name is Lancelot and who is not a doctor, at least not a physician. Paying a visit to his old friend Sir John Claverton, Priestley discovers newly ensconced on the premises Sir John’s estranged sister, who’s a psychic medium, and her daughter, who is nursing him through some gastric problems.

   His physician Dr. Oldland, soon to become a regular character in the series, tells Priestley in confidence that the cause of Sir John’s most serious attack was arsenic. A few days later Sir John dies. Priestley naturally enough suspects another dose of arsenic but medical tests rule out that poison conclusively. Sir John had recently changed his will, replacing what had been a simple testament with an exceedingly strange one. After two seances, the second rigged by Priestley, our sleuth solves the puzzle and the murderer obligingly confesses the whole plot.

   For the most part THE CLAVERTON AFFAIR is on a par with the dozens of other Rhodes. One aspect that makes it unusual is that there are only three suspects, hardly enough for a book that runs more than 270 pages. Another is that the soporific prose is marred by some grammatical lapses of the sort one rarely encounters in the humdrums. “I should like, if possible, to see this Doctor Oldland, whom you say was attending Sir John.” “But that wasn’t the worse.”

   What surprised me more than the moments of bad grammar was some unusual dialogue. Here speaking to Priestley is a man who left his wife for a wealthy younger woman. “I honestly believe that an impartial deity would count her [i.e. the wife’s] petty suffering a very small thing to put against our surpassing happiness.”

   And here is a married woman who had an affair and a child with another man while her husband was overseas in World War I. “…I’m proud of every moment that we spent together. I wouldn’t give up a single one of my memories to save myself from eternal damnation….To me, he was the most wonderful lover that ever lived!” Sentiments like these are rare to say the least in a detective novel more than 80 years old. Is it possible that a stodgy Brit like Rhode was host to an inner swinger?

   There is no Rhode biography and it’s hard to believe that someone who wrote so many books actually had a life, but apparently he did. One of his closest friends among crime novelists was John Dickson Carr, who said of Rhode that he “once boasted of being the Detection Club’s heaviest member, always excepting G.K. Chesterton. I have watched him polish off ten pints of beer before lunch, and more than that after dinner.” I gather from the Web that for many years he lived with a woman whom he married only after his first wife’s death. Swinger indeed!

***

   In a letter from decades ago, novelist and playwright Ira Levin (1929-2007) described Rhode to me as “still my favorite narcotic and traveling companion.” For me he doesn’t fit well in that slot. Why? Because you can’t read Rhode without keeping your mind engaged to a certain extent. At bedtime and on the road I prefer Peter Cheyney (1896-1951), at least when he’s writing about that rootin’ tootin’ two-gun shootin’ G-man Lemmy Caution.

   Cheyney was blessed with the un-British gift of chutzpah: knowing nothing about the U.S. or the American language, he cranked out a whole series of novels with an allegedly Yank narrator who not only writes in first person but in present tense in what his creator fondly imagined to be the manner of Damon Runyon. I’ve found that the best way to read a Lemmy Caution exploit is to start with the first couple of chapters and then skip around, on the prowl for the Cheyneyisms with which the books are strewn.

   Recently I pulled down my tattered copy of the second Cautionary tale, POISON IVY (1937), which seems never to have been published on this side of the pond. With superhuman restraint I’ll limit myself to quoting seven splendiferous sentences.

      “It sounds to me like a pipe dream from a police nose.”

      “Too many guys have had to use hair restorer over goin’ out and meeting a whole lot of grief before it got there.”

      “I reckon that they think I’m the cat’s lingerie.”

      “Lemmy Caution without a Luger under his arm is about as much use as a lump of pickled pork to a rabbi.”

      “He is a big guy with a derby hat an’ he is smilin’ and lookin’ as happy as a sandboy.”

      “If you start anything I reckon I’m goin’ to fill you so full of holes that you’ll think you was a nutmeg grater.”

      “Well, sweetheart, if you’re a lady then I’m the King of Siam gettin’ himself elected President of Cuba in a snowstorm.”

   Take that, Raul Castro! And the next time you meet a sandboy, toss him a lump of pickled pork.

***

   I quoted John Dickson Carr a few pages ago so it’s only fair that I close this column with him too. THE THIRD BULLET is of an unusual length that Carr had never attempted before or since, much shorter than any of his novels but considerably longer than, say, most of the Nero Wolfe novelets.

   It was first published under his Carter Dickson byline in 1937, the same year as Cheyney’s POISON IVY, in a short-lived series of Hodder & Stoughton paperback originals advertised as “new at ninepence.” The only other title in the series likely to be familiar to mystery fans was Margery Allingham’s THE CASE OF THE LATE PIG.

   The detective in Allingham’s contribution was the well-established Albert Campion but Carr’s sleuth was a newcomer, Colonel Marquis, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and something of a rough sketch for the better known Colonel March of Dickson’s later Department of Queer Complaints stories.

   A retired judge is found shot to death in the pavilion behind his Hampstead house. The room is locked — how could it be anything else in a Carr story? — and its only other occupant is a man whom a few years earlier the judge had sentenced to be flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails and who’s found carrying a pistol with one shot fired. He claims that the shot from his pistol had missed and that a third person had fired the fatal bullet with a second gun, which is discovered in the room. There’s a bullet hole in the judge and another, from a different weapon, in one wall of the pavilion.

   But medical evidence establishes that the fatal bullet was fired from yet a third weapon, which is nowhere to be found. Colonel Marquis solves the puzzle neatly, although I doubt that one reader in a million could anticipate his solution and it’s hard to imagine anyone except a Carr character devising a scheme like the one at the center of this story.

   The tale never appeared in the U.S. until after World War II, when Fred Dannay published a heavily edited version in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for January 1948 — edited, I should add, with Carr’s approval. “[D]on’t you think you had better do a lot of cutting?” he wrote Fred. “I remember being uncomfortably verbose in those days.”

   By that time Carr had apparently lost all copies of the Hodder & Stoughton version, which means that Fred must have edited from a carbon of the typescript. It was the Dannay condensation that was used when the tale appeared as the lead item in the Carr collection THE THIRD BULLET AND OTHER STORIES (Harper, 1954) and in all subsequent reprints until Douglas G. Greene included the full original version in FELL AND FOUL PLAY (International Polygonics, 1991).

   Anthony Boucher in the New York Times Book Review (May 30, 1954) described the condensed version as “a somewhat conventional but admirably detailed and intricate locked-room puzzle, ranking as good Grade B Carr.” Barzun & Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME said: “It is ingenious but told without vim.” By that I assume they meant that it lacks the Poesque atmospheric touches that distinguish so many of Carr’s early novels, as indeed it does, although there’s a tad more atmosphere in the uncut version that only became available after these comments were written.

   THE THIRD BULLET may not be in the same league with Carr classics like THE THREE COFFINS (1935) or THE CROOKED HINGE (1938), but it’s a smooth specimen of the kind of story that will still be linked with JDC when our great-grandkids are reading him on their wristwatch computers as they rocket their way to other galaxies.