- By John Rhode
- First published: UK: Bles, 1952; US: Dodd Mead, 1952
Death in Wellington Road, Rhode’s 59th detective story, has a mixed reputation. Barzun and Taylor found the “situation and suspense … above average”, but the red herring unconvincing, while Curtis Evans (Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery) thought Jimmy Waghorn’s implausible dimness spoilt a potentially excellent novel.
In a ‘Saffronshire’ (read: Cornwall) seaside resort, a doctor is called to his patient’s house, and finds him dying in a bedroom full of gas. The housekeeper has disappeared, taking with her £50 and the car. An open-and-shut case, apparently; Mrs. Brannel was likely the late Guy Wood’s mistress. But Jimmy Waghorn has his doubts – and the biggest mystery is why farmer Kynance’s pigs were poisoned.
Wellington Road is not great, by any means, but Street fans should enjoy it. It is possibly his liveliest Rhode tale since Death in Harley Street, six years before. It features a clever, concealed murder method (related to two mid-1930s and mid-1940s titles), although the reader should suspect the murderer relatively early, certainly by halfway; as often, Rhode does not provide many suspects.
The discussions at Dr. Priestley’s stimulate, rather than merely going over old ground, although the old physicist spends most of his time snoozing and snapping at Jimmy. One can hardly blame him; when Dr. P. demolishes Jimmy’s false theory, Jimmy proceeds with his assumption (ROT13: gung Gevzyrl vf gur ivpgvz, abg gur zheqrere). It’s also better characterized than some of Rhode’s books; he doesn’t show personality through action and drama, but he develops back stories for Mrs. Brannel and another character (ROT13: Gevzyrl), depicts a lively sketch of a raffish old Cockney woman, and shows an ambitious young policeman’s eagerness and anxiety.
One of Rhode’s greatest gifts, it strikes me, was clarity. His plots might be complicated, but they are never convoluted; one knows what the police have discovered, and what are the salient facts, even if one cannot always tell their significance. (Knox or, much as I love her, Gladys Mitchell sometimes obscure clues and events through elliptical conversation and narrative.)
Such names as Inspector Helston and Mr. Kynance suggest that our ingenious John Rhode has laid the scene of this novel in Cornwall and it is no reflection on a Cornish corner and jury that, when a man is found dying in a bedroom filled with escaping gas, the cause of death should be found to be carbon monoxide poisoning. And yet there were some odd features in the case that set Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn wondering…
Although Fairbay is too far remote from Westbourne Terrace for Dr. Priestley to take an active part in the subsequent investigations, the Sage’s logical faculties (now fortified, we note, by sips of old brandy) played no small part in the final solution of the mystery.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 24th February 1952): Superintendent Waghorn, supervised by Dr. Priestley, acquits a young widow charged with poisoning her employer at a Cornish watering-place. Cosy and consequential as ever.
Illustrated London News (K. John, 22nd March 1952): John Rhode provides a soothing change. We can expect him to be workmanlike and sober, if a little dull. But Death in Wellington Road has less stolidity than usual. The scene is Fairbay, and the cause of death seems to be gas poisoning. The victim’s housekeeper has gone; she is the only suspect, so the only problem is to catch up with her. But when the net has closed, it seems to Jimmy Waghorn that she may be innocent. And so he starts again – with reserved encouragement from Dr. Priestley, who urges him to find the motive. This will be obvious to the “reviewer of detective fiction,” as Jimmy says in the last chapter. But his honest doubt, and the first glimmer and emergence of the real method, keep one going nicely.
NY Herald Tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 6th July 1952, 250w)
New York Times (Anthony Boucher, 6th July 1952, 30w): The puzzle is over-simple, but offers some pretty side issues with an obscure alkaloid and a poisoned pig; and it’s pleasant to see Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn doing well on his own, with almost no assistance from Dr. Priestley.
San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 6th July 1952, 40w): Although the story could easily have been told in 8000 words, it is slightly more mystifying than some recent Rhode productions, and not quite so staggeringly unfair. C minus.
Booklist (15th July 1952)
New Yorker (16th August 1952, 60w): Not exactly inspired, but still a solid and conscientious job.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): A good opening in Cornwall with a man found dying in a bedroom full of gas. Situation and suspense are pleasingly above average, but unfortunately the red herring brought in to make us absolve the real murderer is set out with a deplorable lack of conviction. The story picks up again with the discovery of the motive and it ends appropriately.