Murder at Lilac Cottage (John Rhode)

By John Rhode

First published: UK, Collins, 1940; US, Dodd Mead, 1940

An interesting, although not entirely successful, Waghorn. Setting largely rural: village of Matchingfield, where two villagers die: the squire’s tenant, a drug-trafficking swine, is bludgeoned to death in his workshop, apparently by the chauffeur, and a yokel ruffian is found shot, most likely a suicide. Drug trafficking is deduced by Priestley, and is chased up in London by Hanslet, who is at his most obnoxious in this book: he is a dolt in the presence of Priestley and Waghorn (who does not shine either), damnably rude to his inferiors (his “usual breezy style” consists of numerous references to their “ugly mugs” and “thick heads,” and ends by stating that he’s “got to trust you not to make idiots of yourselves”), and demonstrates unusually sadistic tendencies: “She stared at Hanslet in such unmistakable horror that the Superintendent could hardly restrain a smile.” Thankfully, Hanslet does not appear much; most of the detection is done by Jimmy, although unravelling is done by Priestley. The solution is obvious: I suspected the general mechanism of the crime from the moment the body was discovered, and the villain not long after that. The villain’s identity is actually quite pleasing, quite surreal; but the method is unconvincing (trajectory).

Blurb (UK)

Careless Talk may give away Vital Secrets.  And sometimes it may happen that tittle-tattle provides the first clue in a murder mystery.  The landlord of The Woodcock was definitely of the opinion that you can hear a lot of interesting things in a pub if you keep your ears open.  He, for instance, had heard a lot of village gossip about young Mr. Derrington, who lived alone in Lilac Cottage.  The villagers thought the young man queer, a bit of a mystery in fact, but they did not anticipate even in their wildest flights of imagination the amazing mystery that surrounded the discovery of his dead body outside Lilac Cottage one evening.  But Inspector Jimmy Waghorn of the C.I.D. and the celebrated Dr. Priestley between them do a splendid job of work.  Mr. John Rhode fully maintains his reputation as a writer whose ingenuity in devising almost perfect murders is unrivalled.

Blurb (US)

For three years the man had lived in the little Lilac Cottage on the Squire’s estate, yet apparently nobody in that peaceful village knew a thing about him.  The only significant clue that Superintendent Hanslet and Jimmy Waghorn found was the five pound bank note that he received on the day he died.  The minute they told Dr. Priestley about it he jumped to the bait and set forth on a trail that picked up such divergent clues as dope fiends, the dismantled engine of a motor mower, and the rear view of a man on a bicycle.

When the village good-for-nothing was found dead on the estate, it seemed to complicate the affair even more.  But for Dr. Priestley it actually simplified things.  He brings the case to a smashing conclusion that will leave the reader gasping at the ingenuity of murders and the unfailing astuteness of the famous criminologist.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 1st September 1940):


All of Mr. Rhode’s detective stories are interesting, sound, and snug—like a ride in a pony-trap.  Murder at Lilac Cottage has a comparatively simple plot.  Young man, recluse in gossiping country village, found murdered, turns out to have been drug-trafficker.  Inspectors Waghorn and Hanslett founder after false trails and get the usual severe after-dinner knuckle-rapping from Olympian Dr. Priestly, as well as a second corpse.  Real murderer, though obvious from the beginning, has eminently respectable cover—always a satisfying device.  Safe recommendation, of course.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 7th September 1940):

Cottage and villa murders may sometimes run to a pattern, but not in Murder at Lilac Cottage by John Rhode.  With both ingenuity and originality at command, he will keep puzzle-solvers guessing until it pleases Dr. Priestley to explain why clues are not what they seem.  The ordinary, everyday, matter-of-fact style does not make for easy going.  That should not hinder any reader who senses that here is a mystery worth pitting his wits against.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 5th October 1940):

Murder at Lilac Cottage and [J.J. Connington’s] The Four Defences are by two old friends of ours, and confirm their industry and reliable workmanship without adding to their lustre.  In the bad old days many of our old friends, to make their little secrets as watertight as possible, used to keep back even the bodily introduction of their criminals until nearly the last page.  Fortunately, the umpires have managed to rule that unfair practice right out.  Now we are always allowed at least a peep at the villains’ faces from the start, while the authors content their miserly instincts by keeping back all the evidence against them as long as possible.  But they hardly reckon with their readers’ perspicacity.  Who are the persons in Murder at Lilac Cottage and The Four Defences whose presence near the scene of the crime and on the first fifty pages seems totally unnecessary?  Mr. Rhode and Mr. Connington must learn to cover up better, if they hope to bewilder us at the finish.  At the leisurely production of evidence and the laborious putting of two and two together both these gentlemen are masters.  Nothing could be more sound, more convincing or more slow than their respective plots.  Mr. Rhode’s deals with a mystery man in the country, who is struck on the head by an iron bar on entering his garage one evening.  Mr. Connington’s is the Rouse case all over again, an unidentifiable body in a burning car, with a few extra refinements.  The four defences are the four successive red herrings with which the murderer hopes to defeat the arm of the law.  But the arm of the law in The Four Defences is reinforced by Mr. Connington’s imposing Councillor, so what chance has the villain got?  Anyway, we knew who he was the instant he appeared by his very unobtrusive manner.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 15th October 1940):

If the reader begins to feel a little disappointed with Murder at Lilac Cottage, as it seems to appear that this time Mr. John Rhode, that indefatigable investigator of ever newer methods of dealing unexpected and mysterious deaths, has here fallen from his high estate and allowed his latest victim to suffer a commonplace end from the usual blunt instrument, then there will simply be shown how little the reader knows of Mr. John Rhode’s infinite resource.  True it was in fact a blunt instrument that disposed of the mysterious occupant of Lilac Cottage, but one wielded by no mortal hand.  There is also described an ingenious device whereby a wholesale supply of cocaine for distribution to drug victims is obtained, secure from even the mere possibility of interference by the Customs.  As usual, Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn, when set three problems to solve, are as baffled as will be the reader, and, as usual, Dr. Priestley is there to explain it all to police and reader alike.

Sydney Morning Herald (25th January 1941):

This is a run-of-the-mill detective story.  There is nothing original about the conception of the plot, the build-up of the situations, or the characterisation.  And it is probable that most armchair detectives will have picked the killer long before the halfway mark is passed.  It is not so likely, however, that the reader will suspect the reason for the crime or the ingenious method employed by the killer to perpetrate it.  Nor is it likely that the average reader will realise that certain drugs which most of us regard as exclusive products of distant tropic countries can be comparatively easily produced in an English village!

The sleuthing is done by John Rhode’s popular Jimmy Waghorn of the C.I.D.  The celebrated and rather pompous Dr. Priestley argues each step at length, making the reader feel that he is not given much credit for perspicacity or the ability to reason logically.  Unlike a great many of his colleagues, Mr. Rhode does not consider a strong romantic interest necessary to the completion of his plot.

Books (Will Cuppy, 23rd June 1940, 230w):

Detecting is the main thing here, with Superintendent Hanslet and even Harold Merefield helping out—and Sir Julian Wantage also comes into the picture.  Sufficiently fast, amusing and downright educational.  You have a good chance to find the fiend yourself, too.

Sat R of Lit (29th June 1940, 40w):

Detectives field-work more believable than scientist’s armchair elucidation.  Solution slightly over-mechanised but convincingly worked out.  Average.

Springfield Republican (30th June 1940, 220w):

Mr. Rhode plays so fair with his readers that some mystery addicts may suspect the guilty person before the last chapter, but, even so, they will be well entertained with an ingenious yarn.