The Claverton Mystery (John Rhode)

  • By John Rhode
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1933; US: Dodd Mead, 1933, as The Claverton Affair

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One of Rhode’s undoubted classics. Dr. Priestley is both mentally and physically alert as he investigates the death of his friend Sir John Claverton, which is a near-perfect murder. Indeed, so foolproof and unprovable is the method used that Priestley is forced to resort to a theatrical (if effective) séance to extract a confession, and one wonders whether the murderer would have been suspected had the conditions of Claverton’s will not forced him to attempt a second and obvious murder. Surprisingly for Rhode, the interest does not lie wholly in the plot, for the writing is excellent, both drawing original characters (the Littlecotes and Dr. Oldland – Rhode could draw character, but his regulars, such as Merefield, became more stick-like as time went on) and steeping the book in spiritualistic gloom.

Blurb (UK)

No. 13 Beaumaris Place was the last remaining private residence in a street long since given up to apartment houses.  Dr. Priestley had long been familiar with its rather gloomy interior, for he had been in the habit of calling there to see its owner, his old friend Sir John Claverton.  He again visits Sir John while the latter is lying seriously ill, and shortly afterwards receives word of his death.  The family physician, however, finds certain circumstances which to him appear suspicious, and after consultation with Dr. Priestley little doubt remains that Sir John Claverton was poisoned.  The case presents several baffling aspects, but Dr. Priestley, with his ingenious deductions from slender clues, eventually succeeds in finding a satisfactory solution to the case that became famous as The Claverton Mystery.

Blurb (US)

John Claverton, an irascible old misogynist, had clung for years to a gloomy house in a district which was rapidly becoming a factory and storehouse locale.  Isolated with an inscrutable sister who seemed to be eternally “waiting” and his embittered niece, he struggled to overcome a persistent but not serious illness.

His health was greatly improved when he was visited by his friend, the famous Dr. Priestley.  two days later, John Claverton was dead!

Dr. Priestley was shocked, but, because of certain circumstances, he was not surprised.  He felt absolutely certain that murder had been done – and reasonably sure that he knew the criminal.  He was, in fact, virtually preparing his evidence when news came from an incontestable source, the autopsy, that utterly destroyed his theory and left not a clue, not even a reason for investigation.

The Claverton Affair will stand out to his followers and admirers as one of Dr. Priestley’s greatest and most dramatic cases – most typical of his deductive methods in face of the impossible.  The reader is presented with every detail known to Dr. Priestley, but rare indeed will the reader be who can divine the solution in advance of the famous criminologist.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (29th June 1933): Mr. Rhode’s new detective story is a study of avarice in a group of people—poor relations—who expect to become beneficiaries under the will of Sir John Claverton, a wealthy recluse.  As a motive for crime money is psychologically the most interesting.  Murder is very seldom expected, at any rate in this country, from the most daring and ruthless thieves; only as the consequence of an unexpected contingency can it be called a crime passionnel.  In this particular case, although the Pubic Analyst could find nothing to justify Dr. Priestley’s suspicions that his old friend Claverton had been poisoned, there is never any doubt that his death had been deliberately and carefully planned, and by someone, presumably, who knew the contents of his will.  Mr. Rhode has given Dr. Priestley the task of unravelling the very complicated pattern into which the characters, hopes and fears of Sir John’s relatives have been skilfully woven.  The process is necessarily a slow one, and the reader may feel at times, as Priestley does on page 223, “as though a veil had been drawn between himself and these people, through which their actions appear indistinct and motiveless”.  The solution, however, is so ingenious that unless the authorities are prepared we may anticipate an increase in the death-rate of wealthy recluses.

Spectator (Sylvia Norman, 28th July 1933): For one of Mr. Oppenheim’s cream pies we have twenty cakes of solid oatmeal to grit our teeth onto, so the former must be declining into obsolescence.  On the present list, a number of the latter follow immediately.

Of these, I should pick out The Claverton Mystery and Inquest [Henrietta Clandon] as being the best fare, although the discovery brings no great surprise in either.  Mr. Rhode, presenting the possible and actual heirs of old Sir John Claverton (death “suspicious”) introduces spiritualism as his chief effect.  But he is not to be caught out by logical-minded readers anymore than are the authors of Murder Rehearsal and Sleep No More.  Spiritualism, Pirandellism and insanity are fine ingredients in the deepening of a mystery, but they are not to be left in on the final page, or the rules are broken and the fulfilment lost.  So Mr. Rhode gives us a cleverly faked séance in which the murderer’s methods are shown up to him.

Sat R (10th June 1933, 60w): Mr. Rhode has written again a good detective story of the standard type.  He holds the attention of his readers and provides plenty of possible criminals.

Sat R of Lit (26th August 1933, 40w): Well-knit, if long-winded, yarn.

Phyllis Bentley in the Manchester Evening Chronicle: A solid, workmanlike affair with well-arranged will complications and some exciting séances thrown in…  The moment Dr. Priestley is ushered into Sir John Claverton’s gloomy library we feel that crime impends.

News Chronicle: Mr. Rhode’s best story to date.

Morning Post: A fresh and readable yarn, plotted with an adroitness which commands the closest of attention from the reader.

Edinburgh Evening News: First-rate stuff.