John Rhode and Miles Burton | Series Detectives

By Miles Burton: The Secret of High Eldersham and The Shadow on the Cliff | The Milk-Churn Murder / The Clue of the Silver Brush | Death in the Tunnel | Death Leaves No Card | Death in a Duffle Coat

By John Rhode: The Davidson Case / Murder at Bratton Grange | Pinehurst / Dr. Priestley Investigates | Dead Men at the Folly | The Motor Rally Mystery / Dr. Priestley Lays a Trap | The Claverton Mystery / The Claverton Affair | Poison for One | Death in the Hopfields / The Harvest Murder | They Watched by Night / Signal For Death | Night Exercise / Dead of the Night | Death Invades the Meeting | Vegetable Duck / Too Many Suspects | Death in Harley Street | The Secret Meeting

Shorter Works: The Elusive Bullet | The Purple Line | Ask a Policeman

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

John Rhode / Miles Burton

Recommended Works:

Dead Men at the Folly (1932) (Chapters 1 -7, 15, 16, 20)

Death in the Hopfields / The Harvest Murder (1937) (Chapters 1 first part, 3, 5 first part, 7-9, 17) (available on-line at

They Watched by Night / Signal For Death (1941) (Chapters 1 - 5, start of 6, 13)

Night Exercise / Dead of the Night (1942) (Chapters 1 -4, end of Chapter 5, Chapter 9)

The Shadow on the Cliff (1944)

Death in a Duffle Coat (1956) (Chapters 1-4, end of 16)

Dr. Lancelot Priestley short stories

Short stories Ask a Policeman

John Rhode and Miles Burton

Cecil John Charles Street wrote mysteries under a number of pseudonyms, especially John Rhode and Miles Burton.

What is best in Street's writing? My favorites so far fall into two groups:

Commentary on John Rhode / Miles Burton includes:

Series Detectives

As "John Rhode", the author wrote a long series about Dr. Lancelot Priestley, a retired mathematician who assists his friends at Scotland Yard with solving crimes. As "Miles Burton", he wrote another long series about amateur sleuth Desmond Merrion and Scotland Yard policeman Detective Inspector Henry Arnold.

Dr. Priestley somewhat resembles Jacques Futrelle's earlier sleuth the Thinking Machine. Both are elderly scientists of enormous brain power and reasoning gifts. Both are dry, somewhat snappish men, whose sometimes caustic manner conceals a kind heart. Both frequently send the young men who assist them out on errands and leg work: the Thinking Machine is assisted by young newspaperman Hutchinson Hatch, while Dr. Priestley has his secretary and son-in-law Harold Merefield to help him. Both Hatch and Merefield are nice, friendly young men, who are often baffled about the point of the puzzling errands on which the Thinking Machine or Dr. Priestley send them, but who execute their tasks faithfully.

Dr. Priestley's character is that of a snappish old grandfather, the sort of character fantasy writer E. Nesbit burlesqued as the Psammead in Five Children and It (one of my favorite titles).

The Secret of High Eldersham and The Shadow on the Cliff

Rhode also published novels under the pseudonym Miles Burton, usually about wealthy investigator Desmond Merrion. Two of these share much common imagery: his first Merrion book, The Secret of High Eldersham (1931), and The Shadow on the Cliff (1944). Merrion is an ex-Navy Intelligence Officer, and he always loves being on boats. So does his man Norwood. Norwood does sleuthing too, and is fantastically helpful, in the tradition of such sleuth-servants as: These writers are all in the Realist school, or the Bailey school that partially derives from it.

The Shadow on the Cliff has a good Background of English country life. It focuses not on the country homes of the rich, but a more working to middle class environment: farms, country inns, fishermen, and the countryside itself. Rhode liked stories set in small villages. He also had a fondness for settings of pubs, typically as places where dirty work was done in small communities. Rhode liked hired hands as characters. These include assistant innkeepers, farmhands, and factotums on country estates. Such people take part in a network of relationships in his villages. They also tend to be ignored by other Golden Age writers, so they gave Rhode something original to write about. Rhode likes to suspect higher ups: in Ask a Policeman, these are at the highest strata of English society; in Cliff and Eldersham, they are the local authority figures and rich people. There is a distinct strand of anti-authoritarianism in his personality. Rhode's characters get around by a great variety of transportation; unlike other realist school writers, he liked old fashioned kinds like horses and buggies, as well as wheelbarrows and dollies. Rhode likes scenes in church graveyards. People often work at night in Rhode: Gruber in his workshop in Cliff, the farmers in Eldersham, the many pub keepers in his books, the soldiers in Night Exercise. Although they often stay up all night detecting, Rhode's characters crave sleep more than anything. Rhode also liked nocturnal settings. He was fascinated by lamps of all kinds, flashlights, the moon, and any other source of illumination. He is very good at describing both moonlight and fog.

In his stories the detective often seems to stay in the same room previously occupied by the murder victim, an odd approach not found in many other modern writers, even sleeping in the murder victim's bed. In his first novel, The Paddington Mystery (1925), the hero actually discovers the corpse in his own bed and bedroom. One can find some precedents in Victorian writers: in Volume 1, Chapter 13 of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1861 - 1862), the detective hero who is tracking the fate of his missing, probably murdered best friend and roommate, falls asleep on his friend's bed, and has a memorable dream about the detective search he is on. Similarly, Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk" (1878) in New Arabian Nights has a scene in which the protagonist finds a corpse in his bed. Stevenson read Braddon's book as a teenager, and it made a deep impression on him.

H.C. Bailey's characters like sensory stimulation, from strongly flavored foods, flowers, bright colors, and religious rituals. The many quotes in his stories, often from songs and hymns, also bombard his characters with music and poetry. I can identify with Bailey's characters - I share all the same enthusiasms listed above. By contrast, Rhode's like tobacco, alcohol, drugs, meat and the sea. This is much harder for me to identify with: I have never smoked, drinked, used drugs or gambled, and am definitely NOT an addictive personality, unlike many of the characters in Rhode.

Rhode's men love to disguise themselves. The disguises tend to cover his men's heads, and enlarge them; there is clearly something phallic about such imagery. While some men are emphasizing their phallic characters with their disguise, the witch cultists in Eldersham are uniformly dressed in women's clothes, both men and women, according to witch tradition. This gives an androgynous effect. All of the imagery in Rhode, whether substances or disguise, tends to a transformative quality. Characters wish to change their identity or nature, especially at night.

Rhode's heroines tend to be androgynous. Mavis in Eldersham is a Tomboy, drives speed boats, and is called more like a boy than a girl by one of the characters. The stepmother in Cliff manages the estate. The heroine of Cliff is a Naval Officer, a Wren, and wears a uniform. Her aunts are single women who run a farm, do much heavy labor, and dress in mannish work clothes. Feminists will like these gutsy characters, but feel sorry that they never get to do any amateur detection. By contrast, women who show traditional femininity are treated with contempt. These include the overdressed Mrs. Gruber in Cliff, and the society woman in Eldersham. These ladies don't work and are dependent on men. They are rotten to the core, in Rhode's world view.

Rhode liked to include elements of small time crime in his plots, especially dealing with the illegal sale of meat by farmers. This allows for plot complication, and also establishes a certain air of raffishness and disrespect for law among his villagers. Although the killing of farm animals is a constant in Rhode's world, it has sinister overtones. It is often linked to overtones of human sacrifice, for example, through parallelisms in the plot (Eldersham) or surrealistic imagery (Chapter 7 of Cliff). There are stone altars in both books with hints of human sacrifice: the pagan altar in the grove in Eldersham, and the natural rock Tregeagle's Bed in Cliff.

The Shadow on the Cliff shows Rhode's skill at plotting a fairly complex story, and having all the pieces dovetail properly. Rhodes contributed the superb opening section of Ask A Policeman, setting up the plot, the murder, the characters and their movements and motives. He didn't do any more, as befits the first chapter of a round robin. In some ways, Cliff is also all set-up material. It is pure mystery storytelling all the way through, and pretty well done. There is little "fair play" or great creativity with puzzle plot in the Agatha Christie sense. At the end of the story, we learn one of the characters did it, but there is no especially creative mystery puzzle idea in the solution. There is also little detection by any classical definition. The detectives learn things mainly by being told them by witnesses. Eventually, the detective gets a theory, which seems to be right. The solution continues the good storytelling of the rest of the novel by a well told account of the crime. It is most pleasant to read, but more as a piece of storytelling than for superb revelations. The passivity of the detective is mirrored by other characters. The author creates an excellent spunky heroine, and then nearly drops her from the novel's second half. The young hero of the story also almost disappears.

The Secret of High Eldersham (1931) is one of those mysteries that degenerates into a thriller. It starts out with a murder mystery, but by the end of the book all focus on this has been lost. This is too bad, because much of the book is well written. Chapters 12 - 16 form a separate section, largely dealing with the river and a mystery thereon. Rhode's detective Merrion eventually solves this mystery, uncovering an ingenious criminal scheme. Both the river navigation and the criminal scheme show the influence of Freeman Wills Crofts. Merrion's romance with Mavis, fears that her father is involved with the crime, and desire to protect her family from the authorities recall the amateur detective hero of Crofts' The Pit-Prop Syndicate. Similarly, the spies' communication scheme in The Shadow on the Cliff seems Croftsian.

Both Eldersham and Cliff start out in a pub, then move on to an outdoor setting in the English countryside. This setting, a river in Eldersham and a cliff in Cliff, is described with full Golden Age devotion to landscape architecture. Although no maps are included in the books, one could easily draw a map of both settings. Rhode loved landscape. The landscape literally speaks out at the end of The Shadow on the Cliff, in a way that reminds one of the modern theories of J. G. Ballard.

The Milk-Churn Murder / The Clue of the Silver Brush

The novel known as The Milk-Churn Murder (1935) in Britain and The Clue of the Silver Brush in the US, is a minor and episodic novel, not one of Miles Burton's better books.

Milk-Churns and Mystery

Its opening recalls The Cask (1920) of Freeman Wills Crofts: Long before The Milk-Churn Murder, famed magician Harry Houdini did a trick during his London tour, where he escaped from a locked milk-churn. This is also a possible ancestor of the novel's "body in a milk-churn" imagery.

Rural Economy: Food Production

Both the dairies and farmers are strictly rural, giving The Milk-Churn Murder a rural twist. It is one of many Miles Burton and John Rhode books to explore rural life and work. One can see parallels with his later farm-set novel Death in the Hopfields: The dairies are explicitly referred to as "factories": an instance of the author's interest in factories in the countryside.

The opening of The Milk-Churn Murder seems to be set in Somerset county in the Southwest of England. It is just off the railway line from Taunton in Somerset, to Westbury just across the border in neighboring Wiltshire county.

Death in the Tunnel

The novel originally published as Death in the Tunnel (1936) in Britain and as Dark Is the Tunnel in the US, has recently been republished in both countries as Death in the Tunnel, its original British title. Likely Death in the Tunnel is the name by which it will be known everywhere in the future. That is fine: Death in the Tunnel is a better title, and one that more accurately describes the book's contents.

The Tunnel

The best parts of Death in the Tunnel are those that describe and investigate the tunnel murder (Chapters 1, 2, start of 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). These tunnel sections are all in the first half of the book. While not at classic level, these sections combine such positive features as: I figured out most of the tunnel mysteries immediately following the book providing the chief clue (near the end of Chapter 6). So the solution to the mystery, does not seem especially well-concealed or surprising. One should not overrate the tunnel mystery. It's based on plot ideas that make interesting reading, but which are not overwhelmingly clever.

Various railway workers are either witnesses to the crime, or help the police during the investigation. These workers are given bits of characterization, recalling the many worker-witnesses in Freeman Wills Crofts novels.

The railways and tunnel aspects can be considered a Background.

Signal lights, used on the railway in Death in the Tunnel, return (in a a different context) as a mystery subject in They Watched by Night.


The tunnel mystery is a kind of how-done-it: a mystery in which the physical details of how the crime was executed are hard to determine, figure out or explain.

The majority of how-done-its focus on a hard-to-discover murder method. Death in the Tunnel is different: its murder method is a straightforward shooting, understood immediately by the police. Instead what is hard-to explain in Death in the Tunnel are subsidiary aspects of the crime. SPOILERS. These subsidiary aspects are the mysterious signal lights, and how the killer entered and left the tunnel. These are finally figured out and explained by sleuth Desmond Merrion (Chapter 9).

BIG SPOILERS. The criminals' use of a breakdown-lorry with crane-and-tackle (what in the US is called a tow-truck with a crane or heist in back) recalls The Sea Mystery (1928) of Freeman Wills Crofts.

SPOILERS. A mystery is how the criminals found electric power in the tunnel (set forth in Chapter 7, solved in Chapter 9). This anticipates the mystery of how electric power was supplied in a farm where there was none in Death Leaves No Card. In both cases, the solution is sound and logical - but not overwhelmingly surprising or clever.

The Main Murder Plot

After explaining how the crime was done in Chapter 9, barely one-third of the way through the book, Death in the Tunnel settles down to explaining the other mysteries around the murder, including who did it and why.

A minor plot flaw. SPOILERS. The victim keeps sending his family and co-workers out of town, so they won't be around to see anything when he does his mysterious business. Why didn't he just rent a hotel room in London, and do his business there? It would have been simpler and cheaper.

Death Leaves No Card

Death Leaves No Card (1939) is an excursion by the author into the Impossible Crime, one of around eight novels he wrote in this subgenre. It's a mild and ultimately fairly minor book.


The opening (Chapters 1-3) gives a readable account of the daily routine of a "bailiff's" wife and daughter, working class people who run a farmhouse for a well-to-do gentleman farmer. These people are more or less servants. This section shows Miles Burton's interest in rural life, once again from a working class viewpoint. And his admiration for women who work.

These opening chapters also show the police investigation of everyone's whereabouts before and during the murder, something Miles Burton does well here and elsewhere, considered as story telling.

Impossible Crime

Noises witnesses hear around the time of the crime, turn out to be important, showing Burton / Rhode's interest in sounds.

The explanation of the impossible crime is sound enough, but none too creative. SPOILER. It's in the tradition of "A Chess Problem" in Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1924) and The Man from Tibet (1938) by Clyde B. Clason. This was never the most elevated strand of impossible crime ideas to begin with, perhaps. Rhode adds one intriguing new feature: the fact that the crime takes place at a farmhouse without electricity, something that makes explaining the situation tougher.

Color and Clothes

Both Geoffrey Maplewood (start of Chapter 1) and his adult nephew Basil Maplewood (end of Chapter 2) are wearing brightly colored dressing gowns and pajamas. Such clothes were status symbols among wealthy men. These clothes stand in contrast to the working class rural environment around them. They make both men seem unsympathetic.

While these dressing gowns and pajamas are not disguise, they are perhaps linked to the men's disguises in other Rhode books. They do have a ritual quality, with their bright color and remoteness from regular garb. Basil Maplewood's nakedness also suggests ritual aspects, and gives him a phallic dimension. And Reuben Dukes' crowbar breaking into the locked bathroom, is as phallic as all get-out.

Rhode / Burton is less interested in color imagery, than are other writers like Ellery Queen. Please see the list of links to my articles on Color in Mystery Fiction.


The I.I.I. section (middle of Chapter 4) involves an account of a minority, that is certainly tasteless, and sure to give offense.

Death in a Duffle Coat

Mystery Plot

Death in a Duffle Coat (1956) is a mystery about a murder and a disappearance in rural England. The murder mystery is routine, but the disappearance puzzle is interesting. This is yet another work by this author, in which the non-murder subplots are much better than what is purportedly the central murder mystery. The best parts of the book are concentrated in the opening and the solution (Chapters 1-4, end of 16).

The author does a good job of hiding some clues about the disappearance in the story. The disappearance also gives him a chance to investigate the local bus and its schedule.

Rhode included a mystery about a disappearing car in Dead Men at the Folly. SPOILER. The two puzzles are quite different. But both center around a question, "where did the disappearing person or object go?".


Like other books by its author, Death in a Duffle Coat shows rural Britain as full of articulate, intelligent people, with strong organizational and practical skills.

The duffle coats are worn by two rural women, while doing outdoor chores. These are women dressed in masculine clothes. The women are sympathetic: more of the author's favorable treatment of working women in androgynous costumes.

Like some other Rhode or Burton books, such as Pinehurst, Death in a Duffle Coat shows unexpectedly high levels of violence erupting in a remote area of peacetime rural Britain. The police do little to investigate, waiting till an actual murder occurs to pay much attention. One suspects that today, authorities would investigate such violent outbreaks much sooner.


There is the usual stuff about the post-war Decline of the local Manor House. But pleasantly and more originally, this is counterpointed against an optimistic look at the local economy. Due to some interesting high tech ideas, the economy is picking up (end of Chapter 3, start of Chapter 4). Early books by this author often had closed-up or ruined factories in their rural landscape: see Pinehurst (1930), They Watched by Night (1941). But in Death in a Duffle Coat, someone is planning to build a factory. The book's optimism is heartening.

The Davidson Case / Murder at Bratton Grange

The novel known as The Davidson Case (1929) in Britain and Murder at Bratton Grange in the US, is a mixed bag. There are a handful of decent chapters (Chapters 4, 9, 22). But much of the book's storytelling and characterization is dull. It is "dull", in part, because many chapters do nothing to advance the plot, but merely rehash information we learned before.

Murder Mystery

A negative: I guessed four of the novel's mystery plot "surprises" right away, as soon as John Rhode introduced the situations he would later twist.

On the plus side, the murder mystery itself has a fairly dramatic, striking and original set-up, one that seems bafflingly mysterious. It borders on the impossible crime, although it is not quite fully impossible. The section describing the murder and its discovery (Chapter 4) is the best chapter in the book. And Dr. Priestley's explanation solving the mystery (Chapter 22) shows some ingenuity. Even though parts of it seem obvious and easily guessed, they have an overall degree of cleverness.

Aspects of the mystery set-up anticipate a bit, the ambulance sub-plot in Craig Rice's The Wrong Murder (1940).

More negatives: Some aspects of the mystery puzzle approach cheating. SPOILERS:

All of these borderline-unfair aspects make the murder harder to solve.

SPOILERS. The main mystery puzzle has aspects of the "breakdown of identity" beloved by the Realist School.

Landscape and Setting

Only occasionally does The Davidson Case display the skill with setting, that is an asset in Rhode's better work. Best part: the description of a real-life London river neighborhood, Strand-on-the-Green (Chapter 9). Both the initial description of the area, and the locals we soon meet in a pub, are vivid and pleasantly detailed. The river setting gives this a "landscape" aspect, a Rhode strength, even though it is in London, and not in the British countryside like most of Rhode's other landscapes.

The murder mystery (Chapter 4) involves a simple-but-pleasant rural landscape, in its later stages.


The heroine is being sexually harassed by her rotten employer. She does not respond very intelligently, by today's standards. One can hardly blame an author in 1929 for not having all the answers on dealing with harassment. But still, this aspect of the book is scrambled, dated and unimpressive.

Background: Technological Research in Business

There is nothing much wrong or offensive, as far as I can tell, with the novel's depiction of technological research in business. But it seems superficial, with not much interesting detail.

Technological research in business returns in Death Leaves No Card (last part of Chapter 4). It is linked there to crooked business machinations.

Pinehurst / Dr. Priestley Investigates

The novel known as Pinehurst (1930) in Britain and Dr. Priestley Investigates in the US, is minor and not one of Rhode's better books. It emphasizes thriller elements instead of pure mystery (something that tends to disappoint me, to alert readers to my personal prejudices).

Pinehurst is the name of the decayed, partly shut-up country house where the action takes place.

A Mysterious Siege

Pinehurst contains a situation found previously in the Sherlock Holmes stories. A remote country house is under siege from mysterious forces, that attack it intermittently at night. The siege is connected to the deep dark secrets of one of the house's inhabitants, and is related to his mysterious past. We the readers do not know the inhabitant's secret, what his past life was, or the identity and motives of the forces laying siege, and only learn all these details at the story's end.

In the Holmes tales, this approach works well, giving a story drama and color. But it is not so enjoyable in Pinehurst. One possible explanation: making all these details of plot mysterious works well in a 20 page short tale, like the Holmes stories. But stretched out over a full-length novel like Pinehurst, they can seem annoyingly vague.

Mystery Plot: The Murder

The main murder mystery is poor. SPOILER. A body is found at the start, the apparent accident victim of a drunk driver. The police, including a smart Scotland Yard man, never think to question the possibility that someone other than this driver could be the culprit, and that the crime might be a deliberate murder. When Dr. Priestley sets forth this idea at long last in Chapter 10, the police are shocked, shocked. This is treated as the ingenious idea of a Great Detective. But it seemed to this reader to be an obvious possibility from the start. Among other things, it is standard in all detective novels, to question whether the obvious suspect in a killing is actually the true culprit. Furthermore, the driver had no connection to the dead man, and no motive for any crime.

Mystery Plot: The Boat

Better is a non-murder subplot, dealing with the boat. In fact, this subplot is the best thing in Pinehurst. Rhode books often have a subplot that is better than the murder mystery.

The boat subplot: SPOILERS:

  1. This plot starts with a good bit of landscape description, the best in the novel: The arrival of the victim to Pinehurst by boat (start of Chapter 4).
  2. Then the mystery begins, with a description of odd equipment in the victim's room (Chapter 7).
  3. It is solved soon (Chapter 9). Once again, Rhode shows good ideas involving equipment and devices.
Observation and lines of sight within a landscape, play a role. These become even more central in They Watched by Night. Lines of sight regularly appear in the mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Rinehart used them before Rhode started publishing detective novels.


The victim is a mean man, who represses his wife and daughter, making their lives miserable. This perhaps has a feminist subtext, showing oppression of women in the home. However, there is nothing explicitly feminist.

The 1930 police in this book take drunk driving very seriously. Drunk driving's ability to cause harm is also stressed. Another British mystery writer E.R. Punshon will also briefly show police having negative views on drunk driving in Death Among the Sunbathers (1934) (Chapter 1).

Dead Men at the Folly


Dead Men at the Folly (1932) is an inventive mystery, with one of Rhode's settings in an imagined rural landscape. Such imaginary landscapes are among the best features of Rhode's work. This one also has some imaginary architecture: the Folly of the title.

The opening of The Milk-Churn Murder has a topography that recalls Rhode's previous Dead Men at the Folly. Both stories:


Dead Men at the Folly is rich in mystery puzzles. The best of these have to do not with the murder, but with a robbery subplot. The robbery subplot has three puzzles, all nicely done: Rhode's sleuths also come up with a preliminary solution to two of the robbery puzzles (whodunit, and how they got their inside information on the victims). This solution turns out to be incorrect and different from the true solution at the end. But it too shows ingenuity. Such multiple solutions are commendable.

Another mystery puzzle about how a crook gets information about a victim's life will occur in Vegetable Duck.

SPOILER. The disappearing car and its solution anticipate Hugh Penetcost's "The Day the Children Vanished" (1958).

Murder Mystery: How-done-it

Both of the first two murders have how-done-it features. The second murder is especially interesting in its causes and mechanisms. It anticipates the killing in Death Leaves No Card, although it has differences too.

Murder Mystery: Doubles

Dead Men at the Folly introduces doubles, with two characters who look almost exactly alike. Rhode employs this in a mystery twist that is decent enough, but far from outstanding. The doubles aspect is just one feature in a book filled with plot ideas.

Characters and Relationships

The biggest weakness of Dead Men at the Folly is that the book sags in the middle. We get a long, uncreative digression into the romantic problems of the first victim. The book also seems unfortunately uncritical of a man's dubious claim that he has a right to beat up any man he catches cheating with his wife.

Another problem: both the London scenes and the more upper middle class characters in these sections are duller than the rural landscape and its working class residents.

Leonard Trimmer

I like the young guy Leonard Trimmer who discovers the body (Chapters 1, 2, 3). He disappears from the story after this, unfortunately: if they made a movie of Dead Men at the Folly, one suspects his role would be expanded. He is riding that favorite form of transportation of the Realist School, a motorcycle. He works for a company involved in trade with Lithuania: trade with Eastern Europe being a recurring theme in Freeman Wills Crofts and Rhode. Crofts included both motorbiking and trade with the Baltics in The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922).

Trimmer is wearing practical clothes for his cross-country motorcycle journey: overalls. Despite this, local Inspector Richings has no trouble seeing that Trimmer is a "smart young city clerk" (Chapter 3). Trimmer's motorcycle and flashlight are both phallic symbols. So is the tower he stops at. And the steep hill he rides on.

Men in other Rhode books like phallic disguises. Trimmer is not disguised. But he is wearing special clothes and displaying phallic symbols. Trimmer is also traveling for the Christmas holiday: giving his actions a ritual quality.

Inspector Richings

Inspector Richings is the local top policeman. He too is a good character.

Inspector Richings has a sneaky, deceptive, almost con-man side. In this he recalls Freeman Wills Crofts' star investigator Inspector French. Both policeman are smooth, friendly acting, but occasionally deceptive. SPOILERS. Richings' apparent friendliness to Trimmer, is a sneaky way to get Trimmer's contact information and check up on him.

Trimmer's first view of Richings, is seeing Richings stand by that symbol of British friendliness and hospitality, a fireplace (Chapter 1). One suspects that this whole scene has been carefully stage-managed by Richings, to create a "friendly" impression.

A Cliche

Dead Men at the Folly (1932) has fun, leading the reader to expect one of the cliches of the genre. Trimmer himself worries that this cliche will take place (start of Chapter 2). Such a plot development was long since one of the cliches or bromides of the mystery genre. One can find it as far back as A Silent Witness (1914) by R. Austin Freeman.

BIG SPOILERS. We're talking about: "the hero finding a body. But when he goes to summon a policeman and returns with the cop, the body has vanished." This has been used countless times in TV crime shows, as well as prose mysteries.

Dead Men at the Folly milks this cliche for a little suspense (start of Chapter 2). Then deconstructs it. While Leonard Trimmer takes all this seriously, one suspects that Dead Men at the Folly views these ideas with humor.

The Motor Rally Mystery / Dr. Priestley Lays a Trap

A Rally

The novel known as The Motor Rally Mystery (1933) in Britain and Dr. Priestley Lays a Trap in the US, is a mystery about an amateur car race. It is not quite what we today call a "race". The drivers have to proceed through a whole series of British cities, keeping track of their routes and times.

Ronald A. Knox's The Body in the Silo (1933) also includes a rally, much simpler, more impromptu, and involving more upper class characters.

The progress of the drivers through various British cities, also recalls the car chases and maneuvers in R.A.J. Walling's That Dinner at Bardolph's (1927). Those were done for real, however, moving people around Britain as part of the thriller plot, rather than as any sort of rally.

The Claverton Mystery / The Claverton Affair

An Overrated Book

The novel known as The Claverton Mystery (1933) in Britain and The Claverton Affair in the US, depicts mysterious events in a gloomy old mansion. It is one of Rhode's most overrated works.

Barzun & Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime signal out The Claverton Mystery for special praise: "The puzzle is sound, the atmosphere menacing in a splendidly gloomy way, and the treatment of spiritualistic seances above reproach". I think their claims about the book's mystery puzzle are dead wrong. The mystery plot seems to me to be 1) painfully simple; and 2) full of specific problems, documented below.

A long list of contemporary writers who praised The Claverton Mystery could be constructed. I am not going to name most of these writers: which would imply some sort of personal attack on their judgment. This article will instead detail what I see as problems with The Claverton Mystery.

The Claverton Mystery lacks anything that resembles a Background. It tells us little about Britain or its society or institutions.


The Claverton Mystery has horror elements: a gloomy mansion, fake seances, a grisly murder method. Many readers today are horror fans, and tend to praise books with horror aspects highly. I am not a horror lover. Perhaps my skepticism about the merits of The Claverton Mystery reflects this.

I found the horror elements to be mildly effective, but nothing special. (And no, I don't agree with Barzun & Taylor that the "atmosphere" is "splendid".) Best part: the first seance (second half of Chapter 10). This leads to unexpected developments: always a welcome feature in a novel. Dr. Priestley's analysis of the seance has some good ideas too (Chapter 11).

Murder Mystery

The mystery elements in The Claverton Mystery are simpler and and skimpier than in Rhode's best books. There is a murder mystery, which pretty much makes up the book's entire mystery content. There are few of the non-murder subplot mystery puzzles that brighten the better works of Rhode, and other Golden Age writers.

The Claverton Mystery proposes two solutions to its killing: a false solution, midway through the novel (Chapter 9); and the true solution at the book's end (Chapter 16).

The earlier false solution is simple. But it is also fair and logical, drawing on the medical scientific facts about the crime. It shows a bit of ingenuity. SPOILER. It has weaknesses though: It does not feature an "active" murder, but merely a passive acceptance of an accidental death. This makes it less than a full scale murder plot: the kind of murder plot one expects as the solution in a murder mystery.

The solution at the book's end has problems. SPOILERS. The Claverton Mystery is mainly a "how-done-it", a murder where the main mystery is to explain how the crime was done. The murder method at the end seems plausible. But it also seems inconceivable that it would not have been discovered by the famed pathologist who conducts the autopsy early in the novel (Chapter 6). Sir Alured Faversham is supposed to be one of Britain's top doctors and forensic experts. How could he miss this? His failure to explore this aspect, despite Dr. Priestley's repeated pleadings to look for a murder method, seems unbelievable.

It also seems like a cheat, looking at The Claverton Mystery as a murder puzzle. Just as the poor quality of the doctor's testimony in The Davidson Case bordered on the unfair, so does the pathologist's poor work in The Claverton Mystery seem like an unfair basis for a mystery.

BIG SPOILER. The information about the gelatin capsules (Chapter 1) seems to announce their significance. They made it seem obvious that a capsule had been tampered with.

There are few clues to the identity of the guilty party. SPOILER. The suspect's motive is sound and logical. This is the main clue to the identity of the killer.

The Will

The will and its mysterious clauses can perhaps be considered as mystery subplots. They are poor.

First subplot: Two heirs are unexpectedly named in the will. The reasons for their inclusion is a mystery, not explained in the will. I immediately suspected why they are there: it seems like an obvious possibility. However, it takes Dr. Priestley many chapters to tumble to this fact.

Second subplot: SPOILER. There is a marriage clause in the will. Its motivations are mysterious. It strongly suggests some deep dark mystery. However, when its motive is eventually explained, the motive seems inadequate, illogical and harmful to the woman (start of Chapter 13). This subplot doesn't work.


The Claverton Mystery does not include the rural landscapes that are a creative feature of Rhode's best works. Instead, there is a simple cityscape. It evokes the changing nature of an old London street, as buildings are torn down, and replaced by modern structures (Chapter 1). In the tradition-worshipping R. Austin Freeman, such a change would be seen as wholly bad. However, The Claverton Mystery stresses the gloomy, oppressive nature of the old Claverton mansion. It is perhaps not so awful that this depressing environment is giving way. Also, the new buildings being erected seem more interesting than the mansions being torn down.

As is frequently the case in British mystery writers of the early 1930's, modernity and changes coming to Britain, are symbolized by the movies: here a new cinema building (Chapter 1). E.R. Punshon's Genius in Murder (1932) praises modernity and the movies, while J.J. Connington's The Sweepstake Murders (1931) condemns them.


The suspects are offstage for much of the story. Three of the suspects are briefly seen in a drawing room (Chapter 1). They are then talked about endlessly, without reappearing for many chapters. Dr. Priestley takes an instant dislike to them. Admittedly, they come off as an unpleasant lot. Still, a brief glimpse is hardly fully developed characterization. I found the brief, oblique glimpses of the characters frustrating. This is not as good an approach as depicting characters in depth.

In their first brief appearance, Dr. Priestley feels the characters are fiercely hostile to his presence in the mansion. This suggests some hidden, mysterious reason for this hostility. However, as best as I can tell, no such reason appears, in the rest of the book.

Similarly, in the opening Dr. Priestley is shocked by the decayed appearance of his old friend Claverton. This too suggests some hidden mystery about problems haunting Claverton. But no such problems emerge. This hint approaches the dimension of a cheat.

As has been pointed out by reviewers, The Claverton Mystery is unusual in Rhode's work, in that Dr. Priestley is front-and-center through the whole novel, instead of making brief appearances as a consultant to Scotland Yard. Further, we are shown Priestley's thought processes and emotions in detail, throughout the whole novel. In theory, this suggests that The Claverton Mystery should have better characterization of Priestley than other books. In practice, however, I didn't enjoy Priestley's characterization in The Claverton Mystery. I liked him better in Death in the Hopfields and other works, despite his briefer appearance.

Poison for One

Poison for One (1934) is an uneven book, not entirely successful, but with some good parts and ideas. The story telling in the first two sections (Parts 1 and 2) is good, and makes enjoyable reading. And there is a clever mystery subplot about a phone call. But much of the main murder mystery's solution is disappointingly routine.


Part 2 contains an interesting technological and business account, of a mining and manufacturing operation which the characters run. This portrait can be considered a mini-Background. It reminds one of the business enterprise in The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) of Freeman Wills Crofts. Both of these enterprises get raw materials from Eastern Europe: the Baltics in The Pit-Prop Syndicate, Albania in Poison for One.

There are pleasant elements of borderline science fiction, in the imaginary, made-up technical details of the manufacturing in Poison for One. These science fiction aspects play no role in the mystery puzzle or solution, however, which are strictly realistic.

Movements around Crime Scene

Parts 1 and 2 contain a police investigation of the movements of the characters around the crime scene, before and during the murder. I have mixed feelings about this. Both here and in Death Leaves No Card, Rhode's detailed account of the movements is fun to read about. He does this nicely as story telling. But in both books, the movements also ultimately play only a little role in unravelling the mystery. They do not contain ingenious hidden patterns, or cleverly faked alibis, or have much to do with technological methods used in the murder. A simple clue to the killer's identity does get embedded in these timetables in Poison for One, however.

Mystery Plot: The Phone Call

SPOILERS. Poison for One contains three separate mystery puzzles. The best of these is the subplot, about the telephone call at 10:15. This starts out by looking simple and straightforward. Rhode pleasantly complicates this, ultimately giving it baffling dimensions, and then a clever solution.

The phone call enters the mystery as a ringing bell the secretary says he has overheard. This is an example of the importance of sounds in Rhode.

Mystery Plot: The Murder

Rhode develops a Least Likely Person as the identity of the killer. I found this aspect easy to guess.

The how-done-it, about how the murder was committed, seems only moderately clever to me. An incorrect guess by the police inspector, towards the end of Part 2, is actually cleverer than the book's solution at the end.

BIG SPOILERS. William L. DeAndrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa pointed out the numerous evil mechanical devices used in Rhode's solutions. These devices are fair and legitimate. But they tend not to greatly impress me either. The mechanical device proposed by Priestley as the killer's weapon, is fairly close what one suspects most readers will guess, much earlier in the book. It is more detailed, but not all that surprising.

Death in the Hopfields / The Harvest Murder

Background: London City People Working as Farm Labor

The novel known as Death in the Hopfields (1937) in Britain and The Harvest Murder in the US, is another of Rhode's books with a rural setting. The story opens with a description of a rural region in England that grows hops, and of the vast influx of field workers during harvest time (first half of Chapter 1). It is unclear in England where the tale is set, but it might be the county of Kent, a region known both for hop growing and proximity to London, where most of the field workers come from. I have never read of another farm crop, where the workers come from a large city to work the harvest. The picture of poor Londoners from the East End coming out to the countryside to work the fields is unusual.

Much of the book is very low key. An entire chapter (Chapter 3) is devoted to the local pub, and its arrangements for handling the big crowds of field workers during harvest time. This has nothing to do with the mystery, and not much to do with the actual hop harvest either. It is an odd look back at how businesses dealt with crowds, way back when. It is not brilliant, but the fact is I don't recall anything like it in other mystery novels, and one has to admit that it is at least "different". There is a further detailed look at the harvesters getting their food (first half of Chapter 5). Most of the characters in these sections are working class. They form a "group portrait" of working class British of the era.

The organizational challenges of hosting field workers in a rural region in Death in the Hopfields, anticipate the World War II hosting of large scale enterprises in the countryside in They Watched by Night - although They Watched by Night centers on security rather than providing food and drink. More distantly, it evokes a complex event staged by country people themselves in Night Exercise.

The city people in working as migrant harvesters in Death in the Hopfields are very different from their rural hosts. Similarly, the wartime technical expert workers in They Watched by Night are nerd-like, and drastically different from the traditional British Army. Rhode seems sympathetic to these people with different ways, in both novels.

Nick Fuller's article on Death in the Hopfields reprints 1930's reviews, including an interesting one by E.R. Punshon. Punshon praises both the hopfield and pub backgrounds.

Food and Drink: Links to Vegetable Duck

The look at providing the proletarian field workers with food and drink in Death in the Hopfields, can be contrasted with the look at preparing and serving food in a middle class household in Vegetable Duck. Both novels have much about the food or drink preparers themselves, the pub workers in Death in the Hopfields, the maid Ellen in Vegetable Duck. Both works are richly detailed, preserving like a time capsule the concrete processes of drink and food handling and serving.

Both books also look at agriculture, showing food being grown:

The opening of The Milk-Churn Murder shows us a bit about a rural dairy, although it is less informative and detailed than Death in the Hopfields or Vegetable Duck.

The Fire Mystery

The best part of the book is a subplot about a mysterious fire. This forms what is nearly a separate short story (Chapters 7-9). This is interesting both for its description of how firefighting worked in rural England of the day, and also for its later investigation as a mystery. In the mystery puzzle, both noises and the sense of smell play a role. These chapters also contain an in-depth look at the hop harvest, completing the picture sketched out in Chapter 1.

Murder Mystery: Strengths and Weaknesses

The main murder-and-theft mystery puzzle is ordinary: something dull and uncreative that takes up much of the book. The endless padding devoted to this mystery harms a book, which otherwise has much interest. SPOILERS. The police take forever to suspect a missing man is dead, while readers immediately guess this, in part because of the title of the book!

SPOILERS. A much better puzzle then briefly emerges. This new puzzle revolves around that R. Austin Freeman subject, the disposal of the corpse. When Dr. Priestley knows how the body was disposed of, he then can directly deduce who did the murder. This solution is simple, but logically sound (Chapter 17).

Had Rhode included only the good parts of Death in the Hopfields, and left out the padding, he would have had a first rate novella. Instead, these creative sections are embedded in a long book that has many routine episodes.


British mystery novels set in farming regions tend to take an interest in farm architecture, especially tall, unusual buildings used to process plants: I've seen hops in botanical gardens, but have never visited a hop field or an oast house. Readers might increase their enjoyment of Death in the Hopfields by doing some Internet searches on these terms. The oast houses are beautiful and unusual. A photograph of oast houses was on the original book jacket of Death in the Hopfields.

They Watched by Night / Signal For Death

World War II Britain

The novel known as They Watched by Night (1941) in Britain and Signal For Death in the US, is a mystery with a World War II Britain setting. Its heroes are looking for lights at night in a blacked-out region of rural Britain; its villain is a pro-Nazi traitor who is signaling Nazi warplanes where to bomb. Aside from a vividly written opening (Chapter 1 to start of Chapter 6), it seems to be one of Rhode's lesser books.

As R.E. Faust points out in his review at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, They Watched by Night is better in its depiction of war-time Britain, than in its mystery elements. The opening offers a detailed picture of the many security forces operating in a rural British town. They are surprisingly varied.

There are also lively glimpses of a technological project by the British Armed Forces. These are in keeping with Rhodes' and the Realist School's interest in technology. Unfortunately, this material drops out of the novel after the opening. They Watched by Night gets some comedy out of the technicians' drastic contrast in appearance, grooming and attitude from the traditional military types around them. These technicians are clearly what we would today call "nerds", although the book never uses that term, which wasn't invented till decades later. The book also makes clear the technicians' skill, determination and patriotism.

Treason and Politics

The detective hero immediately rejects the idea that the traitor will be someone of German descent. At the end, the traitor turns out to be a pro-Nazi ideologue, rather than someone ethnically German. Like all the suspects in the book, the traitor is an upper class English gentleman. Politically, this is quite different from Death of a Train (1947) by Freeman Wills Crofts, which suggests all World War II English traitors were of German descent.

Do Not Disturb (1943) by Helen McCloy suggests that the right-wing politics of rich upper class Americans makes them likely to be Nazi sympathizers and traitors. Rhode doesn't go this far, or make any critique of the British upper classes' politics. But he definitely holds open the possibility that there are Nazi ideologues lurking in Britain's upper classes.

Undercover Work

Two of the sleuths in They Watched by Night take on undercover roles, in the opening chapters. These make for entertaining reading. The undercover roles are fairly mild in scope: they are just among the honest villagers, and do not involve infiltrating bad guys. Nor do they actually lead to disguise, a subject that pops up in some other Rhode novels.

One wonders if British mystery writers associated undercover roles for the police with wartime counter-espionage work. Crofts' Death of a Train also has police taking on undercover assignments in wartime Britain.


The opening offers one of Rhode's skilled portraits of a rural village landscape.


There are lyrical portraits of what lights in a night-time village look like to an observer. These passages reflect Rhode's ongoing interest in describing light.

Another favorite Rhode subject, fog, gets a lyrical treatment in the description of the night mist (start of Chapter 6).

They Watched by Night is full of a favorite Rhode device, the flashlight. The sleuth solves a small-but-creditable mystery subplot about flashlights (start of Chapter 6).

The night-watchers studying the lights in They Watched by Night also reflect Rhode's fascination with nocturnal labor.

Mystery Plots

Lack of logical connections are a problem: Other problems: the murder mystery has little interest or creativity. SPOILER. As is easy to guess, it involves one of Rhode's technological devices. The device shows Rhode's technical skill, but it is not that interesting. As a mystery about a fire in a rural England setting, it recalls a better Rhode novel, Death in the Hopfields. Both have a somewhat similar solution, although I think the ideas in Death in the Hopfields are more creative.

The location where the signaling is taking place is somewhat startling and even a bit surreal (Chapter 13). But is also implausible. SPOILER. The location might well be invisible to the town's main observation posts. But it would be highly visible to neighbors, travelers on nearby roads, etc. These people would have long since raised alarms, spread reports of light, etc. The book does not consider this. Earlier, the sleuth came up with a duller, but far more plausible, potential locale for the signaling (Chapter 5).

A clue to the identity of the traitor, involves the passing on of information, and what people knew and did not know. A differently structured puzzle about the flow of information will occur in Vegetable Duck.

In general, the mystery about the traitor signaling is consistently better than the murder mystery. The signaling plot benefits from vivid description of the sleuth's night-watch activities, an inventive-if-implausible locale for the signaling, and Dr. Priestley's technological ideas about the signaling. These aren't perfect, but they are creditable. By contrast, the murder mystery is second rate.

Captain Brockhurst

A subplot involves Captain Brockhurst. Brockhurst is my favorite character in the novel. Although a retired military officer, Brockhurst is posed halfway between the strict military types and the techno-nerds. His low key, working-officer portrayal offers a sly comic commentary on the excessive attitude of the traditional military man Major Matfield.

There is a mystery sub-plot about the (separate) mysterious activities in which Brockhurst and Mr. Pembury are engaged. This has a clever solution (Chapter 13).

One wonders if Brockhurst is in part an autobiographical portrait of the author.

Night Exercise / Dead of the Night

The novel known as Night Exercise (1942) in Britain and Dead of the Night in the US is one of Rhode's few non-series mystery novels.

Background and Landscape

Like R.A.J. Walling, Rhode's book provides a first hand account of war time Britain. The opening chapters (1 - 4) vividly describe a Background of the British Home Guard doing a war exercise in preparation against a possible Nazi invasion of Britain. These entertaining chapters show many of Rhode's strengths as a storyteller: All of this marks the story as very personally Rhode's own.

The fire fighters recall similar countryside fire fighters in Death in the Hopfields.

The simulation of a loss of electric power during the exercise, recalls the mystery based on a farmhouse without electrical power in Death Leaves No Card. However, the electrical simulation in Night Exercise is not involved with the book's mystery plot.

Mystery Plot: A Disappearance

Unfortunately, after this well done first third of the book, the mystery plot that Rhode propounds is perfunctory. Much of the rest of the book has little interest, although occasionally the book shows charm.

There are some detective developments about a disappearance of a character (Chapter 4, end of Chapter 5, solved in Chapter 9). These broadly parallel the mysterious disappearance of a car in Dead Men at the Folly. The character in Night Exercise was walking along a path; the car in Dead Men at the Folly was on a road: both out in the countryside.

The puzzle in in Dead Men at the Folly is a full-fledged impossible crime. Rhode could easily have made the disappearance in Night Exercise an impossible crime, too - and it would have made a better mystery. But he choose to give a non-impossible alternate explanation (a maze of hedges and ditches through which the character could have wandered off, is mentioned at the end of Chapter 5).

SPOILERS. This alternative explanation shows the Golden Age interest in landscape and architecture. So does the real solution, when it is revealed.

A Self-Portrait?

The central character of the story, Major Ledbury, is both an Army officer and a novelist. In this he resembles Rhode himself, who followed both professions. Ledbury even has the same rank as Rhode, that of Major. One wonders if the portrait has a degree of autobiography. Rhode would have been 57 in 1941, when the novel is apparently set: exactly the same as Major Ledbury in the book. Certainly Rhode's inside knowledge of Army work gives an extra edge of detail to the depiction of the war games in the novel.

Also a bit unusual: the way that Ledbury's wife and children are briefly and proudly alluded to in the novel (Chapter 8), but never put in an on-stage appearance. If their glowing descriptions are intended as a tribute to Rhode's own family, this would make sense. Rhode would feel comfortable praising them. But he would not want to exploit them by dragging them on stage as characters in the story.

Death Invades the Meeting

Death Invades the Meeting (1944) is one of Rhodes' poorest books. It suffers from relentlessly dull storytelling. There is little of interest in its characters or setting, a provincial organization that is conducting a low-level meeting.

Mystery Plot

SPOILER. The mystery plot and solution rework material from earlier Rhodes books, such as the second killing in Dead Men at the Folly, and especially Death Leaves No Card.

The solution involves another of Rhodes' "murderous devices": something that most readers will guess right away. This particular device is different in detail from those in earlier Rhodes books, a point in its favor. Unfortunately, this gizmo approaches the ridiculous. It can be considered as Camp, or something nearing self-parody for Rhodes. It seems to burlesque that cliche of the British Mystery, "the body in the library".

The gizmo is probably the best part of Death Invades the Meeting, silly if minor fun. It would have been serviceable as a plot device, if Rhodes had used it in a short story, one with better storytelling and a sense of humor.

Vegetable Duck / Too Many Suspects

The novel known as Vegetable Duck (1944) in Britain and Too Many Suspects in the US, is a poisoning mystery.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Vegetable Duck is a lightly charming book, with a number of virtues: On the negative side, Vegetable Duck has limitations, some serious enough to prevent it from being a work of the first rank:

Food Preparation: A Background?

There is no conventional Background in Vegetable Duck, in the sense of a look inside some institution or business.

We do learn something about how a middle class household of the era bought, prepared and served food, right down the various kinds of plates and serving dishes used. The maid Ellen's testimony about this is often interesting. Perhaps this information on "home use of food" can be considered as a small Background of sorts.

An earlier Rhode novel about preparing food is Death in the Hopfields. Its review above makes a detailed comparison to Vegetable Duck.

Puzzles: The Letter

The subplot about the letter is a clever puzzle mystery. It has a full complement of mystery characteristics: a baffling situation that initially seems impossible, detective work that reveals interesting aspects about the mystery, but doesn't solve it; a solution that is surprising, logical and based on clues. This subplot is a full, "fair play" mystery, in other words.

The letter subplot in Vegetable Duck is comparable in broad terms, to the phone call subplot in Poison for One. Both are ingenious mysteries about means of communication; neither is directly linked to the main murder mysteries in their books.

The Other Two Puzzles


The puzzle about how the poison was introduced into the food is mildly clever. (It gets solved in the first half of Chapter 12.) As both Nick Fuller and R.E. Faust point out in their reviews at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, Rhode's puzzle and solution are variations on R. Austin Freeman's earlier short story "Rex v. Burnaby". Rhode's variation is enough to make his idea legitimately original, but it is still fairly close to Freeman.

The other puzzle is how the killer could have learned enough about routine in the victim's flat, to have planned the crime. This gets a good explanation (Chapters 21, 22). Another Rhode with a mystery puzzle about how crooks learned enough about a victim is Dead Men at the Folly.


The delivery elevator at the flats, is an example of the Golden Age's interest in unusual architecture (Chapters 6 (first part), 9, 10).

SPOILER. This elevator and its use to deliver food also play a role in the mystery plot. This allow the range of possible suspects to be enlarged dramatically. Its use means that the killer was not necessarily in the flat.


The victim and her husband have inherited money, and live lives of leisure. In many British detective novels of the era, the leisure class is depicted as full of people of breeding and culture. Not this couple. They are about as vulgar and vice-driven a pair as could be found. It is a negative portrait of Britain's leisure class.

In some ways the maid Ellen is the most sympathetic person in the book, hard working and highly observant. But she is also treated as a comic figure, an overwhelming chatterbox. It is a somewhat mixed portrait, of a working class woman.

The Titles

Vegetable Duck is a better title for the novel. It is unusual and intriguing.

Too Many Suspects is a poor title: the mystery in the novel actually has only a few suspects! One might conjecture that Too Many Suspects was slapped on the book by a publisher, who hoped to emphasize to potential readers that the book was a murder mystery.

Death in Harley Street

Death in Harley Street (1947) is a mystery with a medical setting, Harley Street being the traditional office location of high-prestige London doctors.

An Unconventional Mystery

Death in Harley Street has an unusual, non-standard construction for a mystery. The facts of the case are seemingly not in dispute. But they seem poorly motivated: it is apparently impossible to understand why the victim acted as he did. Coming up with a logical explanation of these actions, or motive for them, seems to constitute the mystery.

Quite a few mystery lovers seem to prize mysteries highly, that offer formal variants on the standard construction of detective fiction. By contrast, I tend to have mixed feelings about such works. I try to welcome innovation. It certainly takes imagination to create variations on the standard mystery paradigm. Rhode in Death in Harley Street, and other writers who offer such works, deserve credit for new approaches. But it is also easy to overvalue such tales. It is going too far, as some readers do, to automatically regard any work that varies mystery paradigms as a "masterpiece" or "classic".

On the negative side, the puzzle and solution in Death in Harley Street are fairly simple.

Mystery Plot

SPOILER. The mystery plot and solution bear a broad family resemblance to The Door Between (1937) by Ellery Queen, and the final thriller-twist in "After Dinner Story" (1938) by Cornell Woolrich. However, Rhode's over-all puzzle is different from either.

The Secret Meeting

The Secret Meeting (1951) is a very poor mystery-and-intrigue novel. It is not recommended.

Mystery Plot

I thought it was easy to figure out how the criminals got into the locked room. This idea is not at all original or creative.

But the explanation has an unusual extra idea that is new. SPOILER. The new idea is linked to ruins left over from World War II bombing. This idea is perhaps linked to the interest in architecture in Golden Age mysteries.


The Secret Meeting introduces Jewish characters in its opening (Chapters 1, first half of 2). The treatment of these characters is mixed. At the end of the opening, Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn concludes that he "was beginning to acquire a liking for Steinie. He was certainly bright and there was nothing in any way furtive about his manner." The Jewish characters largely disappear after this point, and one can perhaps take this as his final judgement on the subject.

But earlier views of these characters are full of anti-Semitism and its stereotypes:

The Elusive Bullet: a short story

Even at his best, John Rhode's Dr. Priestley short tales are pretty mild stuff. The best I have read is "The Elusive Bullet" (1931). This story is plainly inspired by Freeman's "The Blue Sequin" (1908), with perhaps a dash of Samuel Hopkins Adams' "The One Best Bet" (1911) thrown in.

"The Elusive Bullet" and "The Purple Line" (1950), are unusual in that they are solved through mathematical analysis. This is rare in mystery fiction; it is consistent with Dr. Priestley being a mathematician. (Ellery Queen regularly used mathematics. Please see also my list of Mathematics in Ellery Queen.)

"The Elusive Bullet" involves a complex country landscape: a Rhode tradition. The details of the landscape enable the mystery plot's solution. The landscape includes both natural and technological features: also common in Rhode.

Soldiers operating in the countryside play a role. This anticipates Rhode's World War II era stories set in rural England.

The Purple Line: a short story

"The Purple Line" (1950) is a well-done and compactly told detective story. Despite its short length, it has several well-drawn characters.

"The Purple Line" has a number of features in common with Death Leaves No Card (1939):

However, the actual mystery plots of the two works are quite different. Being "off the grid" plays a key role in the mystery plot of Death Leaves No Card. But it plays no role in the mystery plot of "The Purple Line". (Note: Rhode does not use the modern term "off the grid", but he clearly understands the concept.)

The alibi plot is simple, and easy to figure out. On the positive side, it is logical and consistent.

But the clue of the "Purple Line" is original.

The barograph shows Rhode's expertise on mechanical objects. For once however, a mechanical object is not used in a Rhode tale to kill someone!

"The Purple Line" is reprinted in the anthology The Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories (2020) edited by Martin Edwards.

Other Tales

By contrast, I didn't like "The Vanishing Diamond" (1935). It is in no way offensive, but lacks inspiration.

Ask a Policeman

Rhode wrote the opening section of The Detection Club's round robin, Ask a Policeman (1933). This novella length chapter covers the murder and its initial investigation. It is splendidly imagined, with much social satire, and a sly sense of humor running throughout. The satirical element also extends to a spoof of detective stories, with the Golden Age formula of murder among the social elite stretched to its absurd breaking point.

The basic setup, the murder of an influential millionaire press baron, evokes E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913).

It is deliberately absent a solution: Rhode left that to his Detection Club colleagues, 5 of whom provided their own solutions to the case. Anthony Berkeley's is the best of these: it has some logical analysis, as well as a funny spoof of Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.

Social Types

While many types of social bigwigs get spoofed, at least one major group is absent: the military. There are no soldiers anywhere in Rhode's chapter. Soldiers are prominent in some other Rhode books.

Both the male secretary Mills and the politician Sir Charles Hope-Fairweather are very well-dressed. This echoes the well-dressed men in other Rhode mysteries, such as Leonard Trimmer in Dead Men at the Folly, and the uncle and nephew in their dressing gowns in Death Leaves No Card.

Mystery Plot: Rhode's Section

Rhode includes a timetable of events surrounding the crime. It is like a shorter version of the timetable to come in Death Leaves No Card.

The mystery plot is strongly based in architecture. This is an approach popular in the Golden Age. However, this also leads to an element of burlesque: various suspects are hidden in various rooms, like the characters in an old-fashioned French farce.

The layout of the mansion's grounds also play a role. The grounds form a small, fairly simple landscape. Landscapes are a Rhode favorite. Like other Rhode landscapes, this one includes man-made features: in this case, a driveway, walls and doors.

Sounds often play a role in Rhode's mystery plots. In Ask a Policeman these include:

Like some other of his works, Rhode includes working-class witnesses in his plot.