By John Rhode
First published: UK, Bles, 1929; US, Dodd Mead, 1929, as Murder at Bratton Grange
A brilliant story which, like The Murders in Praed Street, examines the question of justifiable homicide. The unpleasant businessman Sir Hector Davidson is murdered, stabbed on his journey from the train station to his house – an impossible situation which intrigues Dr. Priestley as much as what Mrs. Bradley termed the “logical elimination of unnecessary, and, in fact, dangerous matter” in the contemporary novel Speedy Death relieves the victims of Davidson’s syphilitic mismanagement of the firm. The murder is morally justifiable, but not legally justifiable, for the law must have its pound of flesh. How the murderer circumvents the due processes of the law and makes a mockery of Priestley makes for one of Rhode’s finest books.
As the Times Literary Supplement says, “Of those who write detective fiction John Rhode stands in the very front rank”; and The Davidson Case is perhaps the most ingenious mystery novel he has yet written.
Here is an outline of the problem that at first baffled even the astute brain of Dr. Priestley.
Sir Hector Davidson, head of the great firm of Davidsons Ltd., manufacturers of chemical apparatus, took the 4 p.m. train from Paddington to go to his country seat in Somerset. On arriving at the little country station of Ansford he was surprised to find that his car was not there; but eventually a Ford car was hired, and Sir Hector got up behind together with a large crate of scientific patterns which he had brought with him from London.
But when the van reached Bratton Grange, it was found that the crate had vanished – and Sir Hector was lying dead, stabbed through the heart…
In his investigation of the strange murder of Sir Hector Davidson, at Bratton Grange, Dr. Priestley realized he was facing an unusual situation. Sir Hector had been found dead with a stiletto through his heart. Suspicion settled on three persons – chiefly on Sir Hector’s cousin and heir – one Guy Davidson. About this young man, Dr. Priestley had woven a network of evidence from which he could not escape. Thereupon the culprit admitted the charge and calmly assumed the guilt – relying on a point of law which not only saved his neck from the noose but actually set him free.
Once again, however, Dr. Priestley renews the attack, building up his case from the beginning. Then comes the surprise – which may not be revealed here, for fear of spoiling the story for the reader. Suffice it to say that in fiction, as in actual life, the more clever the criminal, the more likely he is to overplay his part – a very dangerous error when a man like Dr. Priestley is probing into the crime.
Times Literary Supplement (25th July 1929):
Mr. Rhode, having established Dr. Priestley’s reputation as an investigator of obscure and puzzling crimes has apparently decided that too much success is not good for any man and that a little adversity is a wholesome medicine. Adversity is accordingly provided, and Dr. Priestley learns the sour taste of failure. This is partly the fault of those who professionally examine the corpse of Sir Hector Davidson, a baronet who maintains the best traditions of boldness and badness associated with that title, and provided him with conclusions based upon insufficient foundations. As the apparent cause of death is very obvious, he accepts their conclusions and thus plays into the hands of the very clever man who removed the Baronet. That it is a well-considered and almost necessary “removal” and not a mere murder is quite obvious to the reader and is carefully explained in the story, indeed, there is so little to be found in the corpse’s favour that it is difficult to believe that it and its cousin could have been so closely related. Mr. Rhode, who should be careful in future about allowing a nephew to succeed to the baronetcy conferred on his uncle and about letting his title be used before his predecessor’s funeral, has contrived a most cleverly worked out crime.
Time (12th August 1929):
When Sir Hector Davidson was found dead with a metal file driven through his heart, only one person was seriously suspected, Guy Davidson, the heir. First the police charged Guy with the murder; then even Dr. Priestley, famed criminologist whom Guy summoned, found sufficient circumstantial evidence to make the prosecution think it had a clear case. However, by calmly assuming the guilt, Guy was able, on a technicality, to go free. Afterward Dr. Priestley, discovering how the murder really happened, forbore to reveal his knowledge to the State. The story differs from others of its ilk in that, in the usual dénouement of “bringing the criminal to justice”, justice here involves neither police-courts nor retribution. Murder at Bratton Grange is sent out by the Detective Story Club.
Sydney Morning Herald (24th August 1929):
In The Davidson Case, by Mr. John Rhode, we renew acquaintance with that sagacious solver of mysteries, Dr. Priestley. The situation with which he has to deal on this occasion is as follows: Sir Hector Davidson is the head of a well-known firm which manufactures chemical apparatus. In the late afternoon he had taken a train from London to go down to his country seat. On arriving at the little station which served it he was surprised and rather vexed to find that his car was not there to meet him. However, a motor van was eventually procured, a crate of scientific equipment which he had brought with him was put in the forepart, and Sir Hector, sinking his dignity, got up behind the crate. When the van reached Bratton Grange, the crate had disappeared, and Sir Hector was lying dead, stabbed through the heart. Dr. Priestley had little to go upon and the prospects of fathoming this extraordinary business seemed remote. What actually happened the reader of this ingeniously contrived book must be left to discover for himself.
Spectator (31st August 1929):
There seems to have been a fashion recently for detective stories in which the criminal is also the hero. This is also the case here, and the whole book leads one to expect it, since the author has hardly made any attempt to provide an alternative murderer. Thus there is a certain dullness in an otherwise ingeniously constructed crime, and the reader will be able to feel, taking into consideration also the production of the book itself, that he has not had value for money. Even in these days, when the “penny dreadful” costs sixpence, one can do as well as this for half a crown at the most.
NY Times (18th August 1929, 200w):
All of Mr. Rhode’s Dr. Priestley stories have been good. This one is by far the best of the lot.
Sat R of Lit (21st September 1929, 150w):
Here’s a book designed to earn the scorn of all true lovers of detective stories. The author cheats most abominably. The title itself, as a matter of fact, is a little on the shady side, but the real dirty work appears in Chapter IV wherein the author in his own person, says one of his characters did certain things which he later is shown not to have done. It’s very lamentable, and, what’s worse, not really necessary.