Tragedy at the Unicorn (John Rhode)

By John Rhode

First published: UK, Bles, 1928; US, Dodd Mead, 1928

My review

A disappointing tale that shows that Rhode hadn’t fully come to terms with the detective genre. There is a laudable attempt in the first half of the book to write a pure detective story in the vein of Agatha Christie, with several fresh red herrings teeming in the waters of Clayport, the coastal port where the unpleasant Dr. Grinling is murdered. In an unfortunate return to Rhode’s earlier style, however, the second half consists of passages lifted from Erskine Childers and Crofts’s Pit-Prop Syndicate. The final solution is badly anti-climactic.

Blurb (UK)

Rhode - Tragedy at the Unicorn.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Publisher’s Note.

I find it difficult to describe this very ingenious mystery story without revealing the insidious machinations of my good friend, the author.  Briefly, however, the situation is as follows:

In an old-fashioned country hotel one of the guests is found dead in his bedroom in circumstances which give rise to suspicions of murder.  It is established that the murder could only have been committed by one of the inmates of the hotel, and of these there are several to whom could be imputed very strong, though different, motives for the crime.  The reader who detects the murderer is to be congratulated on possessing no ordinary astuteness.

By the way, have you read this author’s equally ingenious mystery stories, “The Murders in Praed Street” and “A.S.F.”?

Blurb (US)

Of the six guests at the Unicorn Inn one night, five were amateur yachtsmen, their craft moored in the nearby harbour.  The sixth guest was Dr. Grinling.

On the following morning, Dr. Grinling was found dead – whether by accident, suicide or murder it was impossible to tell.  Strangely enough, each of the guests in the hotel had in one way or another, a motive for the man’s death.  Yet there was no evidence whatever to indicate who had committed the crime – if, indeed, any crime had been done.

Dr. Priestley, whose original investigations, notably in the mysterious series of Praed Street murders, had solved other problems, is called to the case – and to the added perplexity of all concerned, seems to display little interest in the murder.  Slowly, however, he discloses a remarkable story of crime, which, while directing suspicion, does not furnish definite proof.  Only at the close of the story, by a dramatic reconstruction of the crime, is the confession forced – the result of the detective’s astute understanding and effective analysis.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (30th August 1928):

Dr. Priestley is here concerned in unravelling the mystery of the strange murder of Dr. Grinling at The Unicorn, a highly respectable hotel at Clayport, a yachting centre on the South Coast.  Besides Dr. Grinling himself, the hostess, Mrs. Burgess, and her two daughters, Joan and Phyllis, there were staying at the hotel on the night of the murder a yachting party comprising Bob Weldon, the skipper, Mr. Attercliffe, the mate and narrator of the story, Richard Gateman, a persuasive young barrister in love with Phyllis, Percy Hunter, a serious young man in love with Joan, Mortimer, a mysterious yachtsman, and Ferguson, Dr. Grinling’s valet.  The morning after an hilarious evening, in which everybody except Dr. Grinling and his valet took part, the doctor was found dead, in his locked room, from an overdose of morphia.  The local police superintendent soon discovered that several of those present that night had strong motives for the crime.  It is all very perplexing, but Dr. Priestley, after being called in by Gateman, was able to trace the murderer and at the same time solve a smuggling mystery that had troubled the police for some years.

Sydney Morning Herald (12th January 1929):

The action of Tragedy at the Unicorn, by Mr. John Rhode, opens at an old-fashioned country inn which is named after the mythical animal.  One of the guests is found dead in his bedroom in circumstances which point to murder, and it is established that the crime must have been committed by one of the inmates of the place.  Several of them have strong, though different motives, for killing deceased.  One old acquaintance, Dr. Priestley, investigates the affair which taxes his acumen to the full.  The reader has his suspicions as to the identity of the culprit, but he is again and again led off on a false scent, and he will be astute indeed if he detects the murderer before the latter is unmasked.