Proceed with Caution (John Rhode)

  • By John Rhode
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1937; US: Dodd Mead, 1937, as Body Unidentified

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is almost the quintessence of the Crofts school: a hugely elaborate plot, involving the breakdown of identity, the disposal of the corpse, alibis, and transport.  Some might find it laborious; you’ve got to keep track of a lot of times and dates, and I filled nine pages of a notebook.

It has its flaws; I guessed the solution early on, really with “Part II: Hanslet’s Case”, and there’s precious little characterization or wit – but as a design, it’s beautiful.

SPOILER  The murderer creates an alibi for himself, while assuming a false identity (a second personality) and leaving three (!) false trails: one making the police think Cartmell murdered Pantony; one making the police believe Patton stole the diamonds and went to the Continent; and, if that’s seen through, that Sir Stanislaus is involved. 

Plus an unidentified corpse, a way of transporting said corpse, and lots of transport – trains, cars, bicycles, and cross-Channel ferries and boat-trains!

The murderer, Dr. Priestley thinks, will get away with it, because has two legal defences.  Really, he ought to; his ingenuity deserves it.  I’d have been happy if the book ended on that note, with the audacity of a villain escaping justice – but, of course, crime doesn’t pay.  His death by misadventure seems contrived.

Blurb (UK)

“Things happen like that,” said Superintendent Hanslet.  “There are times at the Yard when things are as dull as ditch-water.  And then suddenly two really important cases are thrust upon us at once.”  And so it was that Hanslet searched for the missing Wherwell diamonds whilst Inspector Waghorn went to investigate a death at Fallowchurch and helped to pacify Mr. Wedgwood of the Green Bear, who was very naturally upset at seeing a hearse outside the bar entrance.  Hanslet could get no further with his case, and Waghorn, after weeks of investigation, had the doubtful satisfaction of being farther away from the solution of the crime than he was at the beginning.  They both took their troubles to Dr. Priestley, who, as usual, had some very interesting observations to make.  This must surely be the most ingenious crime story that Mr. Rhode, most ingenious of writers, has given us.

Blurb (US)

Mr. Wedgwood was puzzled.  It was odd, he thought, as he looked from his bedroom window that someone should leave a large closed car in the middle of his front yard, but what confused him even more was the shimmering brilliance it seemed to assume as the sun rose higher.  Suddenly the unpleasant truth burst upon him with a shock.  It was not a car at all.  It was a hearse!

Jimmy Waghorn first followed the grisly trail from the abandoned hearse to the “thing” in the tar boiler, and as luck would have it, on that same day Inspector Hanslet finally stumbled on a really sensational clue to the Patton jewel robbery.  But only after Dr. Priestley made his seemingly enigmatic suggestion did it occur to either one that the two crimes could possibly be related.

An exciting book!  John Rhode with his usual ingenuity and scrupulous care has worked two apparently diverse crimes into a fascinating picture of mystery and intrigue.

Contemporary reviews

The Times (9th November 1937): Mr. John Rhode has no truck with murderers, however estimable their motives.  The only anxiety felt by Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn when, with Dr. Priestley’s assistance, they have solved their case, is how to bring home his guilt to the criminal.  A most puzzling case it is, too, likely to baffle most readers.  Mr. Rhode has invented a new and very cunning method of disposing of a corpse and the construction and handling of his plot leave no room for criticism.  Detective story readers need not hesitate to add Proceed with Caution to their lists of books that must not be missed.

Observer (Torquemada, 21st November 1937): Proceed with Caution is not, strangely enough, by that prolific newcomer, Peter Cheyney; it is by that excellent and reliable old-timer, John Rhode.  Dr. Priestley has lately been overtaken (in Gory Knight) by the honour of burlesque; and it may be that he is growing just a little more alive.  But this author never seems to aim at more than puppetry, and relies on his clear logic and really great ingenuity to make his mysteries readable.  In the present book, after Hanslet has been baffled by a case up north, and Jimmy Waghorn by one in Kent, there is a superb piece of time-table worrying.  The doctor must be as much at home in Bradshaw as the rest of us are among the lesser enigmas of, say, Sordello.  Also our attention is drawn to a simple vehicle which is undoubtedly the answer to the murderer’s prayer.  The trouble with the story is that, by its very form, we know that two parallel lines will strangely meet, even before Priestley has seen them.  This, coupled with the fact that the method of killing for once needs no scientific explanation, make Proceed with Caution, in spite of its cleverness, but a minor Rhode.  Still, on past form, we may be confident of a major Rhode ahead.

Times Literary Supplement (Simon Harcourt Nowell Smith, 27th November 1937): Mr. Rhode continues along the old tram-lines of the detective story that depends wholly upon its detective ingenuity, untempted by the by-roads and by-passes travelled by the Litre-Bottle-Bentley-Allen and the Sayers Straight Eight.  The Hanslet-Waghorn-Priestley triangle is by now well marked out, and even a trolley bus cannot stray far out of the straight.  But, so long as Mr. Rhode is at the controls, prophecy of the death of this type of story by repetition must be vain.  Mr. Rhode has—in a phrase of tramlike convention—“done it again”.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 10th December 1937): How would you, should the sad necessity arise, convey a body the length of England without attracting attention, in especial without attracting the undesired attention of the police?  And how, since the regulations are strict, would you slip to and fro between England and France without the use of a passport?  The answer to both questions is absurdly simple, as Mr. John Rhode shows in his Proceed with Caution, but how many, one wonders, will be able to give the correct replies before reading the book?  The story begins with the discovery of a dead body utterly unrecognisable, since it has been boiled in a road-menders’ tar-boiler.  But the name of the victim and the motive for the crime seem perfectly plain—till the supposed victim turns up, alive and well, and wondering what all the fuss is about.  Meanwhile, elsewhere, diamonds of fabulous value have disappeared.  Again motive and criminal seem obvious until the police, hot upon the trail, are shown by Dr. Priestley that the apparently obvious is also the certainly impossible and that another solution must be sought.  Naturally Dr. Priestley is ready to supply it for the benefit of the astonished and puzzled police and the equally puzzled and astonished reader.  If only Mr. Rhode were a little more careful with his characterisation, if only his literary style were a little less pedestrian, he would take an even higher place than that his persistent—and consistent—ingenuity has won for him.

Sat R of Lit (15th January 1938, 40w): Good—but stodgy.

Books (Will Cuppy, 16th January 1938, 350w): We are aware that some people regard Dr. Priestley tales as a little slow in spots, since they specialise in fundamental detectivism rather than multiple bodies and continuous phoney shocks.  Well, those people are wrong.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 16th January 1938, 200w): The plot is ingenious enough, but it does not offer many surprises to those who are familiar with Dr. Priestley’s methods.

Milward Kennedy in the Sunday Times: A brilliantly simple answer to the conundrum: ‘How to transport a corpse inconspicuously across the face of England.’

Evening News: Certainly one of the finest—if not the finest—of the Dr. Priestley novels.  Mr. Rhode deserves the thanks of countless readers.

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