By John Rhode
First published: UK, Collins, 1938; US, Dodd Mead, 1938
You can now go into bookshops and buy John Rhode detective stories.
When I was a teenager, at the turn of the 21st century, that would have seemed incredible.
“Crime” in bookshops consisted of dreary tales about middle-aged policemen with domestic problems, hard-nosed pathologists up to their elbows in decomposing corpses, and charming fellows who keep sex dummies in the cellar.
Detective stories (outside specialist shops) were limited to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Sherlock Holmes.
So walking into a mainstream bookshop and seeing The Paddington Mystery and Invisible Weapons on the shelf still smacks of a minor miracle. Collins has reprinted those two, as well as Mystery at Olympia and Death at Breakfast.
More power to their elbow! I’d love to see all 144 of Major Street’s detective stories surface.
That said, aren’t these four, frankly, rather odd choices?
The Paddington Mystery (1925) has, I suppose, historical value.
It’s one of Rhode’s rarest novels, and it’s the first detective story to feature Dr. Lancelot Priestley, the sage of Westbourne Terrace, a dry old mathematician who solves murders as a recreation from cracking the Riemann hypothesis.
I read it a decade ago, and remember almost nothing about it, except that Harold Merefield (Dr. P’s future son-in-law) finds a stiff in his bed, and the detectives measure windows.
It’s not as good as Dr. Priestley’s Quest (1926), which has plenty of action; The Ellerby Case (1927), where a drug dealer tries to bump off Dr. Priestley with a series of increasingly ingenious death-traps (including a bright green hedgehog); The Murders in Praed Street (1928), where a serial killer strikes in a seedy London suburb, and Dr. Priestley discovers he’s the next victim; The House on Tollard Ridge (1929), which combines a haunting, a sharp portrait of a strong woman in a loveless marriage, and a couple of ingenious murders; and The Davidson Case (1929), where the slaying of a syphilitic businessman, running his firm onto the rocks, raises the question of justifiable murder.
The others are decidedly rummer choices. (I haven’t read Mystery at Olympia.)
Death at Breakfast (1936) has some clever ideas, including a handy way of killing a man in the morning, but it is, Barzun and Taylor thought, “rather routine Rhode”. The usual policemen, Superintendent Hanslet and greenhorn Jimmy Waghorn, are pretty dense (is anything denser than copper?), and the murderer’s scheme takes some swallowing.
As for Invisible Weapons…
Brad (at ahsweetmysteryblog) wondered whether “locked room mysteries are inherently masculine in their approach and appeal”.
John Rhode, thought Christianna Brand, was a man’s writer, with his railway tickets and time and tide-tables.
Invisible Weapons may, then, be the most masculine book in a masculine sub-genre.
It is refreshingly devoid of such effeminacies as characterization or style. Inspector Waghorn measures carriage-ways, and stares intently at brick walls. Dr. Priestley sends his minion Merefield to do a census of fridges; count keys; and chase vans. There are long paragraphs of exposition and recapitulation.
We recognize old plot devices as friends from other John Rhode novels. An old rip dies, before he can marry a much younger woman (Poison for One). Suspicion falls on a chauffeur. And there’s a calf’s head (Hendon’s First Case).
The murderer, of course, adopts a disguise, and lays several false trails, incriminating other people. Waghorn and Hanslet each get “their” cases, which turn out to be connected. They are methodical, and very slow. They dutifully suspect the obvious culprit in one case, while the death in the other seems to be an accident. And the murderer is evident.
As a short story, rather than one of Major Street’s four detective novels a year, this may have succeeded. There’s certainly not enough meat – plot complexity – for a full-length mystery. (Compare, for instance, Death Takes a Flat.) Rhode, though, often doesn’t do sub-plots. He’s a detail man.
Nor is there enough character interest, or wit and charm to skate blithely over a thin tale. The best Rhodes, and many of the Miles Burtons, show that Street could draw vivid characters – see, if you will, Murder, M.D. – and that he had a dry sense of humour. (Could John Dickson Carr’s closest friend in the Detection Club be totally mirthless?)
Even in its day, Invisible Weapons was considered a second-tier Rhode.
“The major Rhode is still ahead,” thought Torquemada in the Observer, “and that in spite of the fact that this author has … retreated at least half way towards his best and safest ground, the problem of the scientific How. …
“As regards the two scientific Hows, the two invisible weapons: it must be confessed that Austin Freeman has given us more than one study of the second and more likely, and that the first, on the feasibility of which a reminiscence of boyhood might cast a doubt, would not have seemed mysterious to the late Thomas Hanshew, to Carolyn Wells, to Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace, or even, if my memory serves, to Martial.”
Invisible Weapons, in conclusion, is representative – without being actually good.
It’s not as good as the books on either side of it: Proceed with Caution (1937), the quintessence of the Crofts school, or the atmospheric Bloody Tower (1938), with its doomed family, cursed monument, and buried treasure.
It’s hardly in the class of The Claverton Mystery (1933), with its séances and apparently natural death; The Venner Crime (1933), his most Austin Freeman-ish book; The Corpse in the Car (1935), with its venomous virago of a victim, and 44 stuffed cats; or Death on the Board (1937), with an astonishing *five* hyper-ingenious murders.
Let’s hope that they appear soon.
The murder of Mr. Robert Fransham while he was washing his hands at his niece’s house was one of the most amazing problems that ever confronted Scotland Yard. Especially in view of the fact that no weapon could be found and that there was a policeman in the house when the murder was actually committed. The combined efforts of Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn brought no result and the case was dropped—but not forgotten. It was only after another equally baffling murder had been committed that Dr. Priestley began his investigations. He was as good as told that he had a “bee in his bonnet”, but as the doctor so aptly remarked, it was a bee which might produce the honey of wisdom. And it did, for Dr. Priestley’s brilliant deductive powers eventually solved this extraordinary case.
By a stroke of luck, Constable Linton was waiting in Dr. Thornborough’s consulting room when it happened. But he had no sooner broken through the heavy oak door which was the only opening into that tiny room than he found that the situation was far beyond his rightful jurisdiction.
Old Mr. Fransham was stretched on the floor, an ugly square wound in his forehead, murdered…
It was not long before Jimmy Waghorn and Inspector Hanslet were investigating the possible answers to these questions, but only after Dr. Priestley made his startling discovery did they reach the true solution. John Rhode has been scrupulously fair in presenting his clues; yet it will be a clever reader who can keep pace with Dr. Priestley’s orderly and imaginative deduction.
The Times (5th April 1938):
Mr. John Rhode has no need to blacken his murderees’ characters to produce sufficient suspects to make an enthralling mystery. In Invisible Weapons he once again builds a flawless murder (indeed, he lavishly gives us two, each equally well thought out), and once again destroys his edifice by a solution that surprises the reader by its very simplicity. Each crime is a brilliant variant on the locked-room puzzle. It must, of course, be galling for Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn to find another case apparently insoluble until Dr. Priestley solves it; but their loss is the reader’s gain.
Observer (Torquemada, 10th April 1938):
The major Rhode is still ahead, and that in spite of the fact that this author has, in Invisible Weapons, retreated at least half way towards his best and safest ground, the problem of the scientific How. I do not mean that the Who, the taker-off of Robert Fransham and then of Sir Godfrey Branstock, is meant to be, or indeed is, obvious; it is left to Dr. Priestley to tell the more than usually unproductive Waghorn and Hanslet who Who is, at the same time as he draws the outline of Who’s invisible weapons; but I do not think that the reader will be unduly surprised by the identity. As regards the two scientific Hows, the two invisible weapons: it must be confessed that Austin Freeman has given us more than one study of the second and more likely, and that the first, on the feasibility of which a reminiscence of boyhood might cast a doubt, would not have seemed mysterious to the late Thomas Hanshew, to Carolyn Wells, to Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace, or even, if my memory serves, to Martial.
Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 22nd April 1938):
Puzzle. A man is struck down in a room which has a locked door and only one small window under constant observation from without. How, then, can the blow have been delivered, since no missile is to be found? No wonder that in Mr. John Rhode’s Invisible Weapons Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn are baffled. Luckily there is always Dr. Priestley to help, and, indeed, one shudders to think how many murderers Messrs. Hanslet and Waghorn would have let loose upon society but for the intervention of Dr. Priestley. A reader familiar with detective stories may have less need of Dr. Priestley’s help to guess the truth, since the method used is not entirely unfamiliar. Readers, however, who, like the two police officers concerned, happen never to have heard of it before will be able to admire both its extraordinary ingenuity and its effectiveness.
Times Literary Supplement (John Everard Gurdon, 23rd April 1938):
While Fransham was washing his hands in the house of his niece, Mrs. Thornborough, someone killed him by fracturing his skull with a cubical object. A brief investigation satisfied the police that Dr. Thornborough had committed the crime, but they were quite unable to bring a charge against him because the most scrupulous search failed to reveal any weapon or missile. Fransham’s skull, in fact, had apparently been fractured by thin air. After a time, therefore, the disgruntled authorities shelved the case, and in that condition, no doubt, the matter would have rested if the astute Dr. Priestley had not suspected a connection between Fransham’s death and a certain sad accident. The story is admirably developed and very nearly convincing.
Sydney Morning Herald (29th April 1938):
John Rhode’s otherwise excellent double murder mystery sheds some of its satisfactoriness when the time comes for him to explain two things: first, the connection between the killing of Mr. Fransham and Sir Godfrey Branstock; and, second, the way in which the former was murdered.
SPOILER Any man who remembers boyhood exploits with a catapult will also remember how difficult it is to hit a target, dead-centre, at 12 or 15 feet, even given freedom of vision and movement for aiming. But for a murderer to plan a killing by removing a brick from a wall, to sight a catapult through the hole thus made, and to smash the skull of a gentleman having a wash in a room across the driveway, would call for a degree of patient practice which would try the endurance even of a homicidal maniac. And Mr. Fransham’s executioner is no homicidal maniac. He bears no animus against his victim; has nothing to gain from his death but the opening up of the way to get rid of Sir Godfrey Branstock. By following this technique he does, of course, give Mr. Rhode something on which to base a yarn, but the procedure is one that is extremely difficult for the reader to swallow.
Even in his choice of a missile to be used in the catapult, the author has been forestalled. A fairly recent detective novel was based on a killing done by what appeared from the wound to be a stiletto. Actually, no steel did that job; John Rhode has used the same substance to heighten the mystery element in his story.
Books (Will Cuppy, 19th June 1938, 300w):
Mr. Rhode has been accused of slowness in the past, though we always called it thoroughness; this time there’s plenty of speed and a rather terrific amount of suspense, or whatever it is that keeps one reading a baffler. There’s also the narrative skill that makes the better English mysteries so comforting.
Sat R of Lit (25th June 1938, 40w)
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 26th June 1938, 200w)
New Yorker (16th July 1938, 40w)
No one is fairer than John Rhode in giving his readers a chance to solve mysteries for themselves.