By John Rhode
First published: UK, Odhams, 1933
It isn’t “Dr Priestley’s Greatest Case” – this is just the usual publishers’ guff, but it is better than Rhode’s rather forgettable stories of the early 1930s. Priestley appears on the first page and is active throughout, chasing hither and thither across the country investigating a case straight out of the annals of Dr Thorndyke: an old man whose death by strychnine poisoning is ascribed to natural causes, the disappearance of his nephew Ernest Venner, skulduggery with wills, and a dead body kept in a freezer. Unfortunately, the story also has several flaws, chief among which is Rhode’s failure to credit his readers’ intelligence. The mechanics of his plots are always ingenious, but the idea (unless it is some complicated murderous use of applied chemistry) is so glaringly transparent that the reader can nearly always spot the murderer by page 50. Here is no exception.
Rhode has thought up a brilliant idea (make one of the regular characters the murderer, rather in the way I suspected Dr Oldland in The Claverton Mystery) but spoils it by making it far too obvious. Since this is a detective story, Hinchliffe has to have been poisoned, which means that Faversham’s post-mortem was a lie; and since we are dealing with a disappearance, the discovery of another body belonging to a man about whom nothing is known and identified by Faversham as a former lab assistant of his though it is almost certainly Venner’s, means that Faversham has lied yet again.
The trouble is that Rhode isn’t cynical enough. He expects his readers to take everything he tells them as given, rather than wondering whether X is lying and, if so, why – always the safest way of reading a detective story, and a fine way of separating the sheep from the wolves.
The publication of a new Dr. Priestley novel is hailed as an event by all detective story fans. For the eccentric scientist-detective—the hero of so many Crime Club successes—is now regarded as one of the great detectives of fiction. The Venner Crime is as clever and exciting a piece of detection as one could wish for, with a disappearance, two corpses (one of them frozen), and any number of legitimate red herrings and unexpected twists before the murderer is finally traced and disposed of. The Venner Crime might well be called Dr. Priestley’s Greatest Case.
Saturday Review (6th January 1934):
Old man dies; nephew disappears, a vagrant’s corpse is found, and Dr. Priestley plays tag with death. One of those English “slow-motion” cases with much painstaking unravelling and a good melodramatic finish. Excellent.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 14th January 1934, 230w):
This is not one of the best of the Dr. Priestley yarns, but it is plenty good enough to pass an idle evening.
Time (29th January 1934):
The insatiably curious Dr. Priestley correlates a “death from natural causes”, an “ordinary disappearance” and a bill for electricity into a solution for one of the Yard’s unsolved cases.