Mystery at Olympia is one of the four titles that HarperCollins selected to launch a range of reissued John Rhode novels. Previously I reviewed Death at Breakfast on this blog and discussed Invisible Weapons in a spoilery chat with JJ but while both of those novels were enjoyable reads, this one is on a higher level.
The setup for the story is that there is a large motor show taking place at Olympia where a revolutionary new transmission is drawing considerable interest. Crowds are gathered around the Comet Motor Company’s booth to listen to the explanation and among them is Dr. Oldland who is attending the demonstration to satisfy his chauffeur who wants him to purchase a more modern vehicle.
Also in the crowd is Nahum Pershore, a man who apparently has little interest in motor cars. Suddenly he collapses and Oldland attends to him. At first his death appears to be quite natural but Inspector Hanslet is suspicious when that same afternoon Pershore’s maid becomes severely ill as a result of arsenical poisoning. Closer inspection of the house reveals a further attempt to poison Pershore yet the autopsy reveals that neither poison was the cause of death, so just what was going on and who is responsible for each of these attempts to kill him?
Rhode does a lot of things right in this story but it all begins with this wonderful scenario which is genuinely puzzling. In the other two reissued stories I had read, it is easy to get a sense of the sort of thing that has happened from the opening chapters but here there are contradictions in the evidence that must be sorted out before we can get a clear sense of just what has taken place and who we might suspect.
I also appreciate that Rhode’s gallery of suspects and incidental characters feels a little richer than I have found in some of these other stories. For instance, I enjoyed the background given to the character of the housekeeper and I was amused by the insistence of another character that his good health can be put down to the nightly consumption of good port. There are a good mix of motives among them for disliking Pershore and several can be considered credible suspects until close to the end.
One aspect of Rhode’s writing that I am really appreciating is how well he develops his corpses, often in just a few pages. Pershaw may die within the first few pages of the novel but his character is very effectively established, both through direct description but also through the way these other characters have responded to him. Perhaps it is because he is a more disagreeable person in life, it is easier to believe that so many people may not be sorry to see him dead.
Hanslet is working alone on this case and I was pleased that while he occasionally heads off on a faulty line of reasoning there are no moments where he advances a completely ridiculous idea in this novel. He clearly requires Priestley’s guidance at multiple points but at least he shows some basic competency following up on elements of the investigation.
Similarly Priestley is on strong form, making logical connections and encouraging his friend to view the facts of the case from alternate perspectives. He even gets out in the field several times, attends the inquest, stakes out a house and gets involved in interviewing a suspect.
The novel builds to a rather splendid conclusion that I found surprisingly punchy, incorporating a note of conflict between some of our characters. It makes for a memorable finish to a novel that I think hung together terribly well.
That being said, there are a few aspects of the novel that I think are less successful. There is a moment where the cause of death is found that I think is profoundly unsatisfying, in part because it relies on a tremendous piece of good fortune. While the information, when received, does lead the sleuths to find how the crime was done, I firstly think it would be highly unlikely that it could be stumbled over in the way it is or that it can be seen as definitely being how the murder could be managed. This ends up being a small complaint as it really serves as a starting point in determining the method and it will be addressed in the conclusion but it did bother me for a while.
I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my late-20s so I am perhaps not the target audience for it but I found the lengthy passages of explanation about the Lovell Transmission to be quite dry and unnecessary. It’s a minor frustration and I might have skimmed those sections had I known that they would be of absolutely no consequence whatsoever.
These are however fairly small complaints and I feel that the mystery is well constructed and interesting. The characters are strong, the situation fascinating to pick apart and I think the resolution is really strong. As I indicated at the start of my review, I do think that this is the best novel I have yet to read from Rhode.
Finally, I don’t usually talk about the format I choose to enjoy my reading in but I wanted to give a special shout out to the audiobook versions of these Rhode stories read by Gordon Griffin. He does an amazing job with these (I listened to Death at Breakfast and, after reading the print copy, listened to Invisible Weapons to prepare for my spoilery chat with JJ). I never have had any problems keeping my concentration while enjoying them and I think the voices he creates for Hanslet and Priestley are absolutely perfect.
Hopefully HarperCollins will be able to release some further titles so he gets a chance to record some more.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a special event: birthday, village fete, etc. – Car Show (When)