Victor Harleston, a clerk with an accounting firm, wakes up in anticipation of a very good day. He is expecting a financial windfall that he has no intention of sharing with his half-sister Jane who he exploits for housekeeping duties in exchange for putting a roof over her head. Within a few hours he will be dead.
The crime scene proves a curious one, riddled with contradictions. While it is clear that Victor was poisoned, the evidence collected seems to suggest that the poison was ingested while the autopsy indicates that it was absorbed.
Soon Superintendent Hanslet and Jimmy Waghorn are on the case but while they quickly seem to settle on a suspect, they cannot understand how the crime could have been achieved. Hanslet decides to turn to Dr. Priestley for his advice but before long some further complications emerge in the case…
I have only read a couple of Rhode/Street/Burton novels so far (the only one I have reviewed here is The Chinese Puzzle) and this is the first of his Dr. Priestley series. Of the novels that I have tried, this is easily my favorite so far. Knowing that Rhode-expert Puzzle Doctor says that he doesn’t consider this top rate Rhode makes me all the more intrigued to dig deeper into his work.
A large part of my enjoyment was based on the character of Dr. Priestley who is used rather sparingly, brought in to hear the various theories that Hanslet and Waghorn have developed and to set them on the right track with a judicious application of logical thinking. It put me a little in mind of the Professor in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and I like to imagine that after each meeting Dr. Priestley is silently tutting to himself and wondering what they teach them in those schools…
Most of the actual investigating work is carried out by Jimmy Waghorn while Hanslet seems to be mostly content with trying to make the facts he already has work to convict his chosen suspect. Jimmy certainly shows some spark in identifying the method the murderer actually used to carry out their crime and takes the initiative to follow up on some leads. While he lacks Priestley’s ability to analyse the evidence, he does at least show some imagination and his diligent approach to searching the crime scenes and interviewing suspects does bear some fruit.
That murder method is quite cleverly devised and while the methodical approach to the investigation means that the reader will likely reason out the solution much faster than the detectives, I enjoyed reading how Jimmy was carefully piecing the elements together. There are some similarly strong investigation sequences in the middle third of the book, though I do agree with Puzzle Doctor that there is some dragging as the investigators put forward multiple explanations of how a crime may have been managed. I think though that the problem is that the investigators have obviously failed to consider every reading of the evidence at that point so if you are already aware of an alternate reading of that evidence, the reader may feel impatient for the detectives to catch up with them.
Happily when they do I think that the case proves a satisfying one, repaying the reader’s investment. I think Rhode explains his characters’ motivations well and provides us with a credible sequence of events that may lead someone to murder. The mystery is well-clued and plays fair with the reader and though I suspect most will see key developments coming, Rhode spaces those moments out well throughout his story to maintain interest.
As some of you may be aware I will be collaborating with JJ at The Invisible Event next month to produce a spoilery review of another recently reissued book by Rhode, Invisible Weapons. All of the aspects of the plot will be up for discussion so if you fancy joining in, do be sure to pick up a copy. My hopes for a good read and discussion are certainly boosted by the experience of reading this one.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Time/date/etc in the Title (When)
9 thoughts on “Death at Breakfast by John Rhode”
I think this is a mid level Rhode, as the discussion as to who could have done what to who and at what time between Priestley’s circle of brains does go on too long, although not as long as in Dr Goodwood’s Locum – review coming soon to a blog near me – and the murderer does another thing that Rhode doesn’t mind, namely being seen by someone who admittedly won’t recognise them when the murder happens, but wouldn’t have any problems picking them out of a line-up. Still, it’s a good read. It just baffles me why this (and to a lesser degree Invisible Weapons) are the first two re-releases… Good as they are, either do the series in order, or reprint the very best…
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It is a bit of a mystery what drew them to this over some of his other work. I have two theories. The less likely one is that they wanted to pick stories featuring Jimmy Waghorn. The more likely one is that this and Invisible Weapons have two of the most attractive covers (while Olympia has the car racing theme) and might have more shelf appeal. Hopefully these are selling well enough and they will announce another batch soon.
Have only read Body Unidentified so far and wasn’t wildly impressed, though it was readable enough. The problems seem to be similar to those that you have identified here especially with the reader working out the details long before the investigators. Still, in such a long and prolific career there are likely to be some gems.
“Still, in such a long and prolific career there are likely to be some gems.”
You’ve heard of Barbara Cartland, right?
Thanks for the review. 🙂 I’ve just started reading ‘Invisible Weapons’ in anticipation of the joint-post – hope it goes well!
I hope it does too! 🙂