Sunday, October 10, 2021

And Now for a Stairy Story: Dumb Witness, by Agatha Christie (1937)--with a possible cameo by the author herself (and her little dog too)

In a not insignificant portion of vintage mysteries, the primary murder victim dies from having been fatally impelled in some foul fashion down a staircase.  (This happens in Miles Burton's A Will in the Way, recently reviewed here.)  Naturally this murder ploy faded away with the rise of bungalows and ranch houses.  The classic instance of the "true crime" staircase death dates from the sixteenth century, when all the most fashionable people lived in castles and such, don't you know, and had plenty of stairs that they needs must tread.   

This was the death of Amy Robsart, first wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I.  Indeed, after his wife's death, Dudley's enemies intimated that he might have engineered her untimely demise in order to marry the Queen; and ever since historians have debated the famous question, did she fall or was she pushed?  No one knows the answer to that one.  

Fall Gal
Emily Arundell takes a near fatal tumble
down the stairs at Littlegreen House

In Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novel Dumb Witness, wealthy, elderly spinster Emily Arundell is NON-fatally propelled down the staircase at her home by means of of a trip wire, although this attempted slaying is covered up to look like an accident.  Emily owned a terrier named Bob, you see, and Bob had been trained to drop a little rubber ball down the stairs while recumbent at the half landing.  It's assumed that to her near-death Emily tripped over the ball, which evidently inadvertently had not been picked up and put away in its drawer.  (Someone removed the telltale trip wire, you see.)

However, Hercule Poirot appears on the scene after Emily's later, ostensibly natural, death.  (After the staircase incident Emily had written him an agitated, disjointed letter asking him down, but Poirot received the epistle only after her death.) 

Naturally Poirot discovers this criminal hanky panky and he decides, perhaps a bit quixotically, to stick around to snoop some more into the matter of Emily's ostensibly natural death.  Attempted murder followed by "natural" death he finds a little too hard to swallow, n'est-ce pas, like a plate of bubble and squeak--although his friend Hastings thinks the little Belgian is just dramatizing himself again.  (Hastings will never learn!)

Yes, Hastings comes along for the ride as well, in what would be his last appearance in the Hercule Poirot canon until Curtain was published nearly four decades later.  According to the Agatha Christie Fandom website, Dumb Witness marked the seventh appearance of Hastings in a Poirot novel, which somehow seems fewer than I recalled. However, it's true.

first English edition by Collins, with Agatha Christie's own dog, Peter, gracing the cover as Bob

Hastings appeared in three Poirot novels in the 1920s, followed in the 1930s by Peril at End House, Lord Edgeware Dies, The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness.  After his back-to-back appearances in Peril and Edgware, Hastings missed three consecutive Poirot novels until The ABC Murders (a three-year gap), then missed two more novels between ABC and Dumb Witness.  So it does appear that Christie indeed had become something less than enamored with Hastings in the mid-thirties and was in the process of gradually dispensing with his services.

Certainly Hastings' late appearance in Dumb Witness seems a bit off-kilter, because Christie presents the first four chapters of the novel as having been written by Hastings in the third person, artfully dramatizing the events within Emily Arundell's demesne, Littlegreen House, before he and Poirot arrive on the scene.  Now I know such literary devices are a legitimate conceit of fiction writers, yet, really, I think we all have to admit that such imaginative skill would have been utterly beyond Hastings' capacity.  I can't help feeling that Christie was really ready to move beyond Hastings.  

Bob drops the ball

So why did she use him at all here?  Were the fans clamoring for the return of Captain Hastings?  This seems unlikely, as reviewers at the time mostly just commented, in reference to Poirot's Watson, that he was just as dumb as ever.  My theory is that Christie needed Hastings to relate to the dog Bob, who in fact is a major character in the novel.  Hastings even allows Bob to "speak," in passages which readers likely will either find delightful or painful depending on how much they like dogs.  Being a dog lover myself (like Christie; see below), I don't mind it.  One of the many transgressions of the television version of Dumb Witness, in my eyes, is that it portrays Poirot as Bob's special pal.  Does Poirot have to have everything in this life?  I say at least give Hastings the dog! 

So for better or worse Hastings narrates most of Dumb Witness, which has largely been regarded, since its publication almost 85 years ago, as the weakest of the Thirties Poirot novels.  (Admittedly they set a high bar.)  I have been writing lately about underrated Christies so as I reread Dumb Witness I had to ask myself, is it underrated?  

Poor Hastings! Poirot (David Suchet)
makes a new friend in the 1996
television adaptation of Dumb Witness

On the whole, I think not.  It probably indeed is the worst of the Thirties Poirots, although it is important to add the caveat that even a subpar Thirties Christie was likely better than 75% or more of the detective novels of the time.  She was that good in those days.  

First off, does the title even make sense?  Bob obviously is the "dumb" (i.e., mute) witness, but in the book he's neither dumb (Hastings has him "speak," seriously) nor a witness with anything important to impart to the detective.

This contrasts, for example, with Belisarius, the delightful feline in Miles Burton's detective novel The Cat Jumps (1946), who literally witnesses the murder and could have told sleuth Desmond Merrion all about it, had he but possessed the power of speech.  No wonder the Americans changed the title of Dumb Witness to Poirot Loses a Client--not that that's a great title either! 

Also, what possessed Christie to have Hercule Poirot name the culprits in murders from four of his previous cases (i.e., four of Christie's past novels)?  That's a lot of wanton spoilerage in one book!  I wonder if this indiscretion on Poirot's part still occurs in later editions of Dumb Witness, or in the American edition?  I will have to check.

a long way down

Critics since 1937 have pointed out weaknesses in the puzzle structure of Dumb Witness, but I can't discuss that aspect of the book without massive spoilerage, as it were.  However, I will say that most of the novel's cast of characters is composed of an exceptionally pallid bunch by the Queen of Crime standards.  To be sure, Emily Arundell and her latest beleaguered companion, Wilhelmina "Minnie" Lawson, are done to a turn--Christie always portrayed imperious spinsters and their skittish companions well--but Emily's relations are a forgettable lot, aside from her Greek doctor son-in-law, who is interesting not so much in and of himself but for how the author treats him.  

Truthfully, the dog Bob is more developed than any of these humans.  (Maybe that's the authentic Hastings' touch!)

Strikingly it's Emily's dead relations--her sisters and her brother and her domineering drunk of a father, the General--who strike the most powerful chord.  There's a passage where Emily wanders though her house late at night thinking about the shades of her late family that is quite moving.  It may have been beyond Hasting's literary ability but it certainly wasn't beyond Christie's!  How interesting a Christie murder novel set in the Victorian era would have been.

this "special edition" with pictures
(see photos) probably followed
the first UK edition the next year

As we learned from John Curran, Dumb Witness had its inception in an unpublished Christie short story, "The Incident of the Dog's Ball," written a few years earlier.  Was this story inspired by real life practice of Christie's own terrier, Peter, dropping a ball down the stairs at Christie's own house?  It seems too colorfully specific to have been entirely imaginary.

I assume Christie's main house at the time would have been Winterbrook House, a lovely red brick Georgian house, coincidentally now up for sale, just outside the town of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, in the village of Winterbrook.  Wallingford is said to have been the model for the town of Market Basing, Berkshire where Emily Arundell's Littlegreen House is located.  Winterbrook at the time was part of Berkshire too.  From what I can tell, Littlegreen House seems a lot like Winterbrook House.

So presumably Christie modeled Littlegreen House after Winterbrook House.  She affectionately dedicated the novel to Dear Peter, Most Faithful of Friends and Dearest of Companions, A Dog in a Thousand.  Peter, who also had been a co-dedicatee of The Mystery of the Blue Train nine years earlier (reviewed here), died the year after Dumb Witness was published.  

Peter was photographed as Bob, it has been claimed, in the "special edition" of the Dumb Witness which The Book Club published in England, not long after the original edition.  So this claim goes, Peter appears at the half landing of the stairs, having just dropped his ball, while no less than his mistress, appearing as Emily Arundell, lies prone at the bottom below--at least according to some booksellers.  (See pics above.)  Christie authority Mark Aldridge disagrees, however.  I'm told John Curran emphatically doesn't buy this notion either.  Me, I'm keeping an open mind about it.  (Peter definitely appeared on the cover of the Collins hardcover edition of Dumb Witness, published slightly earlier; see pic above.)

If true, I think Christie most definitely must have had more than a passing affection for the book to have done this.  She must not have deemed it the dog that some of the critics did.  Or perhaps that's some other lady at the bottom of the stairs!  Who was that lady?  And who was that dog?

pictured: Agatha Christie's home Winterbrook House, the model for Littlegreen House?
"These large Georgian homes fronting the street must be the devil to get rid off."
(Hastings to Poirot on Littlegreen House, Market Basing, Berks in Dumb Witness)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Midsommar Murder--and Midwinter too! The Menace on the Downs (1931), by Miles Burton

The Menace on the Downs is a frustrating book to me, because one feels that it should be better than it is.  While there are some good parts to it, the novel is more "interesting" than it is "good," I would say.  Interesting for its material, that is, rather than for how the author handles the material in an entertaining fashion.  It's really rather plodding, predicatable and dull on the whole, without any compensating ingenuity on the part of the frequently ingenious author.

Miles Burton was noted for the authentic rural settings of his mysteries, and The Menace on the Downs certainly offers one of the most rural of his rural settings.  John Street, aka Miles Burton, published the novel in 1931, the year after one of his most memorable detective novels, The Secret of High Eldersham, and its sequel of sorts, The Three Crimes, both of which feature the investigative team of Scotland Yard's Inspector Young and his gentleman amateur sleuthing buddy, Desmond Merrion.  

Young exited the Miles Burton books after The Three Crimes, although Merrion would return in 1932 in Death of Mr. Gantley and remain until the the Miles Burton books came to an end in 1960.  In the meantime there was this odd little number, The Menace on the Downs, in which neither Young nor Merrion appears but where we do see the debut of Inspector Arnold, who features in almost all of the Miles Burton novels from here on out, usually in the insouciant company of Merrion.  

What menace lurks on the English downs?  You'll never guess! (Actually, you will.)

Like The Secret of High Eldersham, Menace on the Downs draws on European folklore, but where Eldersham is exciting and moves at a good clip, Downs just trudges along in the country muck.  It's a shame because the material should be rather thrilling.  

Significantly, the novel opens with a quotation from philosemitic Czech writer Oskar Donath on the Polna Ritual Murder case, in which, in Austria-Hungary at the turn of the nineteenth century, a Jewish man, Leopold Hilsner, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for ritually murdering a teenaged Czech Catholic girl, who was found dead in some woods with her throat cut and little blood around her body:

The medical evidence called by the prosecution showed that insufficient blood had been found to account for the bloodless condition of the body.

autopsy on victim in the 
Polna Ritual Murder Case
The Polna madness was a typically repulsive instance of the judicial application of the primitives European Christian folk superstition of the "blood libel"--the belief that Jews slaughtered Christian children as part of their religious rites, using their blood in baking matzos, the unleavened flatbread eaten over Passover.  Roll your eyes if you must, but how different is this wicked nonsense from the QAnon conspiracy theories which a not insignificant part of the population of the United States of America--ostensibly a civilized country--believes in today?

At the time an enlightened Czech college professor, Tomas Masaryk, played a major role in having Hilsner's death sentence commuted to life imprisonment by Austro-Hungary's Emperor Franz Josef.  Hilsner would finally be pardoned in 1918 by Franz-Josef's briefly ruling successor, Emperor Karl.  

Masaryk himself went on to become the first president of Czechoslovakia and one of Europe's most admired between-the-wars statesmen.  John Street for his part published a biography of Masaryk in 1930, a year before he published The Menace on the Downs, in which he castigated the Polna Ritual Murder case as an outbreak of  pernicious European primitivism.  

At the same time, however, he obviously decided he might be able to make use of the case for one of his Miles Burton thrillers.  (More recently, the events in the Polna Ritual Murder case were dramatized in the 2016 Czech film Murder in Polna, which is highly recommended to people interested in this dreadful subject.)

Leopold Hilsner (Karel Hermanek) charged with the blood libel in the film Murder in Polna

Let me emphasize that there are no Jews in The Menace on the Downs, so the book is in no way an endorsement of the blood libel, which Street expressly and vigorously disavowed in his Masaryk biography.  Rather in Downs the culprit--and this is so obvious that I'm giving nothing away if by chance you ever come upon a copy of this book--is...

the head of a religious group numbering some several hundreds, known as the Dukeites. 

In some ways the book reminded me of the recent horror film Midsommar (2019) and an older one (now nearly fifty years old in fact), The Wicker Man (1973), but unfortunately Street's tale is so ploddingly told that it's entirely lacking in the delicious frissons of fear and unease which distinguish these eerie films.  

Definitely having a bad hair day
The late Christopher Lee as Lord Saruman,
I mean, Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973).
He easily could have played Mr. Winterbourne
in a film adaptation of The Menace on the Downs.

Where The Secret of High Eldersham is a thriller with a mystery and detective element, The Menace on the Downs is a thriller that gets buried buried by the dullish (in this case) mechanics of detection.  In some ways it almost feels like a police procedural, which makes it interesting to the genre historian, but not necessarily entertaining. 

It all starts in a rural English district (likely in south central England) with the discovery, on the afternoon of December 22 (hmmmm), the day after winter solstice, of the dead body of Sidney Harper, a teenage delivery boy.  

The boy's throat has been cut and his head and neck lie in shallows at the edge of a stream, with a jagged broken bottle nearby.  Little blood is present, the fluid presumably having emptied into the stream.  Sidney's bicycle is nowhere to be found.  

Was Sidney's death accident, suicide or murder?  Local police are disinclined to think it's murder, as they can't conceive of any motive anyone might have had for murdering a boy.  (No one conceives that it might have been a sex crime, even though sadistic sexual maniac Fritz Harman was executed just six years earlier for assaulting and murdering more than a score of men and boys.)  

In fact the only suspect anyone can think of is the boy's no-account laborer father.  Nor does it seem likely that young Sidney would have killed himself.  If an accident, the boy must have skidded off the road and cut his throat on the broken bottle as he fell.  But then where is his bicycle?

Eventually police end up arresting Sidney's father, but the case collapses when Mr. Winterbourne, wealthy landowner and head of the Dukeites, provides an alibi for the man.  This takes up the first 160 pages of the book (believe it or not), which essentially up until this time is a rural police procedural, although no one used that term back then.  

Medieval tithe barn at Great Coxwell,
Oxfordshire, about nine miles from
Swindon, Wiltshire, possibly
the approximate setting of
The Menace on the Downs.
Built for monks around around 1292, 
The barn may have been the one which the
author had in mind for the one in the novel. 
I just get all Ellis Peterish just looking at it!
In addition to a local inspector by the name of Griffin and a doctor by the name of Lorimer there is on the scene as well a gentleman amateur scholar of note who glories in the name of Montague Veringhame and sounds, as Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime have noted, a lot like John Street himself.  

Veringhame is an expert on Central Europe and has written about Tomas Masaryk and knows all about the Polna Ritual Murder case, although amazingly he fails to connect any of this with the local murder it so queerly resembles--or the one which follows it.

Yes, after the police case against Sidney's father collapses, leaving the boy's death unsolved, yet another boy is found dead in very queer circumstances six months later--on June 22 to be precise (hmmmm), the day after the summer solstice.  What's the deal with these solstices, anyway? 

Well, the riddle is all-too-obvious to modern readers, schooled on The Wicker Man and Midsommar.  Actually even if you haven't seen these films it's all-too-obvious.

It's the time of the season for murder, you might say.

The novel, which is over 80,000 words long, spends so much time on the plodding construction of the obviously misguided case against Sidney's father that we lose the sense of thrill and horror which Street genuinely captured in The Secret of High Eldersham.

After the second boy is found dead and Inspector Arnold from Scotland Yard shows up (three-quarters of the way into the novel), things finally pick up a bit, but it's much too late.  Arnold manages to solve the case, but only because he speaks German (a skill never hinted at in later books) and idly reads about the Polna Ritual Murder case in one of Veringhame's history books.  Problem solved!  Mr. Winterbourne meets a suitably dramatic end.  Story over. Yawn.

I just wish the tale had been better told.  As it stands it's mostly of antiquarian interest, as it were.  Miles Burton had done better in Eldersham and he would go on to do better over a prolific three decade career.

I must say, though, that the thought of the horrific actions performed at a setting like the Great Coxwell Barn is distinctly creepy!  It just doesn't translate in this book where the "shocks" are kept too distanced from the reader.  If you're going to write a shocker, be sure to shock!

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Mara and the Dame: The Mid-Seventies Agatha Christie paperback cover art by Mara McAfee

Mara McAfee cover art for Agatha Christie's
Hickory Dickory Death, aka Hickory Dickory Dock
one of the covers she did for Pocket paperback editions
of Christie detective novels in the 1970s

I will always associate Agatha Christie mysteries with paperbacks.  It probably wasn't until the dawn of the 21st century that I ever even owned a Christie mystery in hardcover.  I started buying Christie Pocket pbs with my own "pocket" money waaay back in the Seventies, before I was even a teenager.  And, frankly, the art on those pbs was much nicer than the dreck which Dodd, Mead and the Collins had been putting out on Christie hardbacks for some time.  (Sorry, Collins, at least you have done much better with Christie hardbacks over the last 25 years!)

I have already written on the blog about the late, great Tom Adams (1926-2019) and the Agatha Christie covers which he did for Pocket.  (He also did weirder, truly surreal, ones for English pb publisher Fontana--see John Curran's book Tom Adams Uncovered.) 

So today, on the occasion of Dame Agatha's 131st birthday, I would like to write about the unheralded woman artist whose work graced Christie Pocket pb covers in the mid-Seventies: Mara McAfee.  I remember this artwork so well from when I was reading Christie pbs in the late Seventies in junior high school in Alabama.  

aka Sparkling Cyanide
cover art by Mara McAfee

Pictured below and to the left are five Christie pbs with McAfee cover art which Pocket issued in December 1975, just weeks before the Queen of Crime's death at the age of 85 and about a year after the release of the hugely successful film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), which earlier that year had received six Oscar nominations, winning one (for Ingrid Bergman's memorable supporting performance as a conscience-stricken Swedish missionary--she also won the supporting actress BAFTA). 

You can see how the late Albert Finney's depiction of Poirot influenced McAfee's rendering of the great Belgian detective.  Her Miss Marple is less successful, I think, although Joan Hickson's Eighties portrayal of Miss Marple occupies the space in my head, so I may be unfairly biased.

On the whole, however, I think these are striking and vivid depictions of the murder world of Christie.  All these years, though, it never occurred to me, until recently, to look up information on the obviously talented artist who drew them.  


It turns out that Mara McAfee, who was born in 1929 and died much too young in 1984, got her start as a film and television actress and dancer in the 1950s.  Often she was uncredited in her films, as in the landmark brutal Fifties noir Kiss Me Deadly, where she plays the beatific, silent nurse looking down upon the stricken Mike Hammer.  She also had parts in the genre films Women's Prison--starring Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter and Phyllis Thaxter (Wow!)--and Las Vegas Shakedown (she actually gets credited in that one), both also from '55.  

Mara McAfee with Dennis O'Keefe in Las Vegas Shakedown (1955)

Mara McAfee as the briefly appearing beatific nurse in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

McAfee was an attractive and, well, busty brunette, but interestingly she only acted to finance her way through art school.  She had no high opinion of her thespianic talent but she said she did have brass.

Mara McAfeee

As an artist she became best known in the Seventies for her sardonic and satirical artwork for National Lampoon, where she frequently sent up Normal Rockwell's wholesome depictions of Americana.  You can see some of these pieces below.  So, all in all, she was quite an interesting choice for Agatha Christie covers by Pocket, and reflective of just how highly Christie was esteemed.  (McAfee did Pocket covers for mainstream novelists as well.)  

Mara McAfee was smart, sexy and funny--just like Agatha!  So happy 131st, Agatha--and let's not forget Mara McAfee's 92nd on November 27.

Enjoy this sampling of MM's work for National Lampoon and some of her book covers for other writers, and even a piece of film poster art.  Think Norma Rockwell with a heap of Norma Desmond.




yes, Brooke Shields


cover art for Joan Aiken's Dark Interval
Yes, it's Gothic but our heroine is more fashionably dressed this time,
in orange cape and teal slacks rather than a filmy white nightgown

Wuthering High School


poster art for Bill Murray film Meatballs (1979)

Saturday, September 11, 2021

"Strange things seem to happen in these country places": A Village Afraid (1950), by Miles Burton

In their mammoth, epochal encyclopedia, A Catalogue of Crime (1971), authors Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) and Wendell Hertig Taylor (1905-1985) devote sixteen pages to John Street, nine to his John Rhode mysteries and seven to his Miles Burtons.  Let me emphasize that largely these pages are filled with high praise--often very, very high praise--for Street's mysteries; yet there are a small number of exceptions to this rule.  

"The dullest conceivable Rhode," they write of The Fatal Pool.  "Well-nigh unreadable."  (That's true enough, I'm afraid.)  They find The Vanishing Diary "dull in the extreme."  (I didn't think that one was that bad.) "Dull throughout," they find Tragedy at the Thirteenth Hole (Fraid so!).  "One of his very worst," the thunder at A Village Afraid.  "[Burton's sleuths] Arnold and Merrion dither together."  

The former Bishop's Palace at Much Hadham,
Hertfordshire quite possibly was the model for
Palace Park in Miles Burton's novel A Village Afraid.
The present Much Hadham House dates from the 
early 15th century and belonged to the Bishops
of London.  It served as a "lunatic asylum" for
half a century in the 1800s before becoming
a private residence, which it remains today

Now to that aspersion I have to say, Whoa, now, Nellie!  

A Village Afraid is actually not bad.  In fact it's rather good.  

Like Ground for Suspicion, the previous book from that year, it has a solid mystery with a well-grounded provincial setting, a small village rather than a town, like in Ground.  It similarly fashions a large cast of characters and  entangles them in multiple layers of mystery and deception for gentleman sleuth Desmond Merrion and Scotland Yard's Inspector Arnold to uncover.

I can see how one might be put off by the first chapter, which introduces a plenitude of characters.  

It all begins at a gathering of five men in the village of Michelgreen, at the public bar of The Swan.  These men are: 

Mark Hamsey, a handsome bachelor doctor nearing his forties who resides at Weaver's House, "one of the old houses in the centre of the village"

Gideon Carter, a successful farmer in his forties who resides with his "considerably younger" wife, Jessie, at Little Bishop's, "an isolated farmhouse on the bank of the river [Locker], close to the ruined wharf which once had been Bishop's Quay"

Norman Rother, around fifty, "an active partner in a firm of wholesalers in London, attending his office there five days a week."  When in Michelgreen he resides with his second, recent wife, Annette, who is "little more than a girl," at Poppin Cottage.  It's "rather an elaborate cottage...fitted with every imaginable convenience, including no less than three bathrooms."  Gracious!

Colonel Barham, white-mustached and reserved and "considerably older" than the other men, who led the local Home Guard in the recent hostilities and resides at the bungalow Karachi with his wife, "a nervous woman" who hardly gets about anymore, on account of her prostration over the death of her only son in the war.

Captain Joshua Brisling, Michelgreen's beer-loving, venerable patriarch, a "retired master mariner in the Merchant Service" whose "appearance suggested that he must have retired with the passing of the sailing ship."  He resides with his sister Dorcas at Mainbrace, "a Victorian horror just outside the village."

Just another day in the village?
All but Captain Joshua are members of the Parish Council--"Oddly enough, the Parish Council was taken quite seriously in Michelgreen"--and have stopped off for some pints at the pub before returning home.  

On their way back to their respective homes, they pass The Lodge, "a sordid little place, covered with discoloured stucco," where a nice young couple just starting out in life, Don and Peggy Playden, are tenants, and Hamsey and Rother stop in for quick drinks.  Hamsey also wants to make a "semi-professional call" on Peggy, who has been looking peaked lately.

Don is a research chemist for an local firm, charmingly named Pest Destruction, Ltd.  To help make ends meet, Peggy has just taken on a "paying guest," a bucktoothed, birdwatching minister by the name of Sherwood.

For a time we follow Gideon Carter on his way home, as he passes the slummish parcel by Bishop's Lane and the the dilapidated house and grounds known as Palace Park, which derives its name from the fact that centuries ago it had been a Bishop's Palace.  The Playdens' house The Lodge derives its own name from the fact that it stands on the site of the original gate lodge to Palace Park.  Also located in this section of Michelgreen is a caravan site, where recently an outlandish-looking party named Mrs. Harris, with blue hair and sporting dark sunglasses, has taken up residence.  (I'd quote Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, except she isn't Cockney, not is she a charwoman.)  Here's one for the Clothes in Books blog:

Her attire was equally startling, for she was wearing beach pyjamas, over which hung ropes of obviously imitation pearls.  Her feet were encased in a pair of vivid scarlet sandals.

I don't know that having real pearls would have improved the situation in the eyes of Gideon Carter (the character who has espied her) or see how from that distance he even could have told they were artificial ones, but there it is.

At Palace Park reside Elma Kingley and her husband Harold, Annette Rother's stepfather.  Harold, who was living with Elma and Annette out in Cuba (where, a few years earlier, he and Elma--or really just Elma--ran a guest house), inherited Palace Park from a late relation, but evidently he and Elma don't have the money to maintain it properly.  

another view of Much Hadham House, now a terrace of three homes
Palace House, Palace East and Palace West

I've just listed a dozen characters, and in the book their names are all thrown at the reader in rapid succession in the first chapter, which perhaps helps explain Barzun and Taylor's impatience with it.  But happily you have me to help you out, so make sure to print this blog piece for easy reference if this very rare book is reprinted and you get yourselves a copies!

Anyway, on the very next day, Norman Rother, who had been staying up late drinking alone in the dining room, fortifying himself into a state of "hospitable squiffiness," is found dead there.  And, yes, his death is not  a natural one!  Suspicion focuses on the new young wife, Annette, who was unhappy in her marriage and will, presumably, inherit a packet from her dead spouse, but is there more to it than that?  

Of course there is!  But who besides Annette might have had motive to rid the village of Rother?

Young village policeman Sergeant Gerrard will need help with this one, of course, so Scotland Yard is called in, in the form of Inspector Arnold, who is given a lift out to Michelgreen by his gentleman amateur sleuth friend of long standing, Desmond Merrion.  

Concerning Sergeant Gerrard, Arnold and Merrion have an interesting exchange which represents the distaste of many in the middle class (and a great many in the upper class) with the Labour government.  The Conservative Party, ousted in 1945, would return to the power after the General Election of 1951, leading to a general sigh of relief from most British mystery writers of that time, from what I can tell.

Here's the exchange between Merrion and Arnold in A Village Afraid:

"Motive seems, as you say, to be the thing.  What does you friend the sergeant say?"

"Absolutely nothing," Arnold replied.  "But then, you can hardly expect him to.  A village policeman makes it his business to find out all about the doubtful characters in his parish.  But he does not trouble himself about the intimate affairs of the law-abiding members of the community.  We haven't adopted Gestapo methods in this country yet." 

"Haven't we?" Merrion asked scoffingly.  "What about food-enforcement officers, and gentry of their kidney?  As to the law-abiding members of the community, there simply aren't any these days.  It's rather a terrifying thought that you could scour this country without finding anyone who hadn't broken the law in some way.  Even if was only by throwing crumbs to the birds when bread was rationed."

The shall make criminals of us all!  The fact that rationing of gas, sugar and meat was still going on five years after the end of the war is something which comes up over and over in British mysteries from the period and I never see it portrayed in any light but a scathing one.

The 1951 Tory restoration (complete with ailing, seventy-eight-year-old Winston Churchill) often seems to be portrayed as a massive repudiation of Labour, whom from reading mid-century vintage mysteries you would gather everyone despised; yet in fact Labour received about 49% of the vote to the Tories 48%.  However, in 1945 Labour had received 48% of the vote to the Conservative's dismal 36% (plus the Conservative-aligned Liberal National Party got 3%), so this was indeed a significant comeback for the Conservatives.  

In terms of it setting and general tone (and a few of its plot devices), A Village Afraid is rather reminiscent of Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced (also published in 1950), the difference being that Christie's book is one of her highest achievements within the genre (the unpleasantly caricatured character of Middle European refuge Mitzi excepted), a true landmark of classic English mystery. 

A Village Afraid
doesn't measure up to that high standard, but it is much better than Barzun and Taylor would have us believe.  It's nicely plotted, with a number of interesting plot strands and a capably managed central mystery.  (Indeed poison is quite cleverly employed here; one area in which Street rivalled Christie was in poisoning people.)  Moreover the village milieu is quite nicely conveyed.  To be sure Burton's characters are not as colorful as Christie's, but the overall crime "package," as it were, should definitely appeal to lovers of classic English mystery.

Although he provides Arnold's transportation, Merrion sits out the case at an inn in a nearby town, its apparently having struck the author that people were not necessarily going to buy into an amateur sleuthing swell openly participating in the case as an equal with an official Scotland Yard investigator, like in the good old days. 

Instead Merrion shoots the breeze with Arnold and drives him out to the village and back.  His own "investigation" consists of sitting in the village pub listening to gossip from old, bear-guzzling Joshua Brisling.  In the Fifties the author would get more and more dependent on long expository passages in his books, which can make tedious (not to mention implausible) reading, yet here is is not badly done, Joshua being presented as an elderly gentleman who just loves to gab in his cups and is always on the lookout for a new aural victim.  Every amateur sleuth should be so lucky to have a Joshua at hand!

Personally I rather enjoyed this one on rereading, but then I do like a good village mystery and Street absolutely knew his villages.  I wish I had reread this one when I was finishing my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, because, there are some very interesting bits bearing on recent developments in the author's life, but I can't say more here (spoilers).  Let's just hope this one can be reprinted, so people can read it for themselves.  There is no good reason for this title to have fallen out-of-print for seven decades.  Don't let's make it eight.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

A Score of Fine Street Fare: The Best of John Rhode and Miles Burton

Now that I've rated all the John Street detective novels, I suppose the time has come to list my Top Twenty.  So without further ado, here they are, in chronological order, Rhodes first, Burtons following:

Dr. Priestley thinks it through, to the inescapable conclusion
You may recognize some of the names on the left!

JOHN RHODE (13)

The House on Tollard Ridge (1929)

The Davidson Case (1929)

The Claverton Affair (1933)

The Venner Crime (1933)

The Robthorne Mystery (1934)

Poison for One (1934)

Shot at Dawn (1934)

The Corpse in the Car (1935)

Death on the Board (1937)

The Bloody Tower (1938)

They Watched by Night (1942)

Vegetable Duck (1944)

Death on Harley Street (1946)

MILES BURTON (7)

The Secret of High Eldersham (1930)

Where Is Barbara Prentice? (1936)

The Platinum Cat (1938)

Murder MD (1943)

The Three-Corpse Trick (1944)

The Cat Jumps (1946)

Bones in the Brickfield (1958)


I had to include one 4-star only so out of the many I went with Bones in the Brickfield, just to show that there was life in the old dude yet, even as he neared the end of his long second career.  Revolving a whole plot around the discovery of a dinosaur fossil in an English village--that alone shows some charming originality, after nearly 140 mysteries! 

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Great Decade: Rating the Early John Rhodes and Miles Burtons, 1925-1934

Some of you may have wondered at the recent flurry in the Street at this blog, as it were, but I'm happy to be able to announce that seven of John Street's John Rhode tiles are going to be reprinted by Mysterious Press.  More on this soon, but in the meantime, back to the ratings!

19 JOHN RHODES

1925

The Paddington Mystery**

1926

Dr. Priestley's Quest ***1/2

1927

The Ellerby Case****

1928

The Murder at Praed Street****

Tragedy at the Unicorn***1/2

1929

The House on Tollard Ridge*****

The Davidson Case*****

1930

Peril at Cranbury Hall****

Pinehurst***

1931

Tragedy on the Line****

The Hanging Woman****

1932

Mystery at Greycombe Farm****

Dead Men at the Folly****

1933

The Motor Rally Mystery****

The Claverton Affair*****

The Venner Crime*****

1934

The Robthorne Mystery*****

Poison for One*****

Shot at Dawn*****

11 MILES BURTONS

1930

The Hardway Diamonds Mystery***

The Secret of High Eldersham*****

1931

The Three Crimes***1/2

The Menace on the Downs**1/2

1932

Death of Mr. Gantley****

Murder at the Moorings**

1933

Fate at the Fair****

Tragedy at the Thirteenth Hole**

Death at the Cross Roads***

1934

The Charabanc Mystery***1/2

To Catch a Thief****


RHODES 1925-1934

6 5-star

9 4-star

2 3.5-star

1 3-star

1 2-star

BURTONS 1930-1934

1 5-star

3 4-star

2 3.5-star

2 3-star

1 2.5-star

2 2-star


If it took John Street a little while to hit his stride in the Twenties (the same could be said of Agatha Christie), he had definitely hit it by 1929 and the Thirties (as with Christie) became a superlative decade for the John Rhode novels.  The Burtons still had a bit to go to reach their peak, however.

Of the Twenties Priestleys, Paddington is rather dire, I regret to say, really a book for completists only, who want to read the first Priestley mystery.  Quest is a big step up, although it's rather modest, very much in the manner of Sherlock Holmes tale, rather charming.  Although it's definitely thrillerish, I love The Ellerby Case, with Dr. P locked in this deductive death battle with the villain and all sorts of fun death traps.  It's like an Edgar Wallace with twice the brain power.  (It had me at the hedgehog, of course.)  

The Murders in Praed Street is very nearly a classic, barring some hard-to-explain late obtuseness from Dr. P.  I nicked Tragedy at the Unicorn for getting a mite thillerish at the end, but I would have to go back and reread it.  But 1929's Tollard and Davidson are full-blown Rhode deductive classics with out acidulous academic detective in fine, active form, performing loads of scientific detection.  

I see some people don't like Pinehurst, but I enjoyed it.  This one struck as a throwback to a Victorian/Edwardian Sherlock Holmes tale, however.  Tragedy on the Line is close to a classic family house party type mystery, but I like others as a bit disappointed in the ending--though there's a deliberate idea behind it.  Greycombe Farm I give four stars in part because the rural setting is so well done.

In the early mid-Thirties Street works up to this annus mirabilis (or actually two of them) in 1933 and 1934, where he produces five great Rhodes (and Motor Rally Mystery is very good too), not to mention at least a couple of really fine Burtons. Another Rhode masterwork came in 1935 with The Corpse in the Car, but that was listed on another post.  These were really the peak years of Rhode's achievement.

On the other hand, I would say the only real Miles Burton tour de force from these years is the second one, The Secret of High Eldersham, which followed the very competent but unexceptional Hardway Diamonds Mystery.  Street had a brilliant idea for that one and did full justice to it, but he dithered around for the next few years.  Were Burtons to be thrillers or detective novels?  The author didn't seem certain.  

His Inspector Young appears again with Merrion in Three Crimes but then Young exits and Inspector Arnold debuts in Menace on the Downs, without Merrion.  It it isn't until Death of Mr. Gantley that he teams up with Desmond Merrion; and in neither of these novels is Inspector Arnold quite the Arnold of later books.  He's more like romantic Inspector Young than curmudgeonly Inspector Hanslet from the Rhode series.  Later on, he's very much like Hanslet.

Then neither Arnold nor Merrion appears in Murder at the Moorings, perhaps the poorest early Burton, although Arnold is referenced in one line.  The Miles Burton books as we come to know and love them (I hope) don't really fully materialize until Fate at the Fair, a highly classic style English village mystery.  For me the best one after this one, however, is To Catch a Thief, even though it's really rather thrillerish.  But rather well done, I find.  Charabanc Mystery is another one I need to reread, because I have to admit mostly forgotten it, aside from the fact that the opening concerns the Dribbleford Darts Club--sure this is worth a star!

Well, there you have it, lots of targets for bloggers to say, for example, I always read that Shot at Dawn was so great, but I actually much preferred Tragedy at the Unicorn!  You know it's going to happen.  That is, if these now extremely rare books ever actually get entirely reprinted.  For the rest of you, I hope I've given you a useful guide.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Jimmy Waghorn Comes on Board: Rating John Rhodes in the early Jimmy Waghorn Era, 1935-1940, plus more Miles Burtons

The year 1935 saw a big change in John Street's "John Rhode" series of detective novels, with a younger, college-educated young cop, Jimmy Waghorn, coming on board to join previous series regular policeman, Inspector/Superintendent Hanslet.  Until the war, when Jimmy goes off into intelligence work and Hanslet delays his retirement, these two will work together at the Yard investigating cases and getting their asses handed to them by testy amateur sleuth Dr. Priestley.  In it you see the beginnings of all the grizzled old superior and posh young upstart pairings you have now seen so many times in crime fiction.  Here's a rating of their books between 1935 and 1940, plus Street's "Miles Burton" detective novels from the same years, featuring insouciant gentleman amatyer sleuth Desmond Merrion and Inspector Arnold.

aka The Bloody Tower

15 JOHN RHODES

1935

The Corpse in the Car (this is the last book without Jimmy Waghorn) *****

Hendon's First Case ****

Mystery at Olympia ****

1936

Death at Breakfast ***

In Face of the Verdict ***

1937

Death in the Hopfields ****

Death on the Board *****

Proceed with Caution ****

1937

Invisible Weapons ****

The Bloody Tower *****

1939

Drop to His Death (nonseries, with John Dickson Carr) ****

Death Pays a Dividend (introduces Jimmy love interest, Diana Morpeth) ****

Death on Sunday ****

1940

Death on the Boat-Train ****

Murder at Lilac Cottage ***


14 MILES BURTONS

1935

The Devereux Court Mystery ****

The Milk Churn Murder ***

1936

Death in the Tunnel ****

Murder of a Chemist ****

Where Is Barbara Prentice? *****

1937

Death at the Club ****

Murder in Crown Passage ***

1938

Death at Low Tide ****

The Platinum Cat *****

1939

Death Leaves No Card (Arnold only) ****

Mr. Babbacombe Dies ***

Murder in the Coalhole ***

1940

Mr. Westerby Missing ****

Death Takes a Flat ***1/2


RHODES

3 5-star

9 4-star

3 3-star

BURTONS

2 5-star

7 4-star

1 3.5-star

4 3-star

The Major Goes to War: Rating John Street's 18 wartime John Rhode and Miles Burton Mysteries, 1940-45

 Continuing (backwards) my ratings of John Street's detective novels, I thought I would look at the wartime ones (books with actual wartime settings in bold):

JOHN RHODE 

1941

Death at the Helm****

They Watched by Night*****

1942

The Fourth Bomb****

Night Exercise (noneseries)***

1943

Dead on the Track****

Men Die at Cyprus Lodge****

1944

Death Invades the Meeting***1/2

Vegetable Duck*****

1945

Bricklayer's Arms**


MILES BURTON (all with Inspector Arnold, all but 2 with Desmond Merrion)

1941

Death of Two Brothers***1/2

Up the Garden Path****

1942

This Undesirable Residence***

1943

Dead Stop**

Murder M. D.*****

1944 

Four-ply Yarn***1/2

The Three-Corpse Trick*****

1945

Not a Leg to Stand On****

Early Morning Murder**

9 RHODES

2 5-star

4 4-star

1 3.5 star

1 3-star

1 2-star


9 BURTONS

2 5-star

2 4-star

2 3.5-star

1 3-star

2 2-star


Rhode's Vegetable Duck has always been one of my favorites, dodgy title and all, having one of the most madly complex murder plots in the business, like Sayers' Have His Carcase or Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.  One of the all time classic poisonings, although it is a creative adaptation of R. Austin Freeman (not the only time Street did this).  They Watched by Night is less showy, but everything is great here--wartime setting, Supt. Hanslet brought out of retirement and Jimmy Waghorn in intelligence working in tandem, neat espionage and brilliant murder.

Death at the Helm is a very sober and character-driven with one Rhode's clever poisonings, The Fourth Bomb another good strong wartime mystery, Dead on the Track unexpectedly moving in its handling of the chief suspect, while Men Die at Cyrpus Lodge is Rhode's take on the haunted house mystery, full of clever devices.  Death Invades the Meeting is maybe a notch down from these, while the nonseries Night Exercise is a maybe a little dull as a mystery plot (by Rhode's standards) but is a very interesting look at wartime England.  Bricklayer's Arms made very little impression on me at the time, but the Puzzle Doctor has defended it so who knows!

Burton's Murder MD is just a lovely wartime village mystery, probably the closest thing he did to a Christie in terms of clever plotting and milieu.  One of my favorite books.  Three Corpse Trick has an almost unbelievably intricate plot (I diagrammed it) converging on this odd English village, very well conveyed.  Brilliant books both.

Not a Leg to Stand on is a clever take on vanishing (a man and his artificial leg), while Up the Garden Path aka Death Visits Downspring (not to confuse it with Rhode's 1949 Up the Garden Path) is another very clever wartime tale, not quite as good as Rhode's They Watched by Night but still good.

Death of Two Brothers is a very atypical Burton.  No Merrion and more character than plot driven I would say.  I might bump this up to 4 on rereading.  Four-Ply Yarn has similarity to Murder MD but is not as good.

This Undesirable Residence is one Anthony Boucher, Jacques Barzun and Nick Fuller all hated, but what can I say, I enjoyed it reasonably well.  No Merrion again in this one.  Dead Stop was a big disappointment in that it is one of Street's locked room mysteries but is a dud, while Early Morning Murder just struck me as kind of dumb.  Even the greats can nod, especially when they write over 140 mysteries!

Monday, September 6, 2021

GADderdammerung I: John Street, aka John Rhode and Miles Burton, and the end of the Golden Age

Valhalla in Flames, 1894 depiction by Max Bruckner, original set designer of
Richard Wagner's opera Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods)

People often ask me: So, when did the "Golden Age of detective fiction" actually end?  It's like asking when the Dark Ages lit up or the Roman Empire fell, I suppose (though at least we were given an official date for that latter one when I was in school).  

Customarily it's said that the Golden Age existed between the two world wars, around 1920 to 1939, but the problem with this formulation has always been that the Golden Age generation of mystery writers was still going quite strong in Forties.  It's in the Fifties when you start to see some real drop-off in quality, which rapidly accelerated in the Sixties, by which time a lot of the Golden Age writers were, well, actually dying.

One might argue that the Golden Age should be extended at least through the years of World War II.  Certainly in England the postwar years, with the impact of shortages and economic austerity, the accelerated decline of the Empire and the social changes fostered by the Labour government, impacted the writing of Golden Age mystery writers, undermining the classical structure which people associate, somewhat exaggeratedly, with the Golden Age: the country house, the stable and stratified English village, the homogenous society, etc.  Theoretically fair play detective fiction should be able to exist without these elements (you can have a fair play mystery with mean streets and hoodlums), yet in many people's minds it's hard to imagine classic mystery without them.  

However, it was in 1950 that Agatha Christie produced what is generally acknowledged as one of her masterpieces: A Murder Is Announced, which is set, yes, in an English village, one going through some of the social upheaval described above.  The postwar years hardly rendered Christie incapable of writing great detective novels.  Besides A Murder Is Announced, we have The Hollow (1946), Taken at the Flood (1948), Crooked House (1949), Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952), They Do It With Mirrors (1952), After the Funeral (1953), A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)--a collection which puts many another mystery writer to shame, I think, even the slightly weaker ones (in my view House, Mirrors and Rye).  

Probably it's not until the mid-Fifties when you could really say, okay, the old gel's suffering from some slippage.  (I'm thinking the Poirots Hickory Dickory Dock and Dead Man's Folly, which seem clearly inferior to the gold-star Poirots McGinty and Funeral.)  So it seems that, having not only survived the Labour years but produced some of her best books then, Christie only really starting declining after the Tories came back to power.  

Maybe it was the Suez Crisis (1956) that ruined everything!

You actually can see a similar trajectory with Major John Street, aka John Rhode and Miles Burton, and his 31 (!) postwar John Rhode novels, beginning with The Lake House (1946) and ending with The Vanishing Diary (1961), and his 29 Miles Burton novels, beginning with The Cat Jumps (1946) and ending with Death Paints a Picture (1960).  That's 60 novels in fifteen years, folks, all of them true detective novels, so of course there's going to be variation in quality.  Yet the surprising things is how consistently good the quality is (if you are an admirer of the writer) for some time after the Second World War.  

When did the gas start to run out of the Major's tank?  What follows is how I rank Street's books from this period  (no half stars, which would add more variation).  KEEP IN MIND that three stars is good, four very good, five great.  Two okay, one poor.


JOHN RHODES (all with Dr. Priestley and Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn)

1946

The Lake House****

Death in Harley Street*****

1947

Nothing but the Truth**1/2

Death of an Author***

1948

The Paper Bag****

The Telephone Call****

1949

Blackthorn House***1/2

Up the Garden Path***1/2

1950

Family Affairs****

The Two Graphs***

Dr. Goodwood's Locum****

1951

The Secret Meeting****

1952

Death in Wellington Road***

Death at the Dance****

By Registered Post**

1953

Death at the Inn***1/2

1954 

The Dovebury Murders***1/2

Death on the Lawn***1/2

1955

The Domestic Agency***

Death of a Godmother**

1956

An Artist Dies**1/2

Open Verdict**

1957

Robbery with Violence***

Death of a Bridegroom**

1958

Murder at Derivale***

Death Takes a Partner*

Licenced for Murder***1/2

1959

Three Cousins Die**

1960

Twice Dead***

The Fatal Pool*

1961

The Vanishing Diary**


MILES BURTONS (all with Desmond Merrion and all but one with Inspector Arnold)

1946

The Cat Jumps*****

Situation Vacant****

1947

Heir to Lucifer****

A Will in the Way***1/2

1948

Death in Shallow Water**

Devil's Reckoning***

1949

Death Takes the Living***1/2

Look Alive****

1950

Ground for Suspicion****

A Village Afraid****

1951

Beware Your Neighbour***

Murder Out of School**

1952

Murder on Duty**

1953

Heir to Murder***

Something to Hide**

1954

Murder in Absence****

Unwanted Corpse***

1955

Murder Unrecognized**

A Crime in Time**

1956

Found Drowned**

Death in Duffle Coat**

1957

The Moth Watch Murder***1/2

The Chinese Puzzle***

1958

Bones in the Brickfield****

Death Takes a Detour***

1959

Return from the Dead***1/2

A Smell of Smoke**

1960

Legacy of Death**

Death Paints a Picture**


So there you have it.  Like I said in my last post, I've become nervous about over-praising books these days, so I'm very chary indeed of five star ratings.  Thus I have Street with his last "masterpieces" in 1946, one Rhode and one Burton.  (And I know there are going to be people saying, I kept seeing people saying The Cat Jumps was so great, but I just don't get it....)

So, all totaled from 1946 to 1954 we have


18 RHODES 1946-54

1 5-star

7 4-star

5 3.5-star

3 3-star

1 2.5-star

1 2-star

17 BURTONS 1946-54

1 5-star

6 4-star

2 3.5-star

4 3-star

4 2-star


So I guess you could say I prefer Burton in this period, though honestly I would like to go back and reread some of these.  But for now from 1955 to 1961 we have: 

13 RHODEs 1955-61

1 3.5-star

4 3-star

1 2.5 star

5 2-star

2 1-star

13 BURTONs 1955-61

1 four-star

2 3.5-star

2 3-star

8 2-star


In Masters I wrote that the later Burtons are better than the later Rhodes, generally speaking, and I think this opinion holds up as far as the post-1954 books go, although only moderately so; but honestly I would have to reread some of these.  The Puzzle Doctor liked some of the Burtons I considered forgettable at the time.  (And, to confirm it, I have since forgotten them.)  However, no Burton title is as bad as The Fatal Pool or Death Takes a Partner.

Also I have Burton's Bones in the Brickfield as the best mystery by Street, either as Burton or Rhode, in the 1955-61 period.  I suppose I've just "doomed" this book now!  On the other hand, I'm currently rereading and rather enjoying A Village Afraid, of which eminent Streetist Jacques Barzun damningly pronounced:

One of his very worst.

So, you never know, do you--despite what those experts say!

So when did Street really start to decline then?  Looking at the above, I would say 1955/6 (about the same time as Christie--see, Suez again!) if you put a blunt instrument to my head, but even after that he had his moments.  Why did he stop writing in 1961?  I think he must have been his health.  He was 77, had been overweight for years and was a longtime drinker and smoker.  He died three years later in 1964.  The impressive thing is that he kept going so prolifically for so long.  An indomitable fellah, indeed.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

"The fourth dimension in crime": Death in Harley Street (1946), by John Rhode

High praise for a book carries with it dangers, I have noticed.  There's an almost perverse human instinct to unfavorably or lukewarmly review a raved book, announcing along the way, I might have liked this one better, but the raves it got just raised my expectations too high and I was disappointed, etc., etc., etc.  As people who read this blog will know, I write a lot of book introductions these days and awareness of this trait of human nature has actually made me hesitant to praise books "too" highly.  

Am I myself immune to this quality?  I think not.  

Ten years ago I was completing the writing of my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, in which John Street, aka John Rhode and Miles Burton (and very occasionally Cecil Waye), plays a very big part.  There are over 60,000 words in it about Street and his writing, to about 70,000 together on Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington.

At the time I was writing Masters, Golden Age mystery stood in low esteem among opinion makers in the media and, honestly, many modern crime writers themselves, who seemed desperate to follow the gritty path of Ian Rankin, and not get stuck in some cozy corner with Agatha ChristiePD James was still around reliably to make dismissive comments about "Dear Agatha" and as late as 2014 historian and commentator Lucy Worsley popped up in a BBC series to make an abundance of regrettably clue-less comments about the GA generally.

Back then people were still getting most of their notions about the Golden Age, to the extent they bothered to do actual research, from interesting but frequently dismissive and one-sided books from the Seventies by leftist mystery writers Julian Symons and Colin Watson, not to mention a host of mostly misguided works from academics, long on theory and heavy with jargon but sadly short on genuine familiarity with the genre.

Nowadays things seem so different, but it was a much lonelier place for genuine GA detective fiction fans back then.  (Some of us had out own group over at Yahoo, Golden Age Detective Stories, where we moaned together about the cold cruel world of modern crime fiction and felt better.)  Aside from the imperishable Christie (invariably patronizing comments aside) and her sister "Crime Queens" Sayers, Marsh and Allingham (and sometimes Tey), many of the writers of the GA seem to have fallen permanently down the memory hole--and not just people like Street and Crofts, but even one-time titans like John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen.

Before Masters was published in 2012, if you wanted to learn anything about John Street's John Rhode and Miles Burton novels, you pretty much had to go to the library, which people still did back then, and look up the mammoth Catalogue of Crime, complied by academics (and, more importantly, knowledgeable mystery fans) Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor.  It was there in the COC that I found Barzun and Taylor's sky-high praise for John Rhode's detective novel Death on Harley Street--#44, I believe, of the 73 Dr. Priestly detective novels. 

Phepson encounters a facer
first (and currently only) pb ed.
of Harley Street, from 1986
I think it's unusual for an author's masterpiece to pop up more than midway through the series (especially one as long as Rhode's), but Barzun and Taylor assuredly deemed Death in Harley Street such.  "Surely the best of the lot," the COC pronounces, adding "diabolically clever...."  I have to quote their entry very carefully, because, short as it is, it's filled with spoilers.  

When I first read Harley Street I enjoyed it but wasn't as overwhelmed as B&T were, perhaps because I had read their confoundedly spoiler-filled summary first.  In Masters I gave the book rather short shrift, merely quoting from American critic Anthony Boucher's review, where he called the plot one of the year's most ingenious ones, but faulted the book for all its "static talk."  

At the time I preferred the more active Priestleys from the Thirties, where there is less theorizing and more actual doing and Dr. P himself can be surprisingly active on occasion.  

After Death Invades the Meeting (1944), John Street made some big changes in the Rhode books.  First, he decided that as far as he was concerned World War II was over and, in several books which follow, the war not only goes unmentioned, it seems like it never even took place.  You might almost think these were prewar books.   

Ultimately more importantly, Street also retired Superintendent Hanslet, who though superannuated had been hanging on due to the war, and turned over the official police investigations in the novels to "young" Jimmy Waghorn, introduced to the series back in 1935, who was soon to become a Superintendent himself. 

For a few books, Street's crew of regulars--Jimmy, Hanslet, Dr. Mortimer Oldland, Dr. P and his loyal secretary Harold Merefield--interact with each other independently.  Yet I believe that by Nothing But the Truth (1947), Street settles down to this sedentary format of Jimmy consulting with his trio of old men--Dr. P, Hanslet, Oldland--with Harold sitting largely mute in a corner.  This definitely gets to feel formulaic, however interesting any given murder might be.  I think the last times Dr. P even gets out of the house are in The Secret Meeting (1951) and By Registered Post (1952).

So, yes, those "round table" discussions are indeed static and in Harley Street you get one right at the get-go, where the first 15% of the novel (41 pages) is devoted to the literally old gang discussing the strange demise, in his office on Harley Street, of brilliant glands specialist Dr. Richard Mawsley.  However, after that you get Jimmy investigating and having separate discussions with Hanslet, Oldland and Dr. P of course; and Dr. P himself even gets out of the house on Westbourne Terrace, with Harold in tow, to do some investigation in Yorkshire (ancestral home of the family of Street's mother, Caroline Bill).

So actually there is sufficient variety in the narrative, in my view.  Not to mention that the penultimate chapter and the one which follows it together constitute something of a tour de force, with real feeling behind it.  And it doesn't hurt that the problem really is genuinely ingenious.  I suspect that Street may have been inspired in the writing of this one by a certain Agatha Christie novel, but, again, I had better not say too much, as I don't want to engage in spoilerage, if you will.  

Anyway, old Dr. P, who just loves solving an unsolved mystery, is so intrigued with the Mawsley matter that he persuades Scotland Yard, who owes him big over that recent Lake House affair (see The Lake House, 1946), to let Jimmy Waghorn investigate, even though a coroner's court concluded Mawsley's death was accidental.

Ostensibly Dr. Mawsley died from injecting himself, evidently accidentally, with a fatal dose of strychnine.  Yet no one who knows Mawsley can believe that the brilliant doctor ever would have made such a careless mistake.  Nor can people believe that Mawsley, a tremendously self-satisfied and self-centered person at the height of his success in life, would have committed suicide (although  there were those letters he received before his death, one of which seems to have gone missing).

Yet murder seems impossible, as Mawsley's butler, Phepson (great butlery name this, though Street gives it to a doctor over a decade later in the John Rhode novel Murder at Derivale), was on the scene with his nephew and it doesn't appear that anyone else could have gotten onto the premises after the departure of the rat catcher (Mawsley used rats in his glands experiments) and a lawyer who called upon Mawsley with news about an inheritance (another reason Mawsley would not have committed suicide--he loved getting money).

British hardcover ed.

But, wait, it had to be murder, accident or suicide, right?  Well, maybe not, suggest Dr. Priestley at one point, leading to this exchange:

"Oh, come now, Professor, that won't do!"  Hanlet protested.  "It's perfectly obvious that in this case at least there are only three alternatives, suicide, accident or murder.  Mawsley's death must have been due to one of them."

"In space it is perfectly obvious that there are only three dimensions," Dr. Priestley replied.  "Length, breadth, and height.  Yet a mathematician can prove, to his own satisfaction at least, that a fourth exists."

A reviewer in England's Daily Mirror, him or herself a mystery writer, loved this notion and Rhode too:

I call John Rhode as the best of us all today, and nothing could be more interesting or original than this case of the Harley Street specialist whose unnatural death was due 'neither to murder, suicide nor accident.'  We have reached the Fourth Dimension in crime!

On the other hand Judge Lynch in the Saturday Review echoed Anthony Boucher's equivocations, praising the novel's "extremely clever puzzle," but complaining that there was "not much action and a great deal of talk."  However, two reviewers in Canada echoed the Daily Mirror reviewer's enthusiasm:

Here is a mystery which IS a mystery.  The author must have lost sleep for a couple of years planning the thing, but he succeeded.  (Winnipeg Tribune)

....more than 200 pages of engrossing deduction.  Rhode can spin a yarn of the deliberate yet attention-holding sort.  Better not start this if tomorrow isn't your day off.  It'll keep you up all night and you won't be fit for work. (Windsor Star)

American hardcover ed.
(Don't miss the death's head in the 
STREET light!)

Maybe there is something to the claim that Americans need action!  Modern Americans who like ingenious plotting, however, finally will be able to buy a new edition of this novel, I'm pleased to report, for the first time in 35 years.  Long overdue.

I'd love to discuss the solution, though primarily because I think it draws on aspects from Street's personal life.  Also drawing on Street's personal life, perhaps, is another case, openly discussed throughout the novel, of an alienated husband and wife, the Mawsleys.  The couple spent more and more time living apart, he in London and she at Larch Hall in Dorset.  While Mawsley had two children with his wife, he has grown to feel like like a stranger to them, since he sees them so little.  I had to wonder how much this reflected Street's own relationship with his first wife and his daughter.

Also interesting to me was the author's portrait of Mawsley as a greedy, egotistical man unconcerned with patients unless they were holding a large purse.  On the eve of the National Health Service becoming a reality in the UK, John Street here sounds for all the world like he was a NHS supporter, which would have made him an anomaly among English mystery writers of his day.