By John Rhode
First published: UK, Bles, 1928; US, Dodd Mead, 1928
One of the best-known Rhodes, with its serial killings in a working-class district of London in the vein of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ (and Hitchcock’s) The Lodger. There is far more activity and action here than there would be in later Rhodes, which is both the book’s strength and its weakness. Dr. Priestley is personally involved to a degree he would be in very few cases (c.f. The Paddington Mystery, The Claverton Mystery), even going so far as to flee the country in a vain attempt to baffle the murderer, with whose original motive the reader feels some sympathy. Unfortunately, that murderer is remarkably obvious — and yet Dr. Priestley completely fails to identify him, and is taken aback by the glaringly obvious. Obviously he suffered the same problem as so many action heroes: his brains stopped working, while his muscles did all the work.
Seldom has Scotland Yard been faced by a more baffling problem than that presented by the series of terrible outrages known as the Praed Street Murders, which spread horror and fear throughout every home in London.
Not the least singular feature of these crimes was that in each case the victim was a middle-aged man, some petty shop-keeper or clerk, leading a quiet and unobtrusive life. Hence there appeared to be no motive for the murders…
And yet these crimes were clearly planned by a single fiendish brain, for in each case the destined victim had received the same sinister intimation of his impending doom…
With a strange and mysterious regularity, murder had come to the squalid, uninviting neighbourhood of Praed Street. Not one murder, which might have caused a temporary excitement, but a succession of murders – each different from the others, yet all alike in that they seemed without cause.
The police were alert – what clues were to be found they succeeded in proving false. And death in the form of blind, illogical murder continued to mark the squalid homes that lined that dingy thoroughfare.
As a last resort, Dr. Priestley, whose unusual methods of investigation had solved other baffling problems, was persuaded to lend his assistance. At the very outset, he found that he himself was a marked man – his own life was at stake regardless of his part in the investigation. After many strange adventures, Dr. Priestley, in a dramatic climax, suddenly finds himself face to face with the mysterious murderer and with the prospect of his own death.
The ending of the novel is starling and logical, the whole story is pervaded by a sense of the grim inevitability of cause and effect, and of the far-reaching consequences which sometimes follow the almost casual actions of our daily life.
Times Literary Supplement (18th February 1928):
It is not surprising that a whole string of murders occurring in Praed-street should have puzzled Scotland Yard. The first victim is James Tovey, a fruit and vegetable merchant, living in Lisson-grove; he is knifed in a public-house crowd in Praed-steet, whither he had been drawn by a bogus telephone message. The knife, which was stuck in his heart, had no handle. One witness saw a man who looked like a sailor, with a black beard and a scar on his face, close to Tovey; and though he is disbelieved, the Black Sailor becomes known. The second victim is Ben Colburn, the Praed-street baker, who is killed by a splinter of poisoned glass in his pipe stem. The third is Richard Pargent, a poet, who is also knifed in the street refuge opposite Paddington Station. Each of these men had previously received a bone counter inscribed with the numbers I., II., and III. respectively. There is nothing to connect these perfectly respectable men, any more than the three following cases. Inspector Whyland is at the end of his tether when the case is handed over to Inspector Hanslet, who calls in Professor Priestley. Then we get on the track and presently, but in the most surprising manner, meet the veritable Black Sailor. Who he was and the connexion between the seven men—Professor Priestley himself receiving the seventh counter—must be left to the reader of a very ingenious tale.
NY Evening Post (H.E.D., 18th February 1928, 90w):
Good writing, for a detective story, but with prolix, slow narration.
Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 11th March 1928, 180w):
Though complicated, the dénouement is credible enough, and the not unhappy ending thoroughly thrilling.
Boston Transcript (17th March 1928, 300w):
Mr. Rhode has characterised entertainingly and convincingly these unsuspecting victims and their environment, and thereby makes his grim tale plausible and not without humour. The present reader has enjoyed this narrative, and is inclined to recommend it to the judicious as a mystery story that will probably keep them sitting up—even if they discover the hint that points to the solution—and that may be read also with respect for its workmanship. Which, of course, is always a reward to the judicious.
NY World (Vincent Starrett, 27th May 1928, 70w):
A mystery novel that is to be recommended.