Shot at Dawn (John Rhode)

By John Rhode

First published: UK, Collins, 1934; US, Dodd Mead, 1935

Everyone likes this but me.  Tide tables, calculations from wind, graphs, and lots of math.  Bit of a bore.

Blurb (UK)

The motor-cruiser Alondra had come over the harbour bar at Riddinghithe with the last of the flood and dropped anchor for the night.  The next morning a boatman putting out to do a bit of fishing noticed the body of a man lying across the cabin top.  He put his helm down and steered closer to investigate.  And then he saw that the man’s head was shattered…  The police are baffled, as they cannot discover anything about the dead man beyond his name and the fact that he was a keen yachtsman.  It remains for Dr. Priestley to bring about an entirely unexpected dénouement providing the biggest surprise in an extremely well-told story.

Blurb (US)

During the night a motor-boat had come in over the harbor bar at Riddinghithe with the last of the flood and dropped anchor.  The following morning a fisherman putting out to sea noticed the body of a man lying across the cabin top.  He put his helm down and steered closer to investigate.  And then he saw that the man’s head was shattered…

The local police are baffled and Inspector Hanslet of Scotland Yard is immediately called from London.  An exhaustive and energetic investigation follows.  Nothing can be discovered about the dead man beyond his name and the fact that he was a keen yachtsman.  But a number of highly significant although strangely contradictory facts are revealed which result in a hopelessly perplexing tangle.

Then the aid of Dr. Priestley is elicited.  Starting off in an entirely new direction, he makes certain mysterious experiments which bring about an entirely unexpected dénouement to one of the most ingenious stories John Rhode has ever written.

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 10th November 1934):


I have not always shared Superintendent Haslet’s [sic] implicit confidence in the scientific abilities of his friend Professor Priestley, and I have rather resented his incursions into the plots of Mr. John Rhode’s novels with his testy humour and his microscope.  But in Shot At Dawn I was delighted to see him coaxed into activity by the Superintendent and at last go down to Riddinghithe, get aboard the Alandra and carry out an experiment, which I had been longing to do myself ever since the fellow Crosland was found shot in the first chapter, only I could not see quite how to set about it.  And yet what simple apparatus is required, just a stop-watch and some corks!  It was terribly trying to the patience while the Superintendent went fussing round in the most short-sighted way, when one knew that the Professor would seize on the importance of that experiment, and was only waiting round the corner to be called in.  Crosland had been found shot through the head on board a yacht in the Ridding estuary at 9 a.m.  The yacht had lain in anchor at mid-stream since the previous evening, and the only other person on board was found in a drunken stupor in his cabin.  But there seemed no question of Mowerby in the cabin having fired the shot, for the wound was declared by the police surgeon to have the special characteristics only associated with a bullet fired at long range, extremely long range—in fact 3,000 yards.  And that, I may say, was the exact distance of the yacht’s anchorage from the 500 yards firing point on the private rifle-range in Sir Charles Bransbury’s park, and it was in the direct line of fire.  I confess that I had my eye on the criminal from a fairly early stage, but nobody will quarrel with Mr. Rhode even if they spotted their man right at the start, because Shot At Dawn is developed in that incalculable way which keeps one’s attention at the stretch, until the very last page—I actually got a thrill out of the verdict of the jury!  The Crime Club has selected the book, and I certainly could not better their selection from the detective novels that have come my way in the last few months.

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 11th November 1934):

Shot at Dawn

Mr. John Rhode is one of those kind, thoughtful writers who patiently explain all the technical points of the narrative in words that a child could understand.  He does not expect his reader to be an authority on ainhum or haemophilia or trajectories or the obscurer barbituric compounds or this, that, and the other, as some people do.

That is why I am so indignant at the perfectly heartless manner in which he led my innocence up the garden path to be Shot at Dawn.  Fair?  Yes, of course it was perfectly fair: that is what made it so galling.  If I had had the gumption of a weevil in a biscuit, I should never have allowed myself—  But there!  I did guess who fired the fatal shot, though at a disgracefully late point in the story.  The body was found lying on board a motorboat in an estuary; the body’s companion was snoring heavily in the cabin; on the other side of the river, a “good long mile away” was a rifle range.  That was the problem with which Superintendent Hanslet had to deal; but it took Dr. Priestley with his little tape measure to act really intelligently on information received.

Times Literary Supplement (15th November 1934):

Those who judge a detective story by its degrees of accuracy and logic, rather than by its sensational value have long counted Mr. John Rhode’s work among the best of its kind.  Although, perhaps, it is difficult to accept unreservedly the motives which induce his latest characters to stage their peculiar problem, the manner in which that problem is analysed and solved should satisfy the most exacting fireside critic of crime investigation.  Crosland and Mowerby anchored their motor-cruiser one night in a desolate tidal estuary.  Next morning a passing fisherman found Crosland lying dead on deck with a head wound apparently caused by a rifle bullet fired at long range.  Colonel Peniston, the Chief Constable, called in Superintendent Hanslet of Scotland Yard, and Hanslet in his turn consulted the redoubtable Dr. Priestley.  There were many points of unusual interest about the case.  How did it happen, for example, that Mowerby drank drugged whiskey on the night before the tragedy, and who had lowered the dinghy?  By dint of rigorous experiment Dr. Priestley solved both these riddles and identified the murderer.  It is there that the plot shows weakness, for why did the murderer—?  But asking this question would give away the secret of an otherwise quite excellent tale.

Observer (Torquemada, 18th November 1934):


Again this week, murder makes strange bedfellows.  We have to consider three excellent main-current detective stories by men and two quite other and mutually differing books by women, the five of which are yet tied with this scarlet thread.

If Mr. John Rhode belongs to any school it is to that of Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts.  You cannot imagine Dr. Priestley lowering vast beer, or murdering our English to register a detective idiograph, or crawling desperately over roofs.  In Shot at Dawn, Mr. Rhode’s latest story, where the Yard again has the opportunity of calling on the doctor’s amazingly diverse knowledge, a scientific question is scientifically propounded, and scientifically answered.  We cannot pretend—though this is mere chance—to be quite so nescient as Superintendent Hanslet either in ballistics or in the natural laws which govern “ditch-crawling”; but to say this is to give away nothing, for Mr. Rhode has always something to teach everybody.  Shot at Dawn is as good as anything he has done, and that from the point of view of the unemotional solver is to imply something near perfection.

Sydney Morning Herald (28th December 1934):

John Rhode contents himself with straight-forward detection in Shot at Dawn.  The idea is good—a corpse on a yacht anchored in mid-stream, and nothing but a rifle range in the vicinity to account for it.  Dr. Priestley again applies his detective methods.

Sat R of Lit (15th June 1935, 30w):

Nice puzzle for those who prefer studies of deduction to slam-bang action.  Leisurely but flawless.

Books (Will Cuppy, 16th June 1935, 370w):

If you crave an abundance of scientific detectivism, with enough detailed measurements and other minutiae to keep your brain at high pressure for a whole evening, better grab this latest Dr. Priestley tale.  Mr. Rhode isn’t so terribly speedy, he isn’t so hard-boiled or modernistic, but he’s right there with the intensive sleuthing on a central problem, and this time he provides his familiar criminologist with one of his best cases.

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 22nd June 1935, 240w):

The story really is excellent.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 23rd July 1935, 300w):

Admirers of Dr. Priestley will find in this book just what they have learned to expect—sound deductive reasoning based on accurate observation.  The mere fact that the murderer escapes conviction does not matter in the least.  But one does wish that John Rhode would contrive to inject a little more excitement into his Dr. Priestley stories.