By Registered Post (John Rhode)

  • By John Rhode
  • First published: UK: Bles, 1952; US: Dodd Mead, 1953, as The Mysterious Suspect

Rating: 1 out of 5.

John Rhode was the sort of man who looked at a toilet chain, and thought: “I can kill someone with that!” (Veni, vidi, vécé.) But turning a loo into a death-trap is the only glimmer of inspiration in this late, lacklustre tale.

Peter Horningtoft, “captain of industry”, has one hobby: quack cures for his rheumatism. Someone sends him a bottle of medicine laced with prussic acid, which he downs, and then promptly dies. Was it his second wife, or any of his offspring by his two marriages? Or was it a complete stranger who only enters the story in the second last chapter?

By Registered Post is not boring, but it’s flavourless. It starts promisingly, with a domestic family murder on a winter evening, but soon becomes bland. The situation and characters are generic: the rich man with a “polite but not affectionate” family, his ambitious offspring by various marriages, his selfish second wife, the family retainer, and various businesspeople. Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn’s investigation consists of speculating about the family’s motives and laborious consultations with Dr. Priestley about how parcels could be sent. Every chapter seems to take place in an office, there are no interesting clues, and no atmosphere or sense of place.

As a mystery, Post is disappointing, like many of Street’s books. “How” was Rhode’s domain; he often failed on “Who”. Either the murderer is obvious, or the murderer does not appear before the solution. In this case, the culprit is a character not even named until the end of Chapter 19; the only hint that he exists is Dr. Priestley’s theory (Ch. 18) of a vindictive stranger. Technically, it’s “fair” in that Waghorn’s discoveries are shared with the reader as he makes them – but it’s an abysmal puzzle plot. The reader is more interested in “the Horningtoft family and their immediate associations” than in any mysterious suspect. It’s a cheat of a solution that Rhode often resorted to in his late books.

Ronald Knox and S.S. Van Dine would have objected. They insisted (with good reason) that “the criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story”, “a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story”. “For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess his inability to match wits with the reader.”

Still, can you imagine living in a house designed by John Rhode? Not only would your toilet shoot you, but your bedsheets would incinerate you. Your bookshelves would electrocute you. So would the bathroom plumbing. Your shaving gear would poison you. Your garden statues would club you to death. Your kitchen would blow up. And if you tried to drive away, your car would gas you.


Blurbs

1953 Bles

Mr. Peter Horningtoft was one of those who are grandiloquently described as Captains of Industry.  In other words, he was a pretty tough customer who delighted to impose his will upon his employees and his family.  Yet he had a curious weakness, which was eventually the cause of his sudden and tragic death by poisoning.

Had he an enemy?  Nobody knew of one; but where there is obviously a murder there must necessarily be a murderer, and so Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn started on a long and complicated quest.  Fortunately he had the assistance of Dr. Priestley, who was so interested in this case that he left the philosophic shade of Westbourne Terrace to do a spot of field work on his own.

1953 Dodd Mead, as THE MYSTERIOUS SUSPECT

Scotland Yard in the person of Jimmy Waghorn was faced with the problem of two suspicious deaths. An old gentleman had undoubtedly been murdered by the substitution of poison in his medicine. A week later the victim’s eldest son, who profited greatly by his late father’s will, was found dead in his apartments with a remorseful confession in his typewriter. To Inspector Waghorn it looked like patricide followed by suicide. The veteran Dr. Priestley, however, thought otherwise. That veteran sleuth focussed his search on a mysterious unknown suspect and in a smashing surprise ending confirmed his suspicions in grim reality as a cunning and vengeful killer.

Here is a thoroughly plausible and original story which builds to a tense and dramatic revelation.


Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 25th January 1953): Dr. Priestley emerges, like the testy old tortoise that he is, from retirement to prevent Superintendent Waghorn from making one of his bigger blunders over the poisoning of a hypochondriacal industrialist.  Solid standard job.

Illustrated London News (K. John, 14th March 1953): By Registered Post, by John Rhode, is not quite up to standard. Somehow, industrial tycoons make rather stolid corpses. This one, whose name is Horningtoft, has an Achilles heel – a penchant for rheumatic cures. He will try anything whatever, and the addiction culminates in a strong dose of prussic acid. Murder is instantly surmised, and the whole family suspected; for they were all at hand, and all under an iron heel. On these lines, Superintendent Waghorn presently winds up the case; then Dr. Priestley, with his wonted acumen and rudeness, tears it apart and sends him off on a new trail. Although the puzzle is good, solid work, the plot is broken-backed; and it is sadly wanting in amusingness or human interest.

NY Herald tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 5th July 1953, 160w): John Rhode has written much better detective stories than this…but there is a special soothing sort of contentment to be got even from an indifferent specimen of his steady journeyman-novelist’s handwork.

NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 5th July 1953, 110w): For standard conventional whodunit, I think you’ll find The Mysterious Suspect surprisingly good.  I’ll confess I find Rhode readable enough even at his dullest; but this time he’s produced a book that the man who normally shuns Rhode should look into.

San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 5th July 1953, 80w): If you can forgive Rhode’s solution of the murder, you’re too good for this world.

Chicago Sunday Tribune (Drexel Drake, 26th July 1953, 70w): Sound detecting and neat plotting.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): A tired effort dealing with the poisoning of an elderly businessman and the mechanically inept faking of a suicide by the fall guy.  What distinguishes the book is the flat statement on p. 59 that Harold Merefield is Dr. Priestley’s son-in-law—28 years after the young man’s engagement to “April”, of whom nothing is ever heard again.

3 thoughts on “By Registered Post (John Rhode)

  1. As so often Knox and Van Dine were spot on. They didn’t come up with their rules just for the heck of it or because they liked rules. They come up with their rules because adhering to those rules really does produce better more satisfying detective stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the second crime must be a strong contender for the “Most Unfeasible Impossible Crime” award, when you think of all the things that could have gone wrong with it – particularly as the killer had no way of knowing that there would be a witness present at all, without which the whole set-up would have been pointless! Definitely a low point even for Rhode’s later work.

    Like

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