Hendon’s First Case (John Rhode)

By John Rhode

First published: UK, Collins, 1935; US, Dodd Mead, 1935

Jimmy Waghorn,  first appears here; he will increasingly become the main character in Rhode’s books, taking over the detective duties from Dr Priestley. Unfortunately, he is singularly obtuse: it takes him a while to tumble to the truth about the study explosion, he trusts the murderer, and he gets himself poisoned. There is very little Priestley until the end, although he it is who cracks the code and, in spite of excessive coincidence, solves the problem. One presumes his familiarity with The Claverton Mystery was useful.

Blurb (UK)

A number of curious coincidences, seemingly unconnected, provides the background for this enthralling mystery.  A research chemist, Mr. Threlfall, dies from ptomaine poisoning.  At the same time his laboratory is burgled.  He was just about to alter his will.  He received a threatening letter from his wife.  And his nephew was seen in his company just before his death.  Can a motive for murder be found in this most obscure of cases?  Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Jimmie Waghorn, who investigate, represent two different and very interesting types.  The former, employing the official method, is direct and efficient once it can be shown that a crime has been committed.  The latter, a product of the newly-founded Metropolitan Police College at Hendon, has a more exploring mind, and works more by intuition than by rule.  But both of them are helped by the ingenious Dr. Priestley, who remains, as ever, discreetly in the background.  Hendon’s First Case is in every respect a truly mystifying mystery.

Blurb (US)

Bernard Threlfall, the famous research chemist, was dead – the cause, ptomaine poisoning.  His laboratory was burgled.  He was about to alter his will.  He had received a threatening letter from his wife.  And his nephew was seen in his company just before his death.

With this assortment of “leads” the young Inspector from the new crime college at Hendon commences the investigation of a fiendishly ingenious murder.  But from the start it is a treacherous case, full of surprises and odd turns.  First, there is too much evidence, then not enough, and the motive is exasperatingly elusive.  Then comes a sudden dramatic crisis and Dr. Priestley is called in.  By that uncanny power of deduction which has placed him in the forefront of modern detectives, he brings about a dénouement which, although Dr. Priestley has no more evidence at his disposal than the reader, is certain to catch the most inveterate fan off guard.

The many followers of John Rhode will take especial interest in this story, for in introducing Hendon, it contrasts the imaginative, intuitive type of criminal investigation with the direct and efficient one represented by our old friend, Superintendent Hanslet.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 9th June 1935):

The Crime Club’s other choice is Hendon’s First Case, in which Dr. Priestley bears much less of the brunt than usual; indeed, it is strange to find, in a chemical problem, that his main usefulness is as a cryptographer.  Any murder planned by Mr. Rhode is bound to be ingenious, and this one is exceptionally so.  The contrast is made pleasant between
Superintendent Hanslet, of the Old School, who is brought to grief by what he takes for fact, and Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, recruit from the Metropolitan Police College.  The younger man is credited, in the blurb, with intuition; but his gift is rather that sort of imagination which leads to disbelief, and thus to perseverance.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 6th July 1935):

Hendon’s First Case makes a suitable companion to Crime at Guildford.  Mr. Rhode’s Superintendent Hanslet must be a blood relation of Inspector French, and the introduction of a junior detective, Jimmie Waghorn of Cambridge and Hendon, has not altered the style of his Superintendent in any way.  A research chemist dies most conveniently of ptomaine poisoning.  There is no question of the convenience or the ptomaine, yet the calf’s head to which the poisoning is traced proves to have impeccable credentials.  However, Professor Priestley gets over that little difficulty for us, and Jimmie Waghorn does the donkey work of sifting the beneficiaries of the chemist’s death until the murderer is uncovered.  Mr. Rhode has added another satisfactory but undistinguished volume to his shelf.

Times Literary Supplement (25th July 1935):

Mr. John Rhode has got in ahead of most of his competitors with a specimen of a detective from the Police College at Hendon.  His Inspector Waghorn does not differ markedly from the fairly numerous class of University graduates turned policemen already familiar to readers of detective stories: his presence, moreover, does not exclude that of Superintendent Hanslet and Doctor Priestley, Mr. Rhode’s older collaborators.  The crime in which they are all involved—the death of an experimental chemist through what appears to be food-poisoning, with which his partner is also attacked—provides a story developed in a businesslike and interesting manner.  Yet we have seldom come on a tale where the identity of the criminal was more obvious from his first appearance on the page.  Indeed the chief problem (also of course easy of solution) is, which of the contrasting incapacities of Hanslet and Waghorn—unimaginativeness and inexperience—will first be overcome by the glaring truth.  However, the opportunity of an early guess by no means always destroys the interest of a tale, and emphatically not in the case of this pleasantly written, well-constructed book.

Sat R of Lit (18th January 1936, 40w):

Interesting as study of two different styles of crime-solving but too talky and too academic for most readers…  A bit boresome.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 19th January 1936, 270w):

The weakness of this story is that the problem is too easy.  Even Hanslet should have been able to solve it.  The average reader will probably be able to name the murderer long before Dr. Priestley points the way…  Dr. Priestley is a delightful old character when he has a difficult problem to solve, but this one is so easy that he does not need to extend himself, and the story suffers accordingly.

Daily Herald

Mr. Rhode is still at the top of his inimitable form.

Daily Telegraph

Contains all Mr. Rhode’s usual ingenuity…  He has evidently informed himself with care not only upon the aims and procedure of the Police College, but on the view taken of this innovation by the older type of detective.  His digressions on these two points are of great interest.

Country Life

Mr. Rhode’s sober narrative has a most likely ring of truth.