Death on the Board (John Rhode)

By John Rhode

First published: UK, Collins, 1937; US, Dodd Mead, 1937, as Death Sits on the Board

Rhode’s best?  Lots of clever murders, and then some.  This may be the finest demonstration of Street’s ingenuity at inventing ways of killing people.  You’ll know who and why, as usual, by halfway through – but the HOWs (plural!) are brilliant.

Blurb (UK)

John Rhode has set himself a high standard in detective story writing, and in Death on the Board, he gives us another fine example of his art.

…A mysterious explosion occurred at the Beckenham home of Sir Andrew Wiggenhall, chairman of a big firm of chain-store ironmongers.  Sir Andrew was in the bath-room at the time, but so great was the force of the explosion that his dismembered body was found in the garden.  This was the first of a series of mysteries all of which affected the firm.  Even taciturn Dr. Priestley was temporarily embarrassed, but as he reminded Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, “I am a scientist, not a policeman,” and it was left to them to conduct the baffling investigations.

Blurb (US)

Constable Frean had an unpleasant sensation that he was not, as he seemed to be, patrolling a respectable London suburb, but was back at the Front in the year 1918, enduring a particularly vicious bombardment.  Crash!  With a roar like a burning shell the roof of a nearby house blew off.  Heading a rescue party, the constable found part of the house in ruins, and the owner, Sir Andrew Wiggenhall, missing.  Eventually, his remains, or part of them, were discovered in the garden.  Thus passed the Chairman of the Board of Hardware, Ltd.

Some months later another member of the same board of directors died in mysterious circumstances.  Still another followed shortly.

The resons for these apparently unrelated mysteries puzzled the police and intrigued Dr. Priestley.  After a series of clever deductions, and as a result of clues which led far back into the past, he unearthed the secret of the Death that sat on the Board of Directors.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 18th July 1937):


If ever I want to commit a sound murder (and after all What’s-his-name and Chose and especially Whozit have cumbered the earth rather long), I will get into touch with Mr. John Rhode, for his fancy is as full of high-class killings as a corpse is full of meat.  But we would first have to send Dr. Priestley off on a world tour, for otherwise I am afraid that we would both be found out.  Five directors of Porslin, Ltd., were murdered at varying intervals, and I hardly know which to admire more: the temerity of the author of
Death on the Board in killing off so many of his characters or the skill with which he did it.  Each of the eliminations differs in conception and method, but all show a marked scientific bent and carry a signature which sadly confuses our old friend Superintendent Hanslett.  But I think that he ought to have detected the weak link in his own chain of reasoning some time before the Doctor pointed it out.  Indeed, for almost the first time in my long acquaintance with him I found myself beforehand with Priestley himself.  But so clever and so thorough in detail is the murderer that I do not see how he could have been “sunk” had he not deliberately given his recurring clue.

Sydney Morning Herald (30th July 1937):

The most remarkable feature in this well-written detective novel is the ingenuity with which the author, John Rhode, has planned the methods by which the five directors of Porslin Ltd. are murdered.  So cunningly, indeed, are the killings carried out that for quite a long time the police cannot even establish the fact that murder has been committed let alone track down the person responsible.

Starting off with a mysterious explosion in the home of Sir Andrew Wiggenhall, chairman of directors of Porslin, the action develops with other apparently accidental or suicidal deaths following in quick succession.  Turnstead, another director, is burned to death in his bed; Percival Wiggenhall is the victim of poisoning; Colonel Flotman is gassed in the engine-room which supplies his home with electricity; Samuel Grimshaw is also the victim of gas—his death being even more ingeniously planned.

Working very carefully, and at no time sacrificing entertainment value to sheer virtuosity in the art of murder, Mr. Rhode has written a story which will interest all admirers of this type of fiction.  As his story draws to a close, the identity of the killer becomes more and more unmistakable, but the nature of the plot and the logical development of motive and opportunity to kill make a last-minute unmasking of the villain impossible.  This should be a popular edition to the long list of crime stories.

Sat R of Lit (26th June 1937, 40w):

Solution not entirely unguessable considerably before finis, but murder methods and background are novel and entertaining.

Books (Will Cuppy, 27th June 1937, 150w):

You can’t accuse Mr. Rhode of undue calm this time, for his new Dr. Priestley yarn starts with an explosion in which Sir Andrew Wiggenhall, chairman of Hardware, Ltd., is blown to bits, and there are five deaders in all.  Nevertheless, our author manages somehow to deliver his standard brand of leisurely and intensive deducing.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 27th June 1937, 220w):

The reader may not have much difficulty in spotting the murderer, but he will not find it so easy to figure out the hows and whys of the case.  The murders are most ingeniously planned and executed, and even Dr. Priestley is put to a severe test before the story is ended.  This is easily the best of the recent Dr. Priestley mysteries.

Manchester Evening News

Undoubtedly, incontestably, incontrovertibly the best thing Mr. John Rhode has done.

E.R. Punshon in the Manchester Guardian

He may well claim the title of Public Brain Tester No. 1.


In one novel he has presented the reader with five perfect murders.

Ethel Lina White

First-class craftsmanship.

Illustrated London News

John Rhode can be congratulated.