by Francis M. Nevins

   If ever there were two stalwarts of the English detective novel during the so-called Golden Age, their names were Christopher Bush, whom I talked about last month, and John Rhode (1884-1964). Rhode like Bush was at his best during the Thirties and, for my taste anyway, became all but unreadable soon after World War II. Bush’s wartime novels have never been published in the States but Rhode’s continued to appear over here during the war years, and I happen to have a number of them. Shall we take a dekko at a few?


   DEAD ON THE TRACK (1943) begins with the discovery of a man’s body, mutilated beyond recognition, beside the railroad tracks between the villages of Bockingfold and Filmerham. Apparently the man was dragged to his death by a passing goods train (what we call a freight train), but an autopsy reveals a bullet in the victim’s head. Clothing fragments and other evidence identify him as Alexander Gargrave, a prosperous solicitor from the county town (what we call the county seat) of Wensford.

    Gargrave apparently came by train to the Bockingfold area in response to a letter from his old friend John Cardeston, who denies having written the letter. Evidence builds up against Cardeston and he’s soon found in his home shot to death, apparently a suicide. Ballistic evidence proving that the gun used on him was the same weapon that shot Gargrave strongly suggests that he killed himself out of fear he’d soon be arrested for his friend’s murder.

   Superintendent Hanslet, retired from Scotland Yard but called back to duty because of the wartime shortage of policemen, is summoned to investigate and eventually describes the case to Dr. Priestley, who quickly deciphers the two coded documents involved in the case—one of them apparently taken from a volume of old sermons!—and later identifies the double murderer.

   This is unmistakably a wartime whodunit. Priestley refuses to leave his home in Westbourne Terrace even though several of his neighbors have been bombed out. The blackout forces Hanslet and his local counterpart to drive by night without lights through a howling storm. Food shortages make all too plausible Cardeston’s last meal, which is called vegetable goose and consists of “parsnips and lentils with apple sauce.”

   In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle (2 May 1943) Anthony Boucher passed over these period details, which eighty-odd years later constitute one of the book’s fascinations, and concentrated on the cerebral aspects. “Devotees of ultra-British detection will find a pleasantly solid job (despite dubious statements on ballistics); others beware.”

   Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME (revised edition 1989) say only that “[t]he tale is not helped by an unlikely piece of practical joking.” Something of a slip here: what they’re referring to is not a practical joke but the coding of a new chemical formula potentially worth a fortune and its division into two parts, one of which the discoverer bequeathed to each of the murder victims.


   MEN DIE AT CYPRUS LODGE (1943, US 1944) deals with a house in the village of Troutwich which has been the scene of two deaths — first a prosperous pig butcher in 1897 who may have been poisoned, then a homeopathic doctor just before the outbreak of war who was definitely poisoned. Thanks to weird noises emanating from the house, it has come to be viewed as haunted.

   Then in 1943 it claims its third victim, a local squire and amateur of the occult who’s determined to find out the truth behind Cyprus Lodge but gets scratched with a Rube Goldberg booby-trap device behind a secret panel which is coated with the poison Rhode variously calls aconitine and aconite: the same poison which killed the second victim and perhaps also the first.

   Troutwich of course is not within the jurisdiction of Scotland Yard, but the Yard’s Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, temporarily attached to the special investigation branch of the War Office, has been frequenting the village, trying to find out who is collating scraps of information from the nearby military camp and passing them on to Germany, and he takes an unofficial hand in the case, which of course means that it comes up during one of his Saturday night dinners in Dr. Priestley’s house, which still hasn’t been bombed.

   In due course the brother of the squire who was victim number three (if you include the Victorian pig butcher) is himself murdered, not inside Cyprus Lodge but in the alley on which its back door opens, and the cause of death once again is aconite or aconitine. Near trail’s end Priestley explains everything satisfactorily except why the fatal poison has two names.

   This too is definitely a wartime book: a nightly fire watch is kept at Troutwich town hall, and “a depressing array of austerity confections” is displayed in the window of the local tea-shop. “They say that beer’s not rationed,” a publican tells Waghorn, “but in a way it is. My brewers only allow me so much every week, enough for my regular customers and no more. And if the troops [from the adjacent military camp] drink it up, why the others grumble, and small blame to them.”

   There’s even an air raid on the camp — although it’s a one-plane attack described to Waghorn after the event—and a bit of action at the climax as Waghorn collars the enemy spy, whose activities, as you might have suspected, are connected with the murders.

   The wartime ambience is one of the high points of the novel, but Boucher’s review for the Chronicle (11 June 1944) once again passed over that aspect and concentrated on the detection. “At his best, nobody can top Rhode for ingenious murder gadgets and few can top him for meticulous unraveling; he’s very close to his best in this one.”

   Barzun & Taylor in A CATALOGUE OF CRIME are somewhat less enthusiastic, with Taylor calling the book “a bumbling business” although Barzun thought more highly of it. Both seemed to agree, however, that the gimmick for creating the fake supernatural manifestations was “unconvincing.”


   Either Rhode or his English publisher had a tendency to come up with amazingly dishwater titles for some of the Dr. Priestley books. Can you imagine detective novels called VEGETABLE DUCK, THE TELEPHONE CALL or DR. GOODWOOD’S LOCUM? Fortunately for Americans, Rhode’s U.S. publisher changed each of these to more appropriate titles, respectively TOO MANY SUSPECTS, SHADOW OF AN ALIBI and THE AFFAIR OF THE SUBSTITUTE DOCTOR.

   I happen to have a first edition of TOO MANY SUSPECTS (1945), which begins with Mr. Charles Fransham returning to his luxurious flat in London’s Battersea district to find his wife Letitia dead of poisoning. Jimmy Waghorn, back at Scotland Yard as in peacetime, quickly determines that the poison must have been administered in the dinner Mrs. Fransham ate alone, since her husband got a mysterious phone call that took him out of the flat just before mealtime.

   The main course, which both the Franshams would have shared had it not been for that phone call, was a dish apparently common in England but unheard of over here, something called vegetable duck– not to be confused with vegetable goose! –which consists of “a marrow, not too big, stuffed with minced meat [in this case the remains of a leg of mutton] and herbs, and baked whole.”

   The prime suspect of course is Mr. Fransham, who as chance or otherwise would have it was also the prime suspect in the death of Letitia’s wealthy brother back in 1935. Could he have slipped poison into that marrow before their cook served it? He had plenty of motive, for Letitia had saved a great deal of money and died intestate, which means the money is now his.

   Waghorn spends much of the novel meticulously investigating every aspect of the poisoning, with the usual kibitzing by Dr. Priestley after the customary Saturday night dinner at his house. Eventually it becomes apparent that the poisoned marrow came from the village of Newton Soham, about 70 miles from London and the home of Fransham’s son by his first marriage.

   About 60 pages from the endpoint Charles himself is shot to death in the woods while visiting his son, who inherits the role of prime suspect in the poisoning of Letitia besides being under suspicion in the death of his father. Eventually, after more kibitzing by Dr. Priestley, Waghorn makes an arrest—for, of all things, the theft of a marrow! — and the culprit obligingly confesses every detail of a hugely complex scheme.

   TOO MANY SUSPECTS is one of the finest Rhode novels I’ve read, and I’m delighted to be the owner of a nice first edition. One aspect of it, however, does make me scratch my head. The book was written and published near the end of World War II, and there are a few war references: one character was killed in the Blitz and a couple of others mention that they served as air raid wardens.

   As we know from the journalism of George Orwell and many other sources, England in fact was plagued by rationing and shortages for years after the war, but you’d never guess it from this novel, in which trains run on time, consumer goods flow freely and no one seems to be suffering privations. Take for instance Letitia Fransham’s last meal, which “had consisted of cold salmon and cucumber, vegetable duck with potatoes and gravy, and cheese.” What a real-life Londoner in 1945 wouldn’t have given for such a feast!


   I’ve read many a Dr. Priestley novel over the decades, but the ones I’ve tried to cover here are Rhodes not taken before I started this column. Three is enough. If nothing else, they show what Tony Boucher meant when he described mysteries as (in Hamlet’s words to Polonius about the players) the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time. It’s hard to imagine any other type of fiction with the potential to reveal so vividly the way we lived then.