Not being content to wait for the release of The Paddington Mystery in the United States later this month, I decided to go ahead and seek out a John Rhode novel through the interlibrary loan system to get my Dr. Priestley fix. The Lake House was the first title to find its way to me which I was pretty happy about given how Nick Fuller rates it as one of the stronger Rhodes of the 1940s.
The story concerns the death of George Potterne in his lake house late at night. Earlier in the evening he had contacted the Police, asking Sergeant Wryde to visit him there at eleven as he wished to make a serious complaint. When Wryde arrives he discovers the door ajar and Potterne lying with his head on his desk, shot in the back.
Soon Jimmy Waghorn, newly appointed as Superintendent, arrives on the scene to conduct what will be his first major investigation in the role. He quickly and competently sets about documenting the crime scene, noting scorch marks on the back of the dead man’s chair, footprints on the sooty floor of the cabin, a pistol case with one of the pair missing and fragments of a will in the fire grate. Curiously both the butler and the dead man’s wife are not at home, the former having disappeared on the evening of the murder while the latter has supposedly travelled to France for her health.
One of the most surprising things about this novel for me was how straightforward its plot seemed to be in comparison with the other Priestley stories I had read. For instance, the crime scene was quite accessible in the evening of the murder while the physical evidence of the crime scene seems to be leading us in a clear direction. Nor does there seem to be anything particularly strange or complex about the case beyond the question of how an assailant came to murder Potterne with his own weapon.
In spite of its apparent simplicity, I enjoyed the early part of the book and was pleased that Jimmy is shown to be quite competent and feel his thinking, while inevitably flawed to allow Priestley to solve the case, really seems quite well-reasoned. Even more surprising, he is allowed to progress quite some way into his investigation before Priestley makes his appearance and even then the two surprise by taking fairly similar views of the case and its evidence.
Of course, however simple things appear it is clear that there must be more to the case than meets the eye. The reader therefore needs to first consider how Jimmy’s suggestion for what happened is flawed before turning their mind to thinking up a better explanation using all of the facts of the case.
The correct explanation is certainly ingeniously worked and manages to take what is a seemingly simple crime and convincingly showing that it could only have been performed in a complex way. I do agree with Nick that the killer’s identity does seem to be quite straightforward though that didn’t bother me as I was interested to see how it would be managed. Though there are some echoes of another famous mystery story in the solution, I found it to be a very well described and cleverly worked solution and felt it resolved things very nicely.
While the premise for the story may not be as immediately grabbing as, say, Death at Breakfast or Mystery at Olympia, I found it to be tightly plotted and was impressed with the richness of its characterizations, both of the victim and the various suspects we encounter. I haven’t read enough Rhode yet to have a sense of just how good he could be but I think this compares favorably with each of the three reissued novels I have read and it leaves me excited to try some other of his works from this period.
This book was published in the United States under the title Secret of the Lake House.