Death at Breakfast (John Rhode)

  • By John Rhode
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1936; US: Dodd Mead, 1936

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A solid early Rhode, which opens with the poisoning of Victor Harleston, an accountant’s clerk, continues with the disappearance of his employer, and concludes with signs of another tragedy. Hanslet and Waghorn are both active: Hanslet is notably stupid, accepting the most obvious solution and dismissing the links between the three cases as coincidence; Waghorn is brighter, although is, of course, bested by Priestley. The solution relies on the creation of a false identity and is generally sound, except for a few improbable acts on the part of the murderer, who appears in person on two occasions when a disguise would be advisable, and who alerts the police to the existence of “Stanley Fernside,” forgetting about the numbers on the banknotes.

Blurb (UK)

At eight o’clock in the morning breakfast was set in the dining-room at 8 Matfield Street, the house of Victor Harleston and his sister Janet.  But no sooner had Victor Harleston sipped his coffee than his agonised expression and spasmodic twitching conveyed all too clearly that he had been poisoned.  When Dr. Oldfield arrived, he saw that the case was helpless – and called the Yard.  Even although, at this early stage, the death of Victor Harleston was surrounded by suspicious circumstances, it was impossible to guess at the extreme ingenuity with which the criminal had carried out his deadly plan.  Once, again, however, Dr. Priestley shines in the solving of an extraordinary mystery.

Blurb (US)

Victor Harleston had, as he awoke that morning, decide that he must strong measures to preserve for himself alone the money that he had suddenly acquired.

Half an hour later his sister, across the breakfast table, watched him gulp his morning coffee – saw an agonised expression flash over his face and watched him pitch on the floor gasping and twitching.

When Dr. Oldfield arrived he realized almost instantly that it was a fatal case of poisoning and called Scotland Yard.  Although there was an almost complete absence of clues, Inspector Hanslet found some evidence of such a strange and foreboding nature that he soon referred the facts to his friend, Dr. Priestley.  The further the case is explored, the more surprising it becomes and the more diabolically ingenious the murderer appears.  But by a series of deductions (which incidentally are sure to catch all but the shrewdest fans off guard) Dr. Priestley evolves a solution as brilliant as any in his career.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 8th February 1936): The very ingenious criminal in this book sets the police investigating three murders, but only one was real.  Harleston was clerk in Slater and Knott, accountants, Chancery Lane.  Also he was forty-two and liked bullying his young half-sister.  He died “at breakfast”, as the title says, from nicotine in a sample tube of shaving cream.  Suspicion fell on the sister and on a young brother near Maidstone, a fruit-farm manager, who used nicotine for pests.  Then Knott, Harleston’s employer, gave Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn a second puzzle by vanishing in Torquay.  No corpse could be found, but stabbed clothing and blood, and drunken young Gavin Slater had a £5 note Knott had had.  Other notes were traced to one Fernside, and Fernside’s flat in London was found full of traces of a third murder, but again no corpse.  Luckily the police consulted Dr. Priestley, who guessed the clue.  The parts fit in as neatly as a problem in Euclid, so that one or two misprints, such as “increase” for “decrease” (page 62), are quite noticeable.

The Times (14th February 1936): Not that good policemanship [as in Freeman Wills CroftsThe Loss of the Jane Vosper] is to be despised.  Mr. Rhode is all in the old foot-print and finger-print convention, and Death at Breakfast is proof that the convention has not outlived its usefulness.  Except for one long and seemingly irrelevant digression, and for the fact that no reader could suspect the heroine of murdering her half-brother for as long as the policemen do, this story of a death by nicotine poison concealed in shaving cream is an admirable example of its kind.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 28th February 1936): If Mr. Crofts [in The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’] oversteps the mark slightly in [the] direction [of relying too much on pure detection], Mr. Rhode puts both feet far over it.  Some attempt is made to establish the character of the victim, but the remaining dramatis personae are stuffed men.  The whole book, in fact, like the Victorian female figure, suffers from an excess of padding that must render it to modern eyes as dowdy as it is voluminous.  Mr. Rhode is unfailingly ingenious with his lethal weapons; but once we know that Victor Harleston has been poisoned through the razor-cut, and not by the pints of nicotine that are lying about the house in tea-pots and scent-bottles, our interest is no longer engaged.  Superintendent Hanslet is quite unusually bone-headed; surely no policeman would be taken in by the flagrantly bogus series of clues which the criminal tosses up to him.  And never amongst my extensive professorial acquaintance have I come across one who talks like Professor Priestley, a sample of whose conversation I append:

‘But were I a member of the jury empanelled for the trial, I would not conscientiously give an opinion in favour of his guilt upon the evidence which you have adduced.’

Sat R of Lit 94th July 1936, 40w): Unusually clever murder method, good clue-by-clue plodding.  Bull-dog British sleuthing, and a plentitude of red herrings.

Books (Will Cuppy, 5th July 1936, 170w): Don’t go elsewhere to be baffled if you want practically faultless entertainment.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 5th July 1936, 220w): The murderer in this story employs a fiendishly clever plan and then spoils it by overelaboration, with the result that it should be evident to any one with a grain of common sense that things are not as they seem to be.

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 11th July 1936, 50w): A fine, skilful handling of a neat mystery which is unravelled under Dr. Priestley’s persuasive but ironic coaching.

Daily Telegraph: Death at Breakfast is full of Mr. Rhode’s specialities; a new and excellently ingenious method of murder, a good story, and a chain of deduction with little time wasted on red herrings.

Dr. Watson in the Manchester Evening Chronicle: Mr. Rhode always does good work, but this is perhaps the finest thing he has written.

Milward Kennedy in the Sunday Times: John Rhode deserves the highest recommendation.