The Paddington Mystery by John Rhode

The Paddington Mystery
John Rhode
Originally Published 1925
Dr. Priestley #1
Followed by Dr. Priestley’s Quest

Earlier this year the Collins Crime Club reissued four John Rhode novels featuring his series detective Dr. Lancelot Priestley. If you’re been reading my blog for any length of time you will have seen that I enjoyed each of those releases, albeit to different degrees. So why, you may be asking, has it taken me so long to get around to the last of those four, The Paddington Mystery?

Part of the reason is that among my blogging chums who know their Rhode, this book was universally regarded as the weakest of the four. For instance, Puzzle Doctor wrote in his review that it is not only atypical of Rhode’s usual style but that it commits the crime of being rather dull. Not promising.

Now, I’m not going to say that those reviews are wrong as The Paddington Mystery is certainly the least satisfying of those four novels. In spite of that though I found it to be quite an enjoyable read and some aspects of the novel are pretty successful.

Let’s start with the premise which is simple but very effective. Harold is a young man whose life was mapped out by his father but when the old man dies and leaves him with a less substantial than expected inheritance, he decides to find a small flat in the city and living a generally disreputable life.

One night after being stood up by a lady friend who had made a date with him he returns to that flat in a drunken state to discover a corpse lying on his bed. No one comes forward to claim the body which lacks any kind of identification and there are no signs that anything has been interfered with in the apartment other than the window that was forced. As far as anyone can tell a man who was unknown to the deceased and had no reason to be there jumped in the canal, swam across, forced a window to a flat whose owner he did not know, climbed in and lay down on the bed to die. What’s more, the coroner returns a verdict of a natural death.

What I think Rhode does particularly well here is lay out a situation that is clearly odd and naturally gives us several logical lines of inquiry to follow. I found it interesting that for much of the novel there is no clear suggestion that there has been a crime committed. Instead we are trying to get to grips with a situation that just does not make sense. Harold is not implicated in these events as he has a clear alibi for the time of death and the coroner’s verdict provides further relief but his character is stained and he is contemplating starting a new life overseas to escape the scandal. Fortunately he knows Dr. Priestley whose logical, mathematical mind is equal to the challenge of figuring out just what has taken place.

Given that this was the first Priestley novel, I was very pleasantly surprised that he establishes the story structure here that he will return to throughout the character’s literary life. We open with a short explanation of the crime and then the investigation follows a consultation model in which Priestley provides some direction, the young investigator gathers evidence, chats things over with Priestley, goes in search of more evidence, chats things over with Priestley, follows up his leads and then Priestley reveals what happened. The pacing is somewhat different however reflecting that he gets involved earlier in the story and plays a much more active role in this adventure than he does in any of the other stories I have read so far.

There are some ways in which this novel does distinguish itself from the other Rhode titles I have read. For one, because we spend much of the novel without a clear crime to investigate, Rhode does not devote time to building up suspects. This means that once we know the nature of the crime, the criminal’s identity can be easily inferred by the reader. This makes the revelations in the final few chapters feel a little underwhelming, undermining the impact of its ending.

The novel also adopts a somewhat moralizing tone about Harold’s life of excess and particularly his drinking that feels somewhat puritanical. Frequently we hear him chastising himself for his irresponsibility in throwing away a good friendship and abusing alcohol, giving the novel a strange, chiding tone. It is a very heavy-handed approach and I think it makes Harold a little less likeable than he might otherwise be.

Hanslet gets a mention but does not actually appear as a character here, nor do the various other characters we find fleshing out Priestley’s dinner circle in later novels, but we do get a glimpse of his personal life. His daughter, April, plays an important role within the narrative although she actually is given little to do herself. She is quite likeable anyhow and while I can’t say I was desperate for Harold and April to be reunited, I had no great objections to it either.

The cast of supporting characters are of variable interest, the most promising being Harold’s grouchy, Communist landlord. I do think the lack of fully fleshed out characters has the unfortunate effect of making some aspects of the solution a little simpler than the reader may like. This ties into an overall feeling I had that some aspects of the story, while logically sound, feel quite expected and so the explanations at the end seem to underwhelm.

In spite of these flaws, I did enjoy the process of reading The Paddington Mystery. Priestley is quite lively and fun to follow and I enjoyed his interactions with Harold. I think that the book contains some interesting incidents and a solid premise. Hopefully we will see some other books in this series appear as reprints soon as it would be nice to be able to read some of these titles that are currently very rare and hard to track down. A boy can dream!

The Lake House by John Rhode

The Lake House
(aka. Secret of the Lake House)
John Rhode
Originally Published 1946
Dr. Priestley #42
Preceded by Shadow of a Crime
Followed by Death in Harley Street

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.

Mystery at Olympia by John Rhode

Mystery at Olympia
John Rhode
Originally Published 1935
Dr. Priestley #21
Preceded by Hendon’s First Case
Followed by Shot at Dawn

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)

Death at Breakfast by John Rhode

Death at Breakfast
John Rhode
Originally Published 1936
Dr. Priestley #23
Preceded by Shot at Dawn
Followed by In the Face of the Verdict

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)

The Chinese Puzzle by Miles Burton

The Chinese Puzzle
Miles Burton (aka. John Rhode)
Originally Published 1957
Desmond Merrion #54
Preceded by Found Drowned
Followed by The Moth-Watch Murder

Though The Chinese Puzzle is not the first novel I have read by John Street (written under his Miles Burton pen name), this is the first I have read since starting this blog. Previously I had read Death in the Tunnel which was reissued a few years back but I must confess that I was not much of a fan. Still, I felt that he had enough promise that I picked up several of the ebooks that were available at that time and they have been sat on my Kindle waiting patiently for me to give him another try.

The Chinese Puzzle begins with a strange case of a fight between two Chinese men in the early hours of the morning, the visitor attacking his host with a hammer and attempting to steal some money from him. While this case is being investigated, the body of a third Chinese man is discovered in the visitor’s hometown and is identified as the same man the Police believe they have in custody for the hammer attack.

There is a lot of very fair debate around this book in relation to its portrayal of its Chinese characters and culture. While it is important to address those questions, I think it would be helpful to begin by establishing what Street was attempting to do and why he thought that this might make for an interesting premise for a story.

What defines The Chinese Puzzle is that it is a story about an investigation within a closed community. Our investigators are put in a position where they are outsiders, unable to communicate with several of the suspects except through an interpreter. While Merrion professes himself to have some knowledge of Chinese culture (which I think it is safe to say some of us may feel is a highly debatable point), Inspector Arnold has very little awareness of Chinese culture at all and so he requires guidance throughout the investigation.

In a story of this type the authority figure or detective will be an outsider to the community seeking what they perceive to be justice for a member of that community, potentially against their interests or wishes. I don’t think Street drives home that point particularly effectively but that theme is certainly present in the final few chapters of the book as Merrion seems to acknowledge that what is a legally correct outcome may not necessarily constitute justice.

Stories like WitnessThe Wicker Man and the Morse episode Greeks Bearing Gifts show that this can be an effective source of tension and intrigue but I think that these also demonstrate that this setup perhaps is more suited to a story in the thriller mode than a traditional detective puzzle story.

Among the problems that I think undermine the novel is that it will quickly become clear to the reader that the author is leading them. Once aware of that, the reader should notice how they are being led and then, by implication, they ought to be able to deduce why this is happening without any consideration of the facts of the case.

Unfortunately a consequence of this is that the resolution, when it is provided, is unlikely to come of much of a surprise beyond a question of motive. On that matter, I felt that Street provides an interesting and credible explanation that drew on the political climate of that period (which is why I would not agree with the idea some suggested in the comments on one of those posts that Street had dusted off a much older manuscript), encouraging the reader to consider an alternate perspective on events. I think though that some of that is merely potential – those issues are raised but Street never fully develops them or takes them to their logical conclusion.

The problem is that while I think Street’s narrative references tensions within the Chinese community at that period in a potentially interesting way that would differentiate itself from the ‘Yellow Peril’ stories of earlier decades, the way he tells that story is enormously problematic for a modern reader. While Street plays off and subverts some expectations the reader may have, such as not giving us the opium syndicate that is mooted at one point, he unfortunately then goes on to present us with other stereotypes and negative views.

At this point I have to reference that the book’s portrayal of its Chinese characters was the subject of debate a couple of years ago sparked by a critical review posted by Noah Stewart as part of his 100 Books To Die Before You Read series that highlighted racist attitudes and stereotypes that run throughout the novel. Curtis Evans wrote a response discussing racism and the Golden Age and a few days later reviewed the novel himself, noting that Street wrote stronger works.

I would strongly suggest that anyone reading this review check out those posts if they have any passing interest in this title. I think perhaps one of the most important points Noah makes is actually in his own comments section where he says that he felt Street was not trying to actively put forward racist views but the story reflects a general patronizing attitude typical of an earlier age.

My own view would echo those expressed in Noah’s comment. The structure of this story and the themes Street adopts lead me to believe that his intention was not to demonize or express hatred towards another race but the language that is used and some of the ideas expressed as factual are often problematic and offensive. Unfortunately I think the heart of the problem here lies with the comments and statements made by Merrion.

While Merrion confesses that he cannot make claim to be ‘an Old China Hand’, he frequently makes sweeping assertions about the Chinese working classes. Because he is clearly presented as the voice of reason, to have him expressing views that Chinese laborers do not think logically, do not understand time or that they habitually lie to protect each other is harmful because they are being discussed as though they are scientifically based observations.

Street claims some of these traits are as a consequence of the different developments, circumstances and priorities of a culture and clearly wishes to emphasize the achievements of Chinese civilization. These sections read awkwardly and can be quite patronizing, if well-intentioned. The problem is that almost all of the characters we will be interacting with in the course of this story are from the working classes and so the views we hear most frequently are broadly negative.

In addition to being offensive, having Merrion make sweeping cultural statements also undermines the story’s denouement. In one of the crucial closing scenes, a character who is confronted with an accusation that they are aware cannot be proved, folds and confesses because of the ‘strongly defeatist element’ in the ‘Oriental temperament’. However you look at it, that is a poorly reasoned development in the story and an unsatisfying way to pull the case to a close.

Those of you who remember my review of George Bellairs’ Death of a Busybody will not be surprised that I did not care for the heavy use of Pidgin English by the working class Chinese characters throughout the novel. Unlike that novel, here at least the text is easily decipherable but it doesn’t help much with the feeling that the book is disrespecting a class of immigrant workers.

The Chinese Puzzle is a flawed work, albeit one which had an interesting premise. Sadly some of the choices Street makes undermine his handling of that idea, though I do find the tone of the aftermath of the reveal of the killer to be quite intriguing. While some clearly look at this book and see an aging writer churning out an old-fashioned story, I think Street was attempting to play off those tropes to create something different and more modern, even though he missteps in the execution of those ideas.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Has been on your TBR list (Why)