- By John Rhode
- First published: UK: Bles, 1947; US: Dodd Mead, 1947, as Experiment in Crime
Come rain or shine, come war or peace, Major Street produced his four books a year for more than 30 years: two as John Rhode, two as Miles Burton. Such extraordinary prolificity was too often the result of formula rather than inspiration, and by the late 1940s, Street’s well was running dry.
Street scholar Curt Evans argues that Rhode’s postwar novels “show an increasingly steep decline in quality. Postwar Rhodes are monotonously cut from an identical narrative pattern. Inspector (soon Superintendent) Jimmy Waghorn is put in charge of a murder investigation, most often in a rural or provincial town setting. Several times throughout the story, Jimmy attends Saturday dinners at Dr. Priestley’s house, afterwards thrashing out his current case with a trio of old men, the retired ex-superintendent Hanslet, the virtually retired Dr. Mortimer Oldland … and of course Priestley himself. A nearly mute and mostly vestigial (as far as any relation to plot goes) Harold Merefield takes notes and attends Dr. Priestley. Eventually Jimmy solves the case, aided with a hint here and there from the increasingly perfunctorily-employed, somnolent and desk-bound Professor. All this can make for wearying narratives, even when the problem offered in a particular book is a clever one.”
Nothing But the Truth was the 49th John Rhode mystery, and Street’s 80-somethingth detective story – and it’s routine. Even Street enthusiasts Barzun & Taylor found it tedious. The crime is unexciting; the characters are flat; and the prose is flavourless newspaperese. It’s readable; Street has written much duller books; but it lacks zest, imagination, what you will.
An abrasive manufacturer is found in an A.A. box, dead and run over. (It’s tempting to call the book a Rhode accident.) On the night of the murder, his teetotaller chauffeur took to the bottle, while a local constable spent the night in the rhododendrons.
The only point of interest is that Dr. Priestley drugs the culprit with a truth drug (pentothal) to prove his guilt. Otherwise, there are long paragraphs of speculation about characters’ movements around the countryside – without a map to help you; feel free to skim. There’s no cleverness in the crime; you should spot the reefer cigarettes 150 pages before Dr. Priestley explains, while the murderer first appears at the end of the book. One critic wondered if this was an infraction of the Rules of the Game. Street uses this squib of an ending too often. It cheats the puzzle-minded reader, and it’s artistically unsatisfying; the murderer should appear prominently, not walk on just in time for the curtain. Otherwise why should we care?
There’s no real need to read this. Street has done better; you can do better too.
In his last novel, Death in Harley Street, John Rhode (“our outstanding specialist in ingenious murders,” as The Sunday Times called him) scored a notable success. For instance, the reviewer in The Daily Mirror wrote: “Myself a writer of detective fiction I class John Rhode as the best of us all to-day, and nothing could be more interesting or original than the case of the Harley Street specialist, whose unnatural death was due ‘neither to murder, suicide nor accident’. We have reached the Fourth Dimension in crime!”
In the present case it must be regretfully admitted that the crime which eliminated Mr. Henry Watlington is merely three-dimensional; but it is no less a striking example of Rhodian ingenuity.
John O’London’s Weekly (Evelyn Banks, 7th February 1947): Nothing But the Truth, by John Rhode, comes into the category of clean murder, in so far as it is concerned with a murder unadorned by extraneous adventures. It is a case for Jimmy Waghorn, assisted as usual by his faithful friends Drs. Priestley and Oldland, ex-Superintendent Hanslet and Harold Merefield. The murdered man is found in an A.A. box.
NY Herald Tribune Wkly Bk R (Will Cuppy, 2nd March 1947, 290w): Here is real detection in entertaining form, standard Grade A. goods.
New Yorker (8th March 1947, 90w): The Doctor’s solution is achieved by methods that some readers will consider unorthodox; in fact, Priestley fans may be a bit disappointed in this one.
Sat R of Lit (15th March 1947, 50w): Possible infraction of Rules of Game and fairly questionable method of solution may annoy, but background and ‘atmosphere’ are pleasing. Middle-of-Rhode.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 18th May 1947, 100w): The pattern is the same as in the other Dr. Priestley stories, and it is becoming more than a bit shopworn.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Rhode now goes at his plots like a contractor: the deliberate laying out of equipment on ground carefully surveyed generates a powerful tediousness. Here a dislikeable businessman is found in an A.A. box. Waghorn unfolds false theories to Priestley, who merely says they are all conjecture. Little thinking done by anybody.