Friday, May 9, 2014

The Hanging Woman (1931), by John Rhode

dust jacket by
Arthur Hawkins, Jr. (1903-1985)
John Rhode's The Hanging Woman (1931) begins with a coroner's investigation into the crash death of pilot Andres Vilmaes that took place when he was attempting to make a landing at the private country airstrip of his employer, Charles Partington, the highly esteemed research scientist.

Soon after Vilmaes' death is ruled an accidental one, the body of Cynthia Bartlett, a London woman with whom Vilmaes was believed to have been romantically involved, is found hanging from a beam in the basement of a deserted--and supposedly haunted--country house. Suicide, evidently.

Cynthia Bartlett's friend and flatmate Miss Carroll, a feminist and secretary of the Women's League of Amity, scoffs at the police notion that her friend would have committed suicide out of a sense of despair over the loss of a man:

I suppose you think that because a woman has committed suicide, there must be a man concerned in the matter.  Let me assure you, once and for all, that Cynthia's regard for men, collectively or individually, was not sufficiently great to induce her to commit suicide on their account.

When the inquest on Miss Bartlett's death confirms Miss Carroll is right--it was not suicide but murder--Inspector Hanslet of the Yard, not all too keen on his own, is soon on his way to consult with that eccentric scientist and amateur detective, Dr. Lancelot Priestley. Through a brilliant series of on-site deductions Priestley determines that not only Bartlett but Vilmaes was murdered. The hunt is on!

The Hanging Woman is a good example of an early Dr. Priestley detective novel, with Priestley still quite active (he later becomes strictly an armchair detective) yet just as wonderfully acerbic as ever. The novel brims with material clues and fascinating ratiocination and should appeal to lovers of the art of deduction. "The most captious mystery addict may read it with pleasure," wrote reviewer William C. Weber of The Hanging Woman in the Saturday Review.

The crime novels of John Street's
friend John Dickson Carr tended to
have more of a touch of brimstone
Although, as mentioned above, a dead body is discovered in a creepy old "haunted" country house, not much is made of this, as it would be in a John Dickson Carr detective novel (compare the Rhode novel with Carr's Castle Skull, which was published the same year).

Carr's good friend, John Street (the man behind John Rhode) with his detective novels was typically more interested, it must be allowed, in analytical investigation than Gothic shudders.

Yet despite lacking brimstone atmosphere, The Hanging Woman is a fine problem-focused Golden Age English detective novel that leaves the reader with interesting matters about to which speculate after finishing the book. In some ways it is reminiscent of an earlier, excellent Dr. Priestley novel, The Davidson Case (1929).

Unfortunately, pending John Street's heirs and literary agency allowing his books to be reprinted (or someone in Canada or Australia reprinting them next year when the copyrights lapse in those countries), you will have to willing to pay $60-$300 to get a copy of The Hanging Woman. It was published in both the United States and England and reprinted in hardcover in both countries in the 1930s, but still is quite rare today.

A query: how many other death by hanging mysteries can you recollect?

Offhand I am thinking of Henry Wade's The Hanging Captain (1932), which came fast on the heels of The Hanging Woman, Nicholas Blake's The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941), which followed by a decade, and, forty-one years later, P. D. James' An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). But there must be plenty others, I would think.


  1. the first one that comes to mind is jumping jenny by anthony berkeley; but you're right, it feels like there should be lotys, but it doesn't seem to be the case

    1. Oh, yeah, Jumping Jenny! I've read that one too. Good book,

  2. The Silk Stockings Murders (horrible book) by the same author has a hanging in it, if I remember right. In Japanese, I can think of Kuronekokan no Satsujin (The Black Cat Mansion Murders) by Yukito Ayatsuji、Akai kumo densetsu satsujin jiken (The Red Cloud Legend Murder Case) by Yasuo Uchida. Is one of the later murders in Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides a hanging?

    1. I think that's right about Silk Stocking (I also agree it's a horrible book).

  3. Oh and Keikichi Osaka's "The Ginza Ghost" is a short story with a hanging in it (I've got an amateur translation on my blog).

    1. Embarassingly, I misremembered this. There's a stabbing and a strangling, but no hanging.

  4. Clifford Orr's The Dartmouth Murders has a vivid opening involving a hanging but I can't remember whether the murder was accomplished by hanging or if the victim was killed by another means and then hung to fake a suicide.

  5. Thanks all! I should mention I'm including actual hanging and "garden variety" strangling made to look like hanging.

    Gosh! What a macabre subject. ;)