Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Bombs Away, Murder Fanciers! The Fourth Bomb (1942), by John Rhode

Despite unsettled conditions about him, John Rhode, recognized as one of England's ablest detective story writers, continues to produce adventures concerning his amazing criminologist.

--Dodd, Mead blurb to John Rhode's The Fourth Bomb (1942)

"It would be enormous fun," she exclaimed.  "I'm sure Sir Oswald and Lady Hunton would enjoy the old dear immensely.  Send him along, do."  

I shouldn't have described the professor as enormous fun," Jimmy replied.

--Inspector, now Lieutenant, Jimmy Waghorn and his wife Diana discuss the impending visit of the formidable Dr. Priestley, John Rhode's sleuth extraordinaire in The Fourth Bomb.


Just over a couple of weeks ago an echo of an eighty-year-old military conflict was heard when a British explosives disposal team detonated, in a "controlled explosion," a 2200 pound World War Two era German bomb in Exeter, UK.  During the long ago hostilities the city was heavily damaged by enemy planes, which conducted 19 raids there, dropping 7000 such devices, particularly in May 1942 during the so-called Baedeker Blitz, which killed 156 people in Exeter. (It was said that Hitler selected bombing sites out of a Baedecker travel guide.)  A video in the link above shows the recent explosion, giving one a sense of the kind of thing which so many people experienced throughout the world during those years of violent conflict and wanton slaughter.  

Another, nonstressful way to experience the war (after the Exeter detonation nearby buildings were damaged and people were not able to return to their homes for several days), is through novels published at the time, like mystery writer John Street's mystery The Fourth Bomb, published in early January 1942 and set in UK over about ten days in the month of December, presumably of the year 1940, during the midst of the original German Blitz.

Between 1941 and 1944, the highly prolific Major John Street, who after a short term of service in the war resided outside of London with his companion Eileen Waller in an isolated English village, published no fewer than fifteen detective novels, nearly four every year, eight of these under his pen name John Rhode and seven under his pen name Miles Burton.  These are:


  • Death at the Helm 1941
  • They Watched by Night 1941
  • The Fourth Bomb 1942
  • Night Exercise (non-series) 1942
  • Dead on the Track 1943
  • Men Die at Cyprus Lodge 1943
  • Death Invades the Meeting 1944
  • Vegetable Duck 1944
  • Up the Garden Path 1941
  • Death of Two Brothers 1941
  • This Undesirable Residence 1942
  • Dead Stop 1943
  • Murder M.D. 1943
  • Four-Ply Yarn 1944
  • The Three-Corpse Trick 1944
The amazing thing is that not one of these is a "bad" book, in my opinion, though of course some are better than others.  Three of them--Murder M. D., The Three-Corpse Trick and the oddly named Vegetable Duck, are among the best of his crime novels, in my view, with several others not far behind these top titles. Taken together, Street's dozen mystery novels with war settings arguably are the most significant group of World War Two crime novels by a classical British mystery writer.  (All but three of them are authentically set in villages during the war; these ones with war settings are marked in bold.)  

Agatha Christie, for example, though also a highly prolific writer (though not as much as Rhode), published "only" six mystery novels during the same period (she also wrote Curtain, apparently), and how many of them are even set during the war, let alone in an interesting way, aside from the 1941 Tommy and Tuppence espionage thriller N or M?  There's The Moving Finger (1943)--and what else?  Christie, it seems, largely sidestepped the war in her wartime fiction.  

Canadian paperback edition of
The Fourth Bomb
John Rhode novels never really
caught on in pb in the US, although
they were more often seen in
Canada and the UK.
Just this pb edition will set you back 
around $70 US dollars today.
I don't believe that I even mentioned The Fourth Bomb in my 2012 book on Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and JJ Connington, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery.  At the time I recall being disappointed with it, in that Rhode's elderly scientist amateur sleuth, Dr. Priestley, only appears in the last 47 pages of a 260 page novel, essentially to wrap things up.  Superintendent Hanslet doesn't appear in the book at all, leaving the investigative legwork for most of the novel to be carried out by Inspector, or  for the duration of the war Lieutenant, Jimmy Waghorn, now in Army Intelligence, and a not overly perspicacious local policeman, Sergeant Swatland. 

There is no ingenious murder gadgetry in this one, in contrast with many other Rhodes, and Dr. P.--after being briefed on the case by Jimmy at his home at Westbourne Terrace in London (which he refuses to evacuate as long as he has his loyal cook by him; his secretary and supposed son-in-law, Harold Merefield, being in service)--solves the case in short order, having decided, rather extraordinarily at this stage, to venture out to the country scene of the crimes and investigate the case himself.  

Once Dr. P., who already had the essence of the solution in mind when he leaves London, ambles around for a bit for but a single chapter he has seen all he needs to see.  In the penultimate chapter, he gives the classic "drawing room lecture"--though in this case it's delivered in the library)--before the assembled Sergeant Swatland, local attorney Montague Corsham and local squire Oswald Hunton. 

Incidentally, could Street's character names get any more English?

Then there's one last chapter, which is, rather interestingly and originally for Street, told from the culprit's perspective.  It's easy to see how this could have been recast as a Miles Burton novel, with the case solved instead by that series' insouciant gentleman amateur detective, Desmond Merrion, and his dim attendant policeman, Inspector Arnold; but Street already had a 1942 Burton title and needed one for Dr. Priestley for that year.

However, on rereading The Fourth Bomb, I am happy with it as it is.  Arguably it's a bit leisurely, even by Street's standards, but I enjoy soaking up the rural English wartime atmosphere.  The mystery itself is a reminder of how ingenious Street was at plot construction.  From just a couple of little points, Dr. P. is able logically to unravel a case which had flummoxed Jimmy and Sgt. Swatland for over 200 pages.  It's a cleverly designed solution, though I did have one query about the culprit's plot which wasn't addressed.

jacketed British first edition by Collins 
The American first edition will set you back
$250 for a strictly okay copy without a dust jacket.
A Collins first with jacket
might cost you your home!
The plot in short concerns the death of Samuel Gazeley, a London diamond merchant who resides near the village of Yardley Green, scene of enemy bombing action in the first chapter of the novel.  Gazeley is found dead in a ditch by the crater made by the fourth of the Nazi bombs, presumably a casualty of the attack.  (As an aside I will mention that my biggest complaint about this novel, where movements, like in a Freeman Wills Crofts mystery, are centrally important, is that there is no endpaper map.  Street mentions Bolthurst, the county town, and the villages of Fetterworth, where I think Mr. Gazeley lived, and Stayneden, these locales being respectively twelve, two and three-and-a-half miles from Yardley Green; but it would have been nice to see a map to visualize it all.)

The affair opens at Street's favorite locale, a pub, this one the Fox and Grapes, when the bombing occurs. The dead body is found after the bombing at the end of Chapter One and identified as Gazeley in Chapter Two.  Initially events are seen mostly from the perspective of attorney Montague Corsham, who had drawn up a will for Gazeley and now is seeing to his affairs. 

We learn that Gazeley, though notoriously woman-shy, recently had become engaged to marry Susan Mellor, sister of prominent local farmer Mr. Petersfield and a bold widow who seems to have put fear and loathing into the hearts of most of the local men--so why Gazeley of all people wanted to marry her is a mystery to them.  Forward Mrs. Mellor is disparaged throughout the novel for such sins as wearing trousers, putting on too much makeup, not knowing how to behave properly in a pub (!), calling men she hardly knows by their first names and, last but not least, for being a gold digger.   

Interestingly Mrs. Mellor shares most of a surname with gamekeeper Oliver Mellors, the studly title character in D. H. Lawrence's notorious 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, which was not published in the UK in an unexpurgated version until 1960--Lawrence's ultimate embodiment of masculinity.

Street was no prude, even if he had his sexist moments (perhaps prompted by his unhappy first marriage), and it wouldn't surprise me if he read Lawrence's novel.  The Fourth Bomb itself has one slightly randy passage, which I should have quoted in Masters. (I had underlined it but must have forgotten about it.)  Speaking of Susan Mellors to Sergeant Swatland, Ambrose Burnage, landlord of the Fox and Grapes, starts the following exchange:

That woman's a perfect nuisance.  She's always coming into my bar of an evening, dressed in those trousers she wears and carrying on as if the place belonged to her.  She'll talk at the top of her voice to anyone who will listen to her, and make a proper commotion one way and another.  I tell you, the chaps don't like it.

Upsets them, I daresay," the Sergeant remarked.  "Women never seem to know how to behave in a pub."  

"You're right there, it does upset them," said Burnage.  "Do you know what James Weller, Mr. Petersfield's foreman, said to me the other day?  Women may be all right in bed, but they are a blessed nuisance in the local."

Sure it's sexist, but I have no doubt that it conveys genuine attitudes in the day, as women became for a time, during the war, more independent and assertive--more "masculine," if you will.

Someone unwelcome has arrived in the pub?
Maybe Mrs. Mellor?
Aside from Jimmy's bride of a couple of years, Diana, who is staying as a guest at the local squire's country house (it seems she's a "distant cousin" of his), Mrs. Mellor essentially is the only woman in the novel, which is male-centered even by John Street's standards.  Unlike ball busting Mrs. Mellor, Diana is a sympathetic character, but Street, after introducing her in 1939 in Death Pays a Dividend, never did with her character what he might have. 

Diana appeared or was referenced successively in Dividend, Death on Sunday (1939) and Death on the Boat Train (1940), but, after The Fourth Bomb, as I recollect, her only appearance is in The Paper Bag (1948).  By contrast, indefatigable Jimmy Waghorn would appear right up through the last John Rhode novel, The Vanishing Diary, in 1961.

When Jimmy first meets her in Dividend, Diana is a cook in the household of a wealthy London stockbroker.  Like the real life author Monica Dickens, who recounted her work experiences in her first book One Pair of Hands (1939), which was published the same year as Death Pays a Dividend, Diana Morpeth (the surname comes from a town in Northumberland) is a young woman of "good birth" who decides to go into domestic service. In The Fourth Bomb, she talks over the case with Jimmy a few times and then, after he has to return to the army, she chauffeurs Dr. Priestley around the county for the day.  It's pleasant to have her around, but even more would have been pleasant, to be sure.

Author Monica Dickens (1915-1992)
might have been the model
for John Rhode's Diana Morpeth
Anyway, back to the plot of the novel, things gets more complicated when Jeremiah Winthorpe, Gazeley's partner in the London diamond firm, shows up and announces that Gazeley had returned to Yardley Green with a belt of eight diamonds strapped to his person, and said belt is nowhere to be found!  Did someone loot the diamonds from Gazeley's body?  Things get yet more complicated from there, in this enjoyable tale with many twists.  

The wartime village atmosphere is quite well conveyed, as per usual with the author, and while none of the many characters are particularly "deep" they are credible as such.  Street even takes time to give the aging Dr. Priestley a little extra dimension, which I hadn't appreciated before.  

In this passage the increasingly sedentary Dr. P. half regrets agreeing to take the train out to Oswalds Hunton's place in Fetterworth, near Yardley Green, despite his love of a good mystery, which we have long known about, and, more surprisingly, his desire for companionship:

At his age, he reflected, there was a vast difference between anticipation and execution....many objections obtruded themselves.  The fatigue involved, changing one's regular habits, the awkwardness of living on terms of familiarity with total strangers.  On the other hand, the project had its compensations.  Here was a problem well worthy of definite solution.  And, he might as well admit it if only to himself, there were times nowadays when he felt desperately lonely.

That last sentence was unexpected.  Did it reflect the attitude of the author, who was once John Dickson Carr's best bud and a very active and convivial participant in the Detection Club, but would attend its London meetings less and less frequently as the years passed after the war?  (During the war club meetings were suspended.)

The reader:
American newswoman Lucy Curtis Templeton
(1878-1971) numbered among the fans of 
John Street in both his John Rhode and
Miles Burton manifestations
English mystery writer and postwar Detection Club member Christianna Brand once called the mysteries of John Rhode and Freeman Wills Crofts "men's books," because they were concerned with "dry" technical matters such as railroad timetables and tidal movements.  However, one of the most favorable reviews which The Fourth Bomb received was from an American woman in her sixties, Lucy Curtis Templeton (1878-1971), who edited the book review page in a newspaper in the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, the Knoxville News Sentinel.  

Six years old than John Street, Lucy Curtis was described as "a lady in a man's world," having graduated from Bryn Mawr Preparatory School in Philadelphia and the University of Tennessee in 1901 and gone to work for the newspaper as a proofreader in 1904. 

She later became the paper's telegraph editor, meaning the person who handles the copy that comes into the office by wire.  It is said that she was the only woman in the southern United States employed in such a capacity at the time.  In 1912 she was alone at the office in the early hours of an April night when word of the sinking of the Titanic came in over the wire; she immediately scrambled to get out an EXTRA edition.  

When still a young woman, Lucy Curtis married an attorney named Templeton, but he died after only three years of marriage and she went back to work for the newspaper, reviewing books, among other things, until her retirement at the age of 83 in 1961.  One of the books she reviewed two decades before her retirement, under the book review page's "It's a Crime" column, was one of John Rhode's "men's books," The Fourth Bomb.  She loved it, pronouncing:  "Mystery of the week, so far as this column is concerned, is The Fourth Bomb, by John Rhode, published by Dodd, Mead and Company."  Then followed a discussion of the plot, ending in the conclusion: "One of the best."  Seems this was a woman who could abide a man's book.

I'll bet Miss Lucy even would have known how to act in a pub!


  1. At least Diana gets a better deal that April, Dr Priestley's daughter, who (IIRC) disappears completely after the first book and is hardly even mentioned again.

    1. Yeah, April was no loss though, lol. I love how she is making rounds visiting friends in the country in the second novel and then is never seen again! Are we sure Harold didn't bump her off? But then Rhode suddenly mentions again nearly three decades that Harold is Dr. P.'s son-in-law, not just his long suffering secretary, so I suppose not.