(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The John Rhode novels are essentially locked-room mysteries. Rhode did not practice the hermetically sealed locked-room mystery of John Dickson Carr, however, so the device is primarily useful for circumscribing the incidents of the story. Understanding how the murderer had access to the victim is usually less the focus of interest than is the cause of death. Rhode was a master at finding unusual causes of death and was particularly adept at developing new variations on poisoning. Rhode is also justly famous for the atmospheric presentation of special settings such as the antique car rally of The Motor Rally Mystery (1933) and the séances of The Claverton Mystery (1933).

The Murders in Praed Street

Both Ellery Queen and Melvyn Barnes have singled out The Murders in Praed Street (1928) as one of Rhode’s best books because it shows how the story of serial killings can avoid monotony. Barzun and Taylor, on the other hand, criticize the book because Priestley blunders conspicuously into the action of the case, getting himself nearly gassed in the process. If not necessarily better, Priestley is certainly more characteristic (and Rhode is more comfortable) when he has ceased such active participation in cases.

Death in Harley Street

A good example of Rhode at his best and an excellent illustration of his method of fair play is Death in Harley Street (1946). The death mentioned in the title has already occurred before the story opens. The police have dismissed as a rather bizarre accident the death of Dr. Richard Knapp Mawsley, who seems to have injected himself with a fatal dose of strychnine. Someone might have entered the consulting room after hours, but it is hardly credible that Mawsley would have accepted an injection of strychnine without putting up a struggle. From the police description of the scene and of the events leading up to Mawsley’s death, Priestley is able to posit the existence of a missing letter and hypothesize (accurately, as it develops) its contents. This dazzling demonstration of his reasoning powers is a red herring, however, for it supports the theory of suicide, which is no more accurate than the official coroner’s verdict of accidental death. Early in the book, Priestley theorizes that this case must be a special instance of a violent death that cannot be explained as suicide, as accident, or as murder. While the police are pursuing missing wills and the whereabouts of the butler on his night out, Priestley uncovers a secret relationship based on facts and attitudes from Mawsley’s past that are clearly indicated to the reader. Priestley’s theory of the special nature of this death is vindicated at last when he administers a poison to himself to prove how the death occurred. Most readers will be less fastidious about terminology than Priestley and will count the final explanation as indicating murder, however subtle the guise.

The Dr. Lancelot Priestley Series

The Priestley series evolves in several ways over its thirty-six-year span. Superintendent Hanslet of the earlier novels retires, and the younger, more energetic, and somewhat more naïve Jimmy Waghorn replaces him and later rises to the rank of superintendent himself. On the other hand, this change of personnel does not alter Priestley’s working procedures. In addition, his Saturday dinners continue to be attended by Hanslet and Waghorn. These dinners are also attended by Dr. Mortimer Oldland in the later books. The primary way the books change is that Priestley becomes a more sedentary person over time. Like Nero Wolfe, he seldom leaves home in these later books. Because he was already elderly at the start of the series, this is hardly surprising, but he reveals his true character when he ceases pursuing facts entirely and participates in the cases only as a disinterested analyst. A third way in which the books in this series change is, unfortunately, that after World War II they become somewhat more mechanical and less imaginative.

It is often remarked that Rhode had no gift for characterization; Nicholas Blake has called Rhode’s characters ciphers. Although Priestley...

(The entire section is 1715 words.)