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!