The Motor Rally Mystery (John Rhode)

By John Rhode

First published: UK, Collins, 1933; US, Dodd Mead, 1933, as Dr. Priestley Lays a Trap

Priestley does a brilliant job of working out how the crime was committed, tracing the car on every stage of its journey to work out the murderer’s opportunity and method. Unfortunately, we are not allowed a look at the other side of the story; the question of who is the murderer hardly makes an appearance, so the book fails as fair-play.

Blurb (UK)

Mr. John Rhode’s new story is written around the great annual Motor Rally at Torquay.  A thousand cars racing on their thousand-mile journey through the night…an accident, or what looks like an accident…  The calling in of the local police, and then Scotland Yard, and finally, of course, Dr. Priestley, whose scientific acumen was never more severely tested than in this baffling story.  On very slender clues he constructs an elaborate and ingenious piece of deduction which shows Mr. Rhode’s clever craftsmanship at its best.  The Motor Rally Mystery, apart from its novel and topical background of particular interest to motorists, will appeal to all who like a thoroughly honest, straightforward detective story.

Blurb (US)

The death of Lessingham and his companion, Purvis, was, indeed, a tragic affair; but an automobile accident, especially one occurring in a race, rarely arouses suspicion.  Sergeant Showerby, however, was a conscientious soul.  His duty was to investigate thoroughly and investigate he did, with results that were suspicious enough to arouse Inspector Hanslet of Scotland Yard and, through him, the great criminologist, Dr. Priestley.

At first, there is so little evidence that one cannot understand Dr. Priestley’s interest in the case.  Then, one by one, clues appear – not the ordinary clues which fall fortuitously in a detective’s lap, but clues that are found because the Doctor, by his famous process of logical deduction, knows where to look for them.  Gradually a pattern forms, so diabolical in its simplicity and effectiveness that Dr. Priestley is forced to set a dramatic trap which very nearly ends the lives of both detective and criminal.

For sheer ingenuity of detective story mechanics, John Rhode has few equals; and none of his many stories presents a neater puzzle than this one which will perplex even the keenest detective fans.

Contemporary reviews

Spectator (Dilys Powell, 17th February 1933):

The famous Dr. Priestley’s acumen is severely tested in The Motor Rally Mystery (the Crime Club selection for February).  Why had car No. 519 swerved so violently into the ditch as to kill both its occupants?  Why was Lessington competing with a stolen car?  What was the meaning of the very feminine telegram?  Dr. Priestley as usual takes nothing on trust; and Mr. Rhode achieves a pretty piece of deduction.

Times Literary Supplement (9th March 1933):

Dr. Priestley, the scientific crime expert, proceeds along familiar paths in an ably told story which has the virtue of being straightforward.  The theme is not original but it is told vividly.  When the mystery opens a thousand cars are racing through the night on a thousand-mile journey, and an accident occurs—or what looks like an accident.  The local police are called in and fail to solve the problem; then Scotland Yard, who meet with a similar fate; and finally, Dr. Priestley, whose skill is severely tested before a satisfactory conclusion is reached.  There is a joyous and full-blooded chase, and the author gives everybody—detectives, police, criminals, and readers—a good run for their money before the significance of the murder is revealed, while a close-up shows Dr. Priestley modestly receiving the congratulations that he has earned.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 18th March 1933):

Inspector Frost and Professor Priestley (who solves The Motor Rally Mystery) have much in common.  They plod along collecting more and more evidence for us all to see, and in the end they both have a rabbit up their sleeves.  The main difference between them is that the professor here pads about among motor cars, while the inspector spends most of his time interrogating the kiddies.

Sydney Morning Herald (28th April 1933):


Murders of particular interest to bridge players and enthusiastic motorists are described in C.C. Nicolet’s Death of a Bridge Expert and John Rhode’s Motor Rally Mystery.  Apart from the originality of the theme in each case, neither can be regarded as a first-class detective story.

John Rhode’s Motor Rally Mystery may interest those who like to read about the intimate secrets of motor car construction.  Two men are found dead in one of the competing cars in a motor rally, which involves 1000 miles of constant driving.  Even when dirty work is suspected, no one seems capable of detecting the means by which the murderer attained his ends, until the ineffable Dr. Priestley makes everything plain.  It is an honest piece of reasoning, but somewhat dull, and not very convincing.

NY Evening Post (Rumana McManis, 14th January 1933, 20w):

Another excellent example of Dr. Priestley’s deductive methods with more action than usual.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 22nd January 1933, 150w):

To those who have read of the earlier exploits of Dr. Priestley it is scarcely necessary to say that he succeeds not only in proving that murder has been done but also in trapping the murderer, against whom there is no real evidence, into an act that makes his conviction certain.  This story is one of the best of the Priestley series, and that is no faint praise.

Evening News

Three friends competing in a thousand-mile contest come upon the smashed car and dead bodies of two competitors who started from the same point as themselves, but later…  You will find it a most exciting investigation.

Time and Tide

The solution is as ingenious, topical and satisfying as the most fastidious Crime Club member has any right to expect.