Death at the Dance (John Rhode)

  • By John Rhode
  • First published: UK: Geoffrey Bles, 1952; US: Dodd, Mead, 1953

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Every year, a dance is held through the narrow streets of Hadeston; this year, a stout woman is taken to the First Aid post, complaining of pain: “Burning something terrible. Just as if I was afire inside.” The doctor suspects acute irritant poisoning, and when the lady dies, it turns out someone injected her in the back with arsenic solution. But Mrs. Dartford was a quiet woman, without any enemies. Who would want to kill her? Could it have something to do with grandfather Ebenezer’s fortune buried somewhere in a thousand acres of tin mine?

When Death at the Dance came out, Maurice Richardson (The Observer) thought the plot was corny and the murderer idiotic; Anthony Boucher found neither the plot nor the detection up to par; and even Barzun & Taylor acknowledged ingenuity and original, but found the telling a-weary. But the book’s reputation has grown in recent years. R. E. Faust thought it one of the best of Rhode’s late books; a Goodreads fan thinks it one of his three best Rhodes; and Curt Evans (Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery, 2012) praises the “clever plot with, unusual for Street, a hard-to-find murderer and motive”.

I was underwhelmed. The first half is one of Rhode’s liveliest for some time (possibly since the early 1940s). Besides the murder, there half a dozen burglaries (including a gold Chinese dragon) for Supt. Jimmy Waghorn to investigate, and some outdoor action: Jimmy explores an eerie desert of abandoned mine workings by night. But the second half is solid and competent, but neither thrilling nor interesting.

This is one of the few Streets (as Curt points out) where the murderer is well-concealed. (It’s a simple basic idea: ROT13: jr qba’g rkcrpg gur “snyfr Tevaxyr” gb or gur erny Tevaxyr.) Otherwise, there’s nothing outstanding about the plot. The motive is unconvincing: the murderer is a monomaniac, so kills two people to get land he (wrongly) believes has uranium on it. Agatha Christie used the same motive a year later, much better.


Blurb

1952 Bles

The “Dance” was the annual festival held through the narrow streets of the old town of Hadeston (can this possibly be Helston?) and the death was that of a stout elderly woman among the crowd of spectators. But this death was neither natural nor accidental: it was carefully premeditated murder. Yet why should anyone wish to hasten the end of dear old Mrs. Dartford who “hadn’t an enemy in the world”?

This crime and also a curious series of burglaries in the district presented a number of problems that engaged the attention of Superintendent “Jimmy” Waghorn and the Sage of Westbourne Terrace.

1952 Dodd, Mead

The “Dance” was the annual festival held in the narrow streets of the old town and the death was that of a stout elderly woman among a crowd of spectators. But this death was neither natural nor accidental; it was carefully premeditated murder. Yet why should anyone wish to hasten the end of dear old Mrs. Dartford who “hadn’t an enemy in the world”?

This crime and also a curious series of burglaries in the district presented a number of problems that engaged the attention of Superintendent “Jimmy” Waghorn and the veteran Dr. Priestley, both of whom work with the local authorities in the investigation of this seemingly meaningless crime. The end comes abruptly and without warning, with a double surprise that will take even the wiliest reader unawares.


Reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 20th July 1952): First victim, a widow-farm proprietor, injected with arsenic while watching the Floral Dance. Second: her daughter is later injected and deposited in an antique shop. Idiotic murderer thought there was uranium in the old mine working. For good value you also have to guess who is the local burglar. Dr. Priestley is so amiable and uncrusty that I am concerned for his health. Not even the corniest of plots can make Rhode unreadable.

Times Literary Supplement (Alan Ross, 25th July 1952): Mr. Rhode’s Death at the Dance, on the other hand, has all the endearing obviousness of a pre-war English film. A stout woman is poisoned by means of an infection during the annual dance in the streets of a country town, a number of strange burglaries take place, and the mystery is finally solved by Superintendent Waghorn of the C.I.D. Metropolitan Police.

Spectator (Esther Howard, 3rd October 1952): Death at the Dance by John Rhode is the straightforward disentanglement of an apparently motiveless murder at a thinly disguised Helston Dance; we accompany Jimmy Waghorn every step of the way, and no real characterisation is attempted.

Truth (31st October 1952): WHO KILLED MISS DARTFORD?

This tale of premeditated crime is packed with unexpected situations, with the suspense well maintained to the end. An old lady, Miss Dartford, who lives in the peaceful little town of Hadeston, appears to have no enemy in the world. Yet, during the annual country dance, she is found murdered. The police at first are baffled, but Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn patiently sifts the evidence, and, as is incumbent upon all fictional detectives, takes care not to lay the culprit by the heels until the reader has had his full half-guinea’s worth of thrills.

NY Herald Tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 1st February 1953, 120w): In substance this is rather dryly meaty (like beef two days after) and it is ultimately pretty far-fetched, although the deadpan earnestness of Master Waghorn lends it the edge of plausibility. Deliberate, one could say, if far from idle.

New York Times (Anthony Boucher, 25th January 1953, 50w): Death at the Dance has the familiar solid prosiness which I, for one, find mildly pleasant; but neither the plot nor the detection is up to par.

San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 25th January 1953, 90w)

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): In themselves the robberies, murders, motives, and modes of concealment are ingenious and original, but the telling is a-weary. Priestley and his usual coterie do their usual uninspired arguing. One wonders whether Dr. P.’s continuous somnolence represents the author’s writing mood. Note by the way that the dance is not a private affair indoors, but a village festival in broad daylight.

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