Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Baronet Who Cried Wolf: Twice Dead (1960), by John Rhode

"Family affection not being a strong point among the Yordales...."

In Twice Dead (1960), by John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street), the eccentric Sir Francis Yordale, baronet, wants to find out just how much his brothers and sisters really care for him.  So, naturally, he puts a false announcement of his death in The Times (I mean, wouldn't you?).

Sir Francis is not overly impressed with the funeral wreaths he gets, so he makes a new will giving most of his money to his Australian godson, George Pawlett, and his longtime housekeeper (a distant relation), Ethel Shirland.  Soon afterwards he is found dead in his chair in his study at his country house, Uplands. Yes, he's really dead this time.

What's a country house without a murder?

It seems Sir Francis died from carbon monoxide poisoning, but no one can figure out how this could have happened.  Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn, botching investigations since 1935, knows this is one of those cases a struggling English copper should take to that extremely eminent and now quite ancient scientist, Dr. Lancelot Priestley, who debuted, cantankerously, in John Rhode's The Paddington Mystery in 1925.

Sadly, the aged Dr. Priestley doesn't leave his house in Westbourne Terrace to conduct a field experiment in the fatal study at Uplands, but he does send his faithful secretary, Harold Merefield, to do so.  For me, this was the highlight of the book.  In this, the seventieth Dr. Priestley detective novel, John Street--his John Rhode pseudonym was a pun, you see--comes up with his last clever murder method (two more Dr. Priestley books followed in in 1960 and 1961, but neither book offers anything really new in the way of creative murdering).

When one counts John Street's Miles Burton mysteries, Twice Dead was, I believe, the 141st crime novel published by Street.  It's certainly far from a masterpiece, but that it's as enjoyable as it is is remarkable, given how many books Street had published by this time (to be sure, some of the late Rhodes are complete clunkers).

There's a dastardly murder, a Christmas house party at a country estate, an eccentric baronet, a contentious will-reading, squabbling relations, a chauffeur named Ribble and even an unexpected, if (very) discreet, romance between Sir Francis' sister, a fifty-year-old schoolmistress, and his forty-year-old godson.  This is a traditional an English mystery as one could desire.

Enjoyably, Street in Twice Dead takes a few potshots at the snobbish pretensions of Sir Francis' brother Edgar and Edgar's wife, Alice, who want the baronetcy for themselves (Street's own family was loaded with baronets and knights but Street was never impressed with titles per se).  And Sir Francis Yordale's country house shares its name, Uplands, with the house in Woking, Surrey, that John Street spent his first years living in, until 1889, when he was five and his father, General John Alfred Street, died there.  For me, this lent a certain touch of nostalgia to the tale, as if Street, at age 76, was reliving his youth a bit in this, one of the last of his many tales.

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