By John Rhode
First published: UK, Collins, 1935. Published in the USA as Murder at the Motor Show, Dodd Mead, 1936.
Retired builder Nahum Pershore collapsed at the Olympia Motor Show while watching a demonstration of the Comet car, with its gearless Lovell Transmission.
Rhode loved machinery. He devotes two pages to describing the pumps, pedals, turbine, and pressure valve. In Chapter One. Dr. Oldland blinks; mine own eyes had glazed over. For me, a car is a car is a car is a car, as Gertrude Stein didn’t remark.
Dr. Oldland, GP crony to Rhode sleuth Dr. Priestley, diagnoses syncope. Probably sin, but he can cope.
Pershore was not a popular man. Someone had put arsenic in his olives; shot him in the leg; and put carbon monoxide gas in his room. (A clever method, which could serve for a story on its own.)
None of these killed him.
Olympia is one of Rhode’s mid-’30s “Howdunnit” problems. I’ve known the method for 20 years; it is, as Barzun & Taylor noted, “possible, but somehow not very striking”. (Figuratively, rather than literally.)
The multiplicity of murder methods and half-a-dozen plausible suspects, all with opportunity, keep the book lively; it never gets trapped in a cul-de-sac or lost in a morass, but travels smoothly along open Streets.
I’m not keen on the choice of “Who”, a rather minor character. Rhode’s murderers are either obvious or an afterthought, probably because he was more interested in plot mechanics than psychology. That’s the drawback of knowing too much about hand brake levers, back axles, and jacketted turbines.
A dense crowd surrounded the new Comet car that was fully expected to be the sensation of the great Motor Show at Olympia. Suddenly one of the eager spectators, an elderly man, lurched forward and collapsed in what appeared to be a dead faint on the ground. But Nigel [sic] Pershore was dead, and it was his death that provided the real sensation of the show. A post-mortem examination revealed no visible wound, no serious organic disorder, no evidence of poison. Doctors and detectives were equally baffled. Every chapter unfolds a new aspect of an apparently insoluble puzzle. Then a fortunate discovery opens the way for Dr. Priestley’s unrivalled deductions and a solution of the mystery that brings to a close a really brilliant story.
[The next time you visit the Motor Show at Olympia, take a good look round and see if you think it would be possible to murder some one in the middle of the crowd there without being seen. And when you have laughed the idea to scorn, read
Mystery at Olympia, and let John Rhode show you how it can be done, by a means highly unusual but scientifically possible.]
The automobile show was in full swing. Crowds surged through the vast hall, clustering around each of the new models. But the greatest mass of people made directly for the new Comet, about which there had been so much publicity and which was expected to be the sensation of the year’s show. Suddenly, one of the eager spectators, an elderly man, lurched forward in what appeared to be a dead faint.
But Nahum Pershore was dead, and it was his death that was to provide the real sensation of the show.
A post-mortem examination revealed no visible wound, no serious organic disorder, no evidence of poison. Doctors and detectives are equally baffled. Every chapter unfolds a new aspect of an apparently insoluble puzzle. Then a fortunate discovery opens the way for Dr. Priestley’s unrivalled deductions and a solution of the mystery that brings the story to a brilliant and totally unexpected close.
Observer (Torquemada, 20th October 1935):
Mr. John Rhode never disappoints, and he is peculiarly at home in such a crime as he gives us in Mystery at Olympia, where two or three bites, as it were, are taken at a single corpse. The mechanics of this death at the Motor Show are not to be criticised; but I think, as I have always thought, that Mr. Rhode’s technique is impeded by his rather lifeless characterisation. He could make his quick quicker and his dead deader if he so wished.
Times Literary Supplement (24th October 1935):
Readers know well what to expect from Mr. Rhode, and in this story they will not be disappointed. Mr. Nahum Pershore (the publishers’ blurb calls him Nigel) died suddenly in the crowd pressing round one of the stands at the Motor Show. His body gave no indication, either externally or internally, of the manner of his death. On investigation it appeared that three attempts to murder him had been made in the last few days. There was cause for suspicion against several people. Our old friend Inspector Hanslet did his best and, as usual, leapt at a number of conclusions. Our other old friend Dr. Priestley unravelled the mystery. The tale is neat and clear and logical. There are no loose ends and Mr. Rhode deals fairly with his clients. The vital clue is disclosed early, but few will recognise it.
Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 1st November 1935):
Mystery at Olympia and Third Time Unlucky (Meynell), in differing ways, represent the Probables against the Improbables. Mr. Rhode has been praised so often for “soundness” and “dependability” that it has, I feel, got him down. In Tragedy on the Line he showed a real sense of character, but since then he has retried more and more upon the ingenuity of his plots—and mighty ingenious they are—to hold our interest. The problem before Superintendent Hanslet and that forbidding scientist, Professor Priestley, is the death of Nahum Pershore at the motor-show. The body gives evidence of having been shot at and poisoned both with arsenic and carbon monoxide, but none of these has caused death. So far, so good. But the characters are ciphers, and the dialogue as desiccated as the question and answer of an official form.
Books (Will Cuppy, 1st November 1936, 180w)
NY Times (Kay Irvin, 1st November 1936, 270w):
When Dr. Priestley discovers how the murder was committed, the reader is delighted to discover not only a most unusual ‘weapon’ but a completely simple one. Novel, well built and surprising, this is a keenly satisfactory tale.
Sat R of Lit (14th November 1936, 40w):
Lethal weapon and murder method slightly unconvincing, even with the worthy Dr.’s documentation, but there’s plenty of plot.
Booklist (January 1937)
This is Mr. Rhode at his best—and you know how baffling he can be.
Milward Kennedy in the Sunday Times
He must hold the record for the invention of ingenious ways of taking life.
Illustrated London News
Mystery at Olympia by John Rhode is, of course, admirably pieced together. One expects that of Mr. Rhode; but it also marks an advance in the psychological treatment of his characters.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):
The victim is killed by having a large motor part—gear box or differential—rammed into his kidney in a crowd. No doubt possible, but somehow not very striking in a detective story. Still, the tale is one of Rhode’s most tight-knit jobs; one looks elsewhere for drama.