The Bloody Tower (John Rhode)

By John Rhode

First published: UK, Collins, 1938; US, Dodd Mead, 1938, as The Tower of Evil

Street was usually content to plod along in the track he had worn, constructing ingenious but unromantic puzzles set in rural England, where the murder was passed off as an accident, the police are slow but sure (although aided by the polymathic recluse Dr. Priestley), and the murderer obvious. All these are present and correct, but the book stands out because of its tone and plot. Street has discovered romance. As Street helped John Dickson Carr with The Man Who Could Not Shudder, so this book shows Carr’s influence: the doomed family, the ancient and possibly cursed monument, the pseudo-Gothic atmosphere and the importance of historical documents in securing the family inheritance (c.f. Hag’s Nook). The murderer becomes obvious early on, but so ingenious is his plot and so much better than normal is the pace that the reader hardly objects.

Blurb (UK)

John Rhode remains supreme—undisputedly one of the master minds of detective fiction.  He finds continuously, new and subtle ways of killing people.  The construction of his plots is flawless.  He is scrupulously fair to the reader; no one could feel cheated with him.  Detective-story readers’ appreciation of these startling merits is reflected in his steadily rising sales.  His new novel is, for sheer ingenuity, as good a crime novel as it would be possible to find.  The setting of the story is Farningcote Priory, the decayed home of the sinister Clapthorne family, whose destiny appeared to be governed by the stone tower that stood in the derelict grounds.  The tower was the cause of greed and unhappiness, and of comfort too.  The mystery that it held is fully worthy of Dr. Priestley’s nimble mind.

Blurb (US)

The old man dragged his dilapidated chair to the window.  With difficulty, he slowly extended a gnarled, shaking hand and pointed toward a distant, formless bulk, outlined against the sunset.  “The tower still stands,” he said in a high-pitched, quavering voice, which seemed to conceal a note of triumph.

Strange words from a man who has just been told that his eldest son lies dead, killed by the inexplicable explosion of his own shotgun.  To be sure, the body had been found near the tower, but what could be the significance of this ungainly, deserted structure that the old man should mention it so mysteriously?

Subsequent developments drew Jimmy Waghorn and Inspector Hanslet far from the actual scene of the crime in their search for the murderer.  When they finally brought their theory to that intrepid scientist-detective, Dr. Priestley, he offered a strangely enigmatic suggestion which threw new light on the case and set them on the track of an amazing discovery.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Leonora Eyles, 22nd October 1938):

Mr. Rhode’s book has one great fault: its jacket is enough to frighten any reader from taking up the book; a machicolated tower is portrayed with blood gushing from its windows with unnecessary realism.  And it would be a pity to be scared from the story, which is as sound as any collaboration between Mr. Rhode, Dr. Priestley and Jimmy Waghorn could be.  The Bloody Tower is a folly built in the 18th century by old Thaddeus Glapthorne.  When the story opens Simeon Glapthorne, the owner of the tower and the Priory, is an invalid living in extreme squalor with his son Caleb and his old servant Horning.  Caleb is found near the tower with a burst gun and half his head blown off, and the solution of the mystery, with its tale of buried treasure, discovered through an ingenious code of Bible texts, is cleverly engineered even if it is something of an anti-climax.

Books (Will Cuppy, 23rd October 1938, 230w):

We’re a pushover for any story containing Dr. Priestley, and this one is fully up to standard—maybe more so.  For one thing, the beginning is more exciting than usual, and that should please the speed demons.

Observer (Torquemada, 30th October 1938):

The Bloody Tower, a tale which has, in common with Policeman’s Evidence, both a hidden treasure and an indicative biblical cipher, is nearly, if not quite, the major Rhode for which I have been asking in my reviews of the last two or three Dr. Priestley books.  If Jimmy Waghorn had not introduced the gruff old scientist to the tragedy in three deaths of the Clapthorne family, a really astute murderer would almost certainly have escaped naming, for though the mechanism of one of his crimes is not particularly mysterious, it in no way indicates the perpetrator, and his other two are not only quite novel but also psychologically and mechanically sound.  In one of these other murders John Rhode’s villain merely makes a suggestion, and then relies on the dead to commit his crime for him; in the other he kills by exactly reversing the heroic rôle of O. Henry’s old Behrman in “The Last Leaf”.  John Rhode is decidedly back in the saddle again.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 1st November 1938):

In The Bloody Tower Mr. John Rhode gives another excellent example of his eminently satisfactory and solid talent.  The tower of the title, no connection with that in London, is a kind of mascot of the ancient family of Glapthorne, on whose estate it is built.  The head of the family is old and infirm, debts threaten, the son and heir is found dead, apparently by accident, really by a method of murder as ingenious as any even Mr. Rhode has invented.  Possibly the meaning of the inscription in the old family Bible may be plainer to readers, who know from much experience what, by all the laws of fiction, old and strange, inscriptions in family Bibles invariably refer to, than it was to Inspector Waghorn.  Possibly, too, the reader may be able to guess very soon the identity of the murderer by following the simple rule that the police are always wrong till Dr. Priestley puts them right.

The Times (1st November 1938):


The very uncertainty of life in the twentieth century may seem to offer an unfair competition to the thriller.  With so many dangers and excitements around us, it might be thought that we should choose a fictional escape with a greater contrast.  But a necessary law of the detective novel is a logical ending in which every loose thread is gathered up.  There is a certainty about this rule which makes the crime story an attractive, if temporary, escape from a reality in which it is impossible to read even the immediate future.

Mr. John Rhode, for instance, brings his well-known ingenuity at devising intricate problems to bear upon an ostensible shooting accident.  For better measure he throws in a second puzzle, a cryptogram to hidden treasure.  The Bloody Tower (it earned its name more easily perhaps than its historical namesake in the Tower of London) stood in the grounds of the Clapthornes, an impoverished family which clung to the legend that its fortunes were linked up with the edifice.  The elder son is killed through the bursting of a shotgun, but Detective-inspector Jimmy Waghorn quickly establishes it as a case of murder, not accident.  It need hardly be said that Dr. Priestley’s help is needed to bring home the crime to the right person, and incidentally to discover the treasure.

Sydney Morning Herald (14th January 1939):

The reader will not have to be a detective to be able to guess, before he is half-way through this novel, the identity of the murderer of Caleb Clapthorne.  Nor will he, unless he is dense, be long in getting a shrewd idea of the motive of the crime.  When it is possible to say this about a detective novel, what else is there to say, except that, in Mr. Rhode’s case, the writing is competent?

Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 15th October 1938, 60w):

We had the whole thing solved at the halfway point and skimmed the erst of the pages in a blind fury at the ‘brilliant’ Dr. Priestley’s fatal stupidity.

Sat R of Lit (22nd October 1938, 40w):

Suspects narrow down bit too quickly but for grim background, diversified action, and lively clue-chasing this is Dr. P. at best.