The Corpse in the Car (John Rhode)

  • By John Rhode
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1935; US: Dodd Mead, 1935

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One of Rhode’s very best.  Street’s books have imaginative ‘hooks’ which Freeman Wills Crofts and Henry Wade’s don’t.  Here, it’s a perfect murder, a death that doesn’t appear to be murder (c.f. The Claverton Mystery, Death Invades the Meeting, Death in Harley Street)—and the dead woman’s collection of forty-four stuffed cats.  It’s briskly paced, with a nice, dry sense of humour, and without any longueurs or excessive theorising.  Although I had a fairly good idea who the culprit was (having read the solution in another book), there are several suspects with motive and opportunity, and a good question of inheritance (missing will).  Dr. Priestley is very active, and the laboratory work he does to determine the method is engrossing—genuine scientific thinking.  The method (ROT13: nefvar tnf guebhtu gur jveryrff) is superbly ingenious and beautifully clued—the details fit together like clockwork, giving that feeling of ‘Aha!’

One of Rhode’s Austin Freeman stories—hidden poisoning (‘how’)—like Sayers’s Unnatural Death and Strong Poison.

Blurb (UK)

Lady Misterton, out for her usual drive in Windsor Great Park one chilly February afternoon, suddenly ordered her chauffeur to stop.  She had forgotten her bag.  Being an unreasonable and inconsiderate old lady, she coolly asked William to walk back to Clandown Towers—three and a half miles away—to fetch it.  The chauffeur departed obediently.  The old lady settled down to her needlework to the accompaniment of the music from the car radio.  Curious—and prophetic—that she should be listening to the gruesome strains of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.  For in that car an hour or two later Lady Misterton was found dead.  Foul play?  Well, that was a question for Superintendent Hanslet of the C.I.D., and ultimately for Dr. Priestley, who found this strange case developed into one of the most fascinating problems he had ever been called upon to solve.

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 9th February 1935): Mr. Rhode has written a humdrum, workaday book in The Corpse in the Car.  He belongs to the English school of Freeman Wills Crofts, with which it is impossible to find technical fault.  Superintendent Hanslet and Professor Priestley investigate in the most meticulous fashion the death of an old lady sitting alone in a car in Windsor Park, listening to her wireless: but it does take a long time before the Professor discovers the cause of death.  Mr. Rhode made a spurt in Shot At Dawn, but he is now reeling off the laps at his old pace.

Observer (Torquemada, 24th February 1935): Dr. Priestley’s painstaking and profound scientific knowledge provides Mr. Rhode with two kinds of detective plot: one, as in Shot at Dawn, where the how of crime is obvious, and we need the Doctor’s learning to show us by whom, and the other, here exemplified in The Corpse in the Car, where how is the mystery, and when that is solved the by whom becomes fairly plain.  This second type cannot help giving the adventurous lay reader an unfair advantage over the Doctor, for the former’s wild guess, unconfined by knowledge, will often hit the truth.  Not but what there are plenty of suspects to keep us entertained in this study of what to do with unpleasant old ladies.

Times Literary Supplement (28th February 1935): Lady Misterton stopped her car in Windsor Great Park and sent her chauffeur, Fitchley, home on foot to fetch her bag.  Because she was an eccentric and inconsiderate mistress he felt no surprise that she should compel him to walk four miles each way on a trivial errand.  He left her in the car, listening to the wireless.  Not many hours later he himself was in hospital, having been run down by a motor-cyclist, while a police surgeon began to wonder who or what had killed Lady Misterton.  Superintendent Hanslet of Scotland Yard soon satisfied himself that Fitchley’s accident was genuine and had no connexion whatever with the old lady’s death.  About that death, however, he could find nothing in the least satisfying, not even a probable cause.  Investigation would no doubt have been dropped if Hanslet had not put the puzzle before the celebrated Doctor Priestley.  Although all the clues are given fairly enough, it will indeed be an astute reader who anticipates the doctor’s solution.

Spectator (Rupert Hart-Davis, 29th March 1935): Both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Rhode are here well below their best.  They each introduce an unnecessary prologue, which, as Samuel Butler said of a good title, informs those who know anything about the subject that they not read the book.  These prologues in fact give the game away.  Both books are readable if unexciting, but Mr. Rhode sails very close to “mysterious poisons unknown to science”, and The Corpse in the Car is greatly inferior to his last book, Shot at Dawn.

Books (Will Cuppy, 27th October 1935, 270w): Dr. Priestley is one of the stand-bys who seem to improve with age.  This adventure is one of his slickest.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 27th October 1935, 270w): Those who have read Mr. Rhode’s other stories about Dr. Priestley are already familiar with his meticulous methods of examining every detail that can possibly have any connection with the crime.  In this particular case he has less material to work on than in any of his other cases, so far as we remember, and the story of his successful solution is so much the more fascinating.  You can never go far wrong with a Dr. Priestley story, and this is about the best of the lot.

Dorothy L. Sayers: Sound plot…well-knit reasoning.

Francis Iles: Precise detection…atmosphere.