Death in the Hopfields (John Rhode)

  • By John Rhode
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1937; US: Dodd Mead, 1937, as The Harvest Murder

Hops spring eternal in this pleasantly agricultural mystery. This is something of a spiritual sequel to Mystery at Greycombe Farm (1932), another rural tale of arson and murder. The story takes place during the hop-picking season in Kent, where Street lived. Every year, somewhere between 200,000 and 450,000 people (out of a population of 8 million) would come from the cities to the countryside on a working holiday. (See here and here.)

It’s a fascinating depiction of a way of life that ended with mechanised agriculture in the 1980s; E.R. Punshon compared Street’s technique to a still-life painter’s, and praised the “magnificent and moving panorama of the hop-fields”, while Curt Evans (Masters of the Humdrum Mystery) devotes several pages to this “unusual essay in ‘social realism'”.

The detective problem, however, is only a minor Street (a rural byway?). Several critics of the time thought it perfunctory, even padded, and believed the local policeman, Sgt. Wragge, should have solved the mystery; it’s scarcely worthy of Dr. Priestley.

An ex-convict’s fingerprints are found at the scene of a burglary; the slippery Elver himself cannot be found. Soon after, a bungalow goes up in flames. Is there a connection?

The police do not even consider Elver may have been murdered until 70 % through the book, when Dr. Priestley helpfully suggests it. The reader is at a distinct advantage; he knows from the title that somebody must be dead. The death, however, turns out to be accident – always disappointing. The victim was a rotter; one might even say he was oast by his own petard. So all ends happily; the culprit is acquitted, and is likely to marry.

Hopfields might not offer a satisfying mystery, but it’s an agreeable book. Street always does well with country pubs and rural folk. The book also features one of Street’s most interesting characters: Kate Rivers is a foundling who is fascinated by the flow of the river, and a seduced woman (and, it turns out, date rape drug victim) who practically marries her abuser to ensure her child’s legitimacy. This intense young lady would be at home in a Punshon novel.

The arson method (grandfather clock turned into an incendiary device) was inspired by Hans Gross (Ch. XIX: the electrical bell method, which also suggested a scheme in John Bude‘s Death Knows No Calendar).

Other reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel; Mike Grost


Blurbs

1937 Collins

Kent, garden of England, bathed in September sunshine, fragrant with the scent of drying hops, a peaceful picture in spite of the invading host of hop-pickers—such is the colourful background to Mr. John Rhode’s new story.  It starts with a mysterious burglary at Paddock Croft, the residence of Mr. Speight, a retired city man.  The local police seek the assistance of the Yard, and soon it is apparent that there are amazing ramifications in the case.  The solution, of course, lies in the hands, or rather in the head, of the brilliant Dr. Priestley.

Although John Rhode provides a completely fresh background for each of his successive books, he has always been renowned for the manner in which he makes himself acquainted with the detail pertaining to the subject.  Whether it is a matter of road distances, railway time tables, the reactions of chemicals, the technicalities peculiar to firearms, John Rhode cannot be caught out on a point of detail.  In the case of Death in the Hopfields, he shows himself again to have mastered all the inside detail of both an agricultural and a manufacturing process.  Tribute to the accuracy of the setting of this book is provided by the House of Whitbread in their quarterly magazine: “Those who have been privileged to read his manuscript have been struck with the accuracy of Mr. Rhode’s descriptions of hop-picking and the ways of the pickers, and with the vivid way in which he explains farm-management and the whole process of gathering, drying and pressing the hops.”  More convincing tribute to Mr. Rhode’s accuracy one could not desire.

1937 Dodd Mead (as THE HARVEST MURDER)

Sergeant Wragge happened to see it there lying by the side of the road and decided to take care of it himself.  After all a twelve-inch butcher knife is nothing to be left loose on a public highway.  When he noticed those curious brown stains on the blade, his suspicions were more than aroused and he felt that he must be ready for trouble.  Ordinarily, such a thing would not have made him so apprehensive, but with all those strangers in town for the hop picking you couldn’t tell what would happen.

The Sergeant’s foreboding were swiftly corroborated by the events that followed—robbery, a mysterious disappearance, perhaps murder; so he felt that he was justified in demanding the aid of Scotland Yard.  The careful investigations of Inspector Hanslet and Jimmy Waghorn soon had them on the right track, but it was Dr. Priestley’s quiet, seemingly enigmatic suggestion that finally unearthed the solution. With its unusually well-pictured rustic setting and its many curious characters, this is an exciting intelligently constructed novel in which John Rhode and the famous Dr. Priestley combine to provide the top in mystery entertainment.


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 9th January 1937): This book can be recommended to two classes of readers: those who have picked hops and those who have not.  The former, despite Messrs. Whitbread’s expert testimonial on the back of the jacket, may hope to catch the author in a slip, as that always pleases the reader’s vanity.  The latter will gain a quite vivid idea of hopfield life while reading a neatly constructed detective story.  Particularly vivid and amusing are the pages about life in a small country pub when several hundred good-humoured but noisy hoppers are entertaining friends from London just outside it, and only natives are allowed inside.

As for the crimes, there is a burglary and a murder, but the latter proves to be two-thirds accident and one-third rather excusable manslaughter; and, except the victim and his friend Lavis, there is no one in the book whose acquaintance one would prefer to avoid.  Most readers will be glad to meet Dr. Priestley again, but they may feel that it is gross favouritism on the author’s part to call him in to solve the mystery.  The excellent Sergeant Wragge, who saw oast houses every day of his life, would have guessed it even sooner than the reader does, though the reader has the help of the jacket picture, which, it appears, is from a photograph of real buildings near Paddock Wood.

Books (Will Cuppy, 10th January 1937, 300w): The Harvest Murder is all-fired slow in spots.  Mr. Rhode is an author who always takes his time, but you’d hardly believe how he puts on the brakes in this offering.  Part of the standstill quality appears to be caused by the background—hops and yet more hops; by the same token, the story is a godsend in the way of a treatise on the habits, customs and harvesting of the hop plant.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 17th January 1937, 180w)

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 22nd January 1937): Mr. Rhode’s claim to a value in his books beyond the merely puzzling lies not so much in his somewhat formal characterisation as in the richness and variety of the backgrounds he draws so well.  He is, in fact, less a portrait painter than a painter of still life, though certainly “still life” is hardly the appropriate term for the magnificent and moving panorama of the hop-fields that he gives in Death in the Hop Fields.  One’s only complaint can be that the somewhat perfunctory mystery, concerned with what is hardly a murder at all, is almost lost sight of in this fascinating picture of the annual invasion from London of the Kentish hop-fields.  Nor will the most fervent teetotaller be able to resist the charm of the description of the country “pub” during this time and of the arrangements made to satisfy the perennial thirst of the hoppers.

Sat R of Lit (23rd January 1937, 40w)

Observer (Torquemada, 24th January 1937): Death in the Hopfields provides by no means the most baffling problem which Dr. Priestley has been called upon to solve in the course of his long and singularly successful career (in fact, I feel that Sergeant Wragge was just the man to reach the solution unaided), but it may well take its place and remain among the most popular of Mr. Rhode’s books.  Paradoxically this may happen, in part, at any rate, because of the simple and almost episodic nature of the crime or crimes, which compels the author to resort to a considerable deal of padding.  But as this padding, the down in the pillow, is all of aromatic Kentish hops picked in an amusing September, and as these hops introduce us to the quite unforgettable Chequers Inn and also to Mr. Raymond, few readers will complain when they are left rather in the air in the matter of the supposed murder.

Booklist (February 1937)

Spectator (E.B.C. Jones, 5th February 1937, 140w): It is good to be given the background, but neither the hopfields nor Mr. Rhode’s police and yokels are all that exciting, and I found Death in the Hopfields heavy going.  The noticeable thing about the police in this book is their sweetness to each other, but it does not make the book light.  However, many people like their detective fiction solid, and Mr. Rhode is an honest writer, and produces good specimens of the type.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 6th March 1937)

Sydney Morning Herald (19th March 1937): John Rhode is a popular purveyor of crime fiction.  His latest tale starts rather slowly, but fully justifies its publication in the latter half.  Kentist hopfields, under a mellow autumn sun, is the setting for the foul deed.  The landscape is pictured in all its colourful peace—hop gardens, groups of ancient trees, and, scattered here and there, the quaint-looking oast houses.  The pickers are down from London.  Hoards of them invade the village inn and spread their litter over the countryside.  At week-ends special excursions run down from London and the hoppers’ friends visit them in high holiday mood—they even deck themselves out in paper caps, a fancy which is, later in the tale, to take on a sinister significance.

One Saturday night Mrs. Speight’s jewels disappeared from the big house of the neighbourhood, Paddock Croft.  The thief indiscreetly left finger-prints and was found to be one Chris Elver, who had a bad record.  A short time later Mr. Pershore’s bungalow was burned down, and there was every reason to suspect arson.  Last, but not least, a dangerous looking butcher’s knife, complete with blood-stains, was found by the roadside, and—Elver vanished completely.

By means of much subtle sleuthing on the part of a young Scotland Yard man, some interesting information was unearthed, but it is the irritatingly pompous Dr. Priestley who eventually forges the missing link.  A good story if one can overlook the almost inconceivable stupidity and lassitude of the Kentish constabulary.

London Mercury: The setting of Mr. Rhode’s detective story is so well done, with its festooned hop-gardens and orchards, its oast-houses and its weather-beaten but still unvanquished old timbered inns that it would fill an evening agreeably even with a less generous and capably presented assortment of crime.

News-Chronicle: The best book by Mr. Rhode that I have read.  This author never lets one down.

Country Life: A beautifully constructed and faultless piece of detection.

Birmingham Sunday Mercury: This is a fine thriller…a pleasure to read.

Sketch: An interesting account of the hop industry and a good detective story…altogether a very workmanlike and satisfying story.

Edward Shanks in John O’London’s Weekly: Vivid glimpses of the background of the hop-garden.

3 thoughts on “Death in the Hopfields (John Rhode)

  1. This is one of the weaker books by Rhode that I’ve read. Yes, the general milieu is interesting of itself – and in some books that would be enough to compensate for a low-grade mystery, but not in this one. At least it’s shorter than Death at the Inn, another one I read recently and found wanting.

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    1. I’ve read worse Rhodes! But I agree it’s well below the other two Rhodes of 1937: Proceed with Caution (one of Street’s most elaborate murder schemes) and Death on the Board (flamboyant in its multiplicity of ingenious methods).

      I didn’t like Death at the Inn either. Curt Evans thinks well of it. His theory is that Street was the undiscovered crime boss of mid-century Britain.

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