By John Rhode
First published: UK, Collins, 1932; US, Dodd Mead, 1932, as Fire at Greycombe Farm
Dr. Priestley is active in this tale of skulduggery and arson among Wessex farmers, but the book is a failure. The alert reader will spot the murderer before the one-third mark, so the doltish Major Betterton and Inspector Salter’s investigation plods, and the book runs out of steam halfway through, with a singular paucity of events to keep the reader’s interest. The murderer is notably stupid. Rather than quietly burying the body of a man everybody believed had run away to London, he deliberately sets fire to a neighbour’s cider store, drawing the attention of the police to the crime, from the discovery of which he gains no benefit; while his attempt to incriminate his handyman is so obvious and so clumsily done that Major Betterton, who has only half the brains of a Hanslet or Waghorn, seems a veritable Priestley by comparison! Only the melodramatic scene at the end is good.
The low, graystone buildings of Greycombe Farm were the very embodiment of peace and security. Nothing ever disturbed the general air of tranquillity so typical of a West Country farm until—one memorable night fire broke out in Farmer Jim’s cider store. When, as a result of the herculean efforts of the village fire brigade, the flames were finally extinguished, an examination of the building revealed the charred remains of a body. Here was a mystery that immediately engaged the attention of Major Betterton, Chief Constable of Wessex. It was, however, only with the calling in of Dr. Priestley, the wealthy but eccentric scientist and crime investigator, that the amazing ramifications of this remarkable mystery were disclosed. This story is certainly one of the best that Mr. John Rhode has ever written.
When Farmer Jim’s famous cider barn burst into flames and destroyed the year’s brew, the countryside naturally bewailed the loss of their favourite tipple, but little did they suspect that a sinister tragedy would be uncovered by the flames.
It was Farmer Jim himself who discovered on the following day, a heap of charred human bones between the beams of his burned stillage. They were identified by the local doctor as the remains of Ted Sibley, a ne’er-do-well of the community, who had mysteriously disappeared six months before the fire.
At first the tragedy appeared quite obvious to Major Betterton until evidence of foul play and a complicate maze of clues led him to call in the renowned Dr. Priestley whose genius for logical deduction is well known to John Rhode’s readers. With his customary care and acumen the great scientist probes this deceitfully simple case and reveals a crime which for sheer ingenuity of both conception and execution rivals any that this famous author has used to baffle the wits of the most experienced fans.
Times Literary Supplement (28th January 1932):
The murderer was ingenious. He had a large wheelbarrow with a rubber tire, and a sixty-three gallon cask of cider. He replaced the cider by petrol and stuffed the corpse in, to keep it fresh. Then he got a false key to the padlock of Greycombe Farm cider-shed, wheeled the cask thither at night along four miles of country roads, and had the luck to meet no one. He drugged the farmer’s dog, put the cask in the shed, and took away a cask of cider. Next time the owner took a light near that cask there was a fire. When Sibley’s half-burned skeleton was found among the ruins naturally the first suspect was Farmer Jim. But Sibley had defrauded many people, and made love to most of the young women he knew except his wife, who preferred someone else. So there were several possibles for the police and Professor Priestley, and the reader’s curiosity is kept alive. The key is supplied when Dr. Brusek, the handwriting expert, has a look at Sibley’s last two letters, and when Priestley lays out the ordnance maps before the Chief Constable, but unfortunately not before the reader.
Books (Will Cuppy, 14th February 1932, 150w):
As ever, Mr. Rhode is well above the mystery racket. Dr. Priestley is an authentic creation, likable at his grouchiest and a liberal education in the way of building theories from known facts.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 21st February 1932, 150w):
The experienced reader of detective fiction may guess part of the solution, but even so, he will be interested in seeing how Dr. Priestley overcomes difficulties and builds up the case to a successful conclusion.
Edward Shanks in John O’London’s Weekly
While Farmer Jim was tapping a barrel in his cider-store, the building suddenly burst into flames and was destroyed. The neighbourhood found this serious, since his cider was famous, and there would now be no more of it until the next year. The police found more serious the discovery of the charred bones of a man under the barrel that was being tapped…a mystery which is solved by Dr. Priestley with his usual acuteness.
Roger Pippett in the Daily Herald
Mr. Rhode is always a most workmanlike author—and there is no scamping about Mystery at Greycombe Farm. Indeed, he has never laid a better trail than the one which leads from Farmer Jim’s cider store. A long trail—and lurid. A close-knit, merciless yarn.