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

The Montrose Review (2nd June 1933): This excellent thriller by the anther of The Motor Rally Mystery – reviewed a few weeks ago in this column – is the Crime Club selected book for June. It is, of course, a murder mystery, and this time the victim meets death by poisoning. Mr Rhodes [sic] once more introduces us to that interesting criminologist, Dr Priestley. Sir John Claverton, an old friend of Priestley, dies, but the family physician is not all satisfied with the cause of death. A number of suspicious circumstances come to light, and Dr. Priestley is called into consultation. It soon becomes evident that Sir John had been poisoned. There then only remains the motive, the method, and the murderer. The case presents some baffling aspects, but Priestley, with his uncanny deductions – often from very slender clues – eventually solves the riddle to everybody’s satisfaction. The Claverton Mystery is even better than The Motor Rally Mystery, and that’s saying a lot. It is well up to the usual high standard of Crime Club books.

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.

Daily News (Charles Williams, 14th June 1933): The Claverton Mystery is Mr. Rhode’s best story to date, in spite of the fact that the lost capsule obviously had something to do with it; otherwise why – in a book – was it lost? In life, for a hundred reasons: but in a book only because it helps the book, and is therefore a true or false clue. Mr. Rhode has modulated his people much nearer to humanity than he usually cares to do.

Daily Telegraph (16th June 1933): Tales of Mystery

Crime Club issues are again well to the fore. Latest issues include The Claverton Mystery, Death in Fancy Dress, A Lesson in Crime. All are published at 7s. 6d.

In the first named John Rhode again makes Dr. Priestley his principal character, and the riddle the doctor solves is one that will give the reader cause for concentration. The author is leisurely in getting into his stride, but the pace quickens after the first of two unusual séances.

The. female characters are interestingly drawn.

Northern Whig (17th June 1933): The Claverton Mystery is a “Crime Club” book. Mr. John Rhode, the author, has written better stories of the kind, but it carries one on to the close. The poisoner whom the clever doctor Priestley, whose co-operation is so much appreciated at Scotland Yard, exposes in the most exciting scene in the novel, is a poor specimen of a criminal; his attempt to commit a second murder was as clumsy in the execution as stupid in conception.

Gloucestershire Echo (20th June 1933): A “Crime Club” book that has earned special mention is The Claverton Mystery by John Rhodes [sic]. It concerns the last remaining private residence in a street which has become entirely one of apartment houses. There lived Sir John Claverton, and it is an old friend, Dr. Priestley, who takes on the elucidation of the task of unravelling the mystery surrounding Sir John’s death by poisoning. An engaging tale.

Aberdeen Press and Journal (21st June 1933): From the Crime Club there come for June a very well-worked out case of Dr. Priestley’s, by John Rhode, who is now in the forefront of detective storywriters; a group of short stories, A Lesson in Crime, some of them very fascinating, about Superintendent Wilson, by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole; and a queer atmospheric thriller with quite unexpected ending, Death in Fancy Dress, by Anthony Gilbert.

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.

Illustrated London News (1st July 1933): The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen, The Murders at the Manor, by Clive Ryland, The Claverton Mystery, by John Rhode, and Bull’s Eye, by Milward Kennedy, are detective novels to be noted for holiday reading. They are all ingeniously constructed… John Rhode has discovered a new method of sudden death, so that though you may conceivably spot the murderer you will be very unlikely to guess how the murderer was done.

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

Books (Will Cuppy, 27th August 1933, 150w)

NY Times (27th August 1933, 180w)

Booklist (November 1933)

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.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): A fine example of good early Priestley. The puzzle is sound, the atmosphere menacing in a splendidly gloomy way, and the treatment of spiritualistic séances above reproach. Add an unusual method of murder and the advantage of finding Dr. Priestley on p. 1, and you have a book to hang onto.