Death in Wellington Road (Rhode)

  • 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.)


UK blurb

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.


Contemporary reviews

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.

23 thoughts on “Death in Wellington Road (Rhode)

  1. One of Rhode’s greatest gifts, it strikes me, was clarity.

    I think it is this quality that makes me want to persevere with Rhode, despite his often rudimentary misdirection and plots that feel underdeveloped. The progression of the plots is always so clean and so clearly parsed, and that’s harder to maintain than I think many people realise.

    Thanks for clarifying this for me, Nick!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Clarity begins at home!

      Rhode’s plots are often predictable (as you said, he’s the author about whose work you’re most likely to say “Yeah, that’s what I expected”), but they’re usually sturdy, and in his best books, there’s almost a formalist pleasure in their construction.

      Take Proceed with Caution, for instance; you’ll spot the murderer almost at once, but the scheme is ingenious and the way the detectives gather details and fit them together is engrossing.

      I do wish, though, that he hadn’t produced four books a year; nobody but Carr could do that – and Carr was a genius. In Rhode’s case, they’re written to a template; narrative and characterisation suffer, so, I think, does ingenuity. He would probably have better books had he written fewer.

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      1. Has any other author self-described their output in one of their titles before or since? Proceed with caution, indeed 😁

        Completely agree about Rhode’s output; he could have halved what he wrote, complicated his plots a bit more, and be one of the most celebrated authors of his age and genre.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, Proceed with Caution is a good one. (It’s sort of the quintessence of Realist plotting. You’re a Crofts fan, and I think you’d love it..)

        Whereas Dead Stop isn’t.

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      3. Rhode’s plots are often predictable… but they’re usually sturdy, and in his best books, there’s almost a formalist pleasure in their construction.

        This perfectly sums up Rhode. Even in his best works, you can often spot the solution, or parts of it, but (as you said) the reconstruction of the crime is often engrossing to read. There are, of course, exceptions like the awful The Milk Churn Murder.

        …Carr was a genius.

        I think the big difference between Carr and Rhode is Carr exaggerated to clarify (i.e. bringing something otherworldly back to human proportions), while Rhode tried to keep things crisp and clear. Just compare Rhode’s Invisible Weapons with Carr’s The Unicorn Murders.

        Has any other author self-described their output in one of their titles before or since?

        Christianna Brand’s modestly titled Tour de Force and Carter Dickson’s The Reader is Warned.

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      4. Thanks!

        And how! Invisible Weapons is naturalistic, low key – an impossible crime solved cleanly and methodically; the method is clever, but there aren’t any startling plot twists.
        Whereas the impossible crimes in Unicorn are just part of the extravaganza: a duel between a super-criminal and a super-policeman (both in disguise) in a French château, a plane crash, an invisible unicorn, the narrator falling in love and under suspicion, and a triple-wham solution that makes your head spin. It’s BRILLIANT.

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  2. I feel faintly uneasy about these archive.org files — the book’s still in copyright, right? The goody two-shoes in me likes his crime breakin’ to be of the fictional kind…!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I treat the Internet Archive like a public library. Besides, most of these books have been out of print for decades, a lot aren’t available on ABE, and when they do, they can cost $260 odd!

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      1. Thankfully my ethical stances are often short-lived, and I’ll doubtless dive into the Internet Archive at some point and rip through everything. But I remain an optimist, and hope for reprints of the better Rhode/Burton titles at some point 🤞

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      2. If it sooth your conscience, Jim, some of the more scarcer titles on the Internet Archive have been out-of-print for decades because nobody reads or talks about them. We wouldn’t be in the middle of a reprint renaissance/translation wave, if we were quiet about them. Nick can back me up that the situation was completely different in the 2000s and early 2010s. The idea that a writer like Freeman Wills Crofts not only receiving multiple reprints from several different publishers, but finding his way to the shelves of regular bookstores and more casual mystery readers warming to him would have been laughed at in the mid-2000s. But here we are.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes, 10, 15 years ago, bookshops’ crime sections were depressing – serial killers, pathology, and little else. So I was thunderstruck when I walked into a normal bookshop a couple of years ago, and saw three John Rhodes and a shelfful of Crofts! And that’s because you guys and people like Curt and Martin have championed them.

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  3. Nick, your observation especially resonates whenever I read a Rhode or Burton title:

    “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.”

    I think this is why I keep returning to Street’s stories — they are just so clearly written and presented. Sometimes that fair-play clarity means the reader has bounded ahead of the detective chapters before the penny drops, as with the late-period “Robbery with Violence” and other examples, but Street is always scrupulously cumulative in his clue and incident reporting. Thanks for the review and the contemporary critical quotes!

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  4. I have to admit that much of the pleasure that I get from reading Rhode/Burton comes from the settings rather than the puzzle. Rhode uses ordinary people and lifestyles in a manner that simply does not suit the flamboyance of Carr but does suit the more prosaic crimes that ordinary policemen are likely to encounter. His books do take a more realistic approach. Carr is certainly my favourite mystery writer but his books do not resemble a genuine case of the sort most policemen would ever encounter. Priestley and Merrion are far more believable in the events they encounter and in the society in which they function. The result may be less entertaining as fiction but it does strongly appeal to me.

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