#11: John Rhode
He possessed enough scientific, medical and practical know-how to set in motion an almost never-ending conveyer belt of ingenious methods for committing murder.Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)
I had expected that this next installment of my Detection Club series would feature Victor Whitechurch but issues with my copy of Murder at the Pageant left me scrambling for a replacement copy (thankfully on its way) and a new subject to profile. Fortunately I happen to have rather a lot of John Rhode novels on my TBR pile…
Rhode, born Cecil John Charles Street, was one of the more prolific members of the Detection Club. Though he was late to start writing mystery fiction, beginning in his 40s, he would write over one hundred and forty novels in about thirty five years, utilizing multiple pen names to do so. Of these the most famous were John Rhode and Miles Burton though he also wrote as Cecil Waye.
In spite of the length of his career, outlasting many of his peers in the Detection Club, Rhode’s reputation would be strongly affected by Julian Symon’s categorization of him as a “humdrum” writer. There is a value judgement to that phrase that I think is rather unfair but there is some truth to the broader suggestion that his work was antithetical to the type of stories contemporary crime writers were creating towards the end of his long career. He did not, for instance, show much interest in exploring the social issues around crime and his characters are often quite functional, defined by their professions and roles in the story rather than their own personalities.
Instead Rhode’s interest lay in the technical challenges of puzzle design – an area in which he could be quite masterful. While the quality of his output could vary, he crafted some truly ingenious murder puzzles that often utilized unusual and unexpected murder methods leaving the reader wondering how the murder was done.
I have previously read several works by this author both from his Dr. Priestley series (written as Rhode) and the Desmond Merrion series (as Burton) including several from the period before this blog began. While I have to acknowledge that this is only a fraction of his output and I may come across works to change my mind, at this time I have a pretty strong preference for the Rhode stories.
My reason is that I really like the somewhat fussy scientist who typically plays armchair sleuth, giving advice to the professional police to get their floundering investigations back on track. I enjoy the character’s logical approach to breaking down problems which, to my mind, really suits the types of ingenious puzzles Rhode tended to construct.
Today’s read, The Claverton Affair, is a good example of the author’s skill at constructing that type of puzzle. Though it is not an inverted mystery, readers may well have a pretty good idea of who is responsible for the crime from the outset of the investigation. The focus therefore is not on whodunnit but how and the answer, as is typical of Rhode, is quite remarkable…
The Claverton Affair by John Rhode
Originally published in 1933
Dr. Priestley #15
Preceded by The Motor Rally Mystery
Followed by The Venner Crime
After drifting apart from Sir John Claverton, Dr. Lancelot Priestley is finally visiting his old friend for dinner. But Claverton’s situation is worrying. He’s surrounded by relatives, among them a sister who speaks to the dead—but not to him—and a niece who may or may not be a qualified nurse. Based on Claverton’s odd behavior, Priestley and a mutual friend suspect that someone is slipping him arsenic.
But when Priestley discovers that Claverton has died just a week later and shares his concerns with the police, no trace of arsenic—or anything else untoward—is found during the autopsy. Still, the perceptive professor can’t shake his sense that something isn’t right, and Claverton’s recently revised will only adds to the mystery . . .
This novel finds Dr. Priestley visiting an old friend, Sir John Claverton at his invitation. Over the years the pair have fallen out of touch and Priestley has some misgivings about resuming the friendship but when he arrives he finds a strange atmosphere in the home and his friend recovering from a bout of sickness. As he bids farewell with a promise to return the following week, Priestley speaks with Claverton’s physician who confides that while his patient is on the path to recovery, he believes that someone gave him arsenic.
When Priestley returns the following week he discovers that Claverton had died shortly before while his doctor was away. He decides he must share the information about the earlier attempted poisoning, expecting that the medical examination will reveal signs of arsenical poisoning, but it surprised when there are no signs of the poison. Priestley is certain that his old friend was murdered – the question is: how was it done?
One of the things I really like about the setup for The Claverton Affair is its subversion of our expectations. We come to the novel expecting that we will quickly learn the way Claverton was murdered and try to work out whodunnit but instead a large part of the case will involve overcoming the evidence that seems to suggest a natural death. This is not dissimilar to the setup found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, though I would suggest that this has the more technically creative solution, for better and worse.
The problem with any puzzle that has a very technical solution, as we saw with my previous Detection Club Project title, The Documents in the Case by Sayers and Robert Eustace, is that when a problem requires some technical knowledge the author either has to make an effort to subtly provide that to the reader or else you run the risk that you get a puzzle that doesn’t feel fair. I think an argument could be made that Rhode doesn’t explain every element of his solution prior to its reveal. The key elements however are all easily identified and, I would argue, the reader ought to be able to work out most of the solution even if they do not possess the technical expertise to solve it in its entirety.
Indeed a large part of Rhode’s skill as a mystery writer is taking a technical problem with medical or scientific elements like the one presented here and making it accessible. His characters often speak in a rather dry and mannered way but while that doesn’t feel like natural dialogue, it is essential for clean, clear distribution of key points of information.
A strong example of that can be found here in the conversations concerning the autopsy. Rhode clearly outlines what the tests for arsenical poisoning are in an exchange between Priestley and the police pathologist as the latter walks Priestley through those tests as he repeats them for his benefit. The exchange is somewhat redundant – the latter acknowledges that Priestley likely knows just as much if not more than him about those tests – but it occurs primarily for the benefit of the reader and to demonstrate conclusively to us that it is not a case of a test not being run or scientific incompetence.
This brings me to one of the differences between this and most of the other Priestley stories I have read before; in The Claverton Affair our sleuth is unusually active both in finding the case for himself and working to collect evidence. Typically Priestley behaves as an armchair detective, listening to the accounts of others and then pointing out the type of evidence he would like the police to look for. The initial setup here does include someone bringing their concerns of foul play to him but the difference is that once this happens he becomes personally involved in gathering that evidence.
Priestley is not a natural lead investigator in large part because of his personality. His fussiness and attention to detail wouldn’t be an asset in the type of story where he has to conduct lots of interviews, befriend witnesses and so forth. He is perfectly suited however for this sort of story in which he has to find the small details and inconsistencies, interacting primarily with medical professionals to spot the evidence that will enable him to prove murder.
As I have found with other Rhode stories, the personalities of the suspects here are not particularly noteworthy. While the family members do make an impression when they are first introduced for not being very talkative, I don’t feel that they have particularly strong personalities. One of them however does have an interesting background that Rhode will utilize: working as a medium.
The séance is one of those great tropes of the Golden Age that when done well, as it is here, can really elevate a story. This is no exception. Rhode not only does a good job of using it to create an atmosphere but the device also plays an important role in advancing the story, particularly as we reach the novel’s conclusion.
That conclusion is both dramatic and interesting, providing a very satisfying conclusion to what is one of the most intriguing Priestley cases I have read to date. While I was able to work out a few key points of the crime, the actual method used caught me by surprise (and, I should note, I did know a crucial piece of information prior to reading it so I could well have got to it if the idea had ever occurred to me).
The Verdict: One of the more successful Dr. Priestley stories I have read offering a curious puzzle with a rather ingenious solution. While the sleuth is rather unusually active in this investigation, it offers a good example of Rhode’s most notable attributes as a writer – his ingenuity and ability to convey technical information clearly so that even those with no scientific ability (i.e. me) should have no difficulty following the solution.
Second Opinions: The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery considered this an interesting take on the impossible crime.
Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, who is far better read in Rhode than me, describes this as ‘One of Rhode’s undoubted classics’. He also notes that the atmosphere generated in this story is unusual for the author.
Interested in purchasing this book to read yourself? While there hasn’t been a new physical edition of this book in a while, the title was recently republished by Mysterious Press as an eBook (cover page pictured above) complete with introduction from Dr. Curtis Evans.