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.


  1. Sir,You have made my day calling spade a spade or rather leftist a leftist :)
    I never cease to wonder why so many well read experts still choose to quote the leftist braggart about GA novels while clearly he cared too little about the mystery and too much about socialism .

    1. I enjoy much of Julian Symons' crime fiction and Bloody Murder is a stimulating book, but for too long it was treated as the last word. The fact is the book has omissions and weaknesses and it does reflect to some extent the author's ideological presuppositions. It doesn't mean there's not any truth in his views, but they shouldn't be treated as the last word.

      I don't use the word "leftist" in a derogatory sense but simply in a descriptive one, to describe the point of view he was bringing to the table. Symons was someone who was coming as something of an outsider to the traditional mystery writer order. But he made a number of valid points, even if I and others have striven over the years to revise them.

      Symons himself saw himself as a leftist, even if he was flexible enough to befriend and defend George Orwell, for example, after the publication of his work critical of the Left. He's a very interesting individual in his own right, worthy of more study--not blind obeisance. Ironically, almost a decade after the publication of my book Masters, a lot of people have forgotten, or never have known about, Bloody Murder. Martin Edwards' book has more to do with that than any of mine, I suspect!

  2. Orwell himself was a "leftist". In fact, "leftists" have spent much more time, ink and venom attacking one another than attacking their supposedly "right-wing" enemies.
    Julian Symons wrote some very good and interesting books not concerned with crime fiction. His biography of his brother, A.J.A. Symons is a moving work. A.J.A.'s own The Quest for Corvo is a fascinating real-life detective story.

    1. Yes, Symons certainly was multi-talented, whatever my disagreements with him on mystery fiction. Someone called him the last of the great autodidacts.

  3. I have read only one Symons story(a longish one) and I liked it .It was not a traditional detective story but a good one indeed .Its really not his fault that people quote him as an expert on a field where he was not suited to be . I have read some of his opinions on Ambler ..and again he proclaims the early ones(I dont mean dimitrios) as better than the post war ones simply because Amblers leftist ideas was more pronounced in the pre war novels .While he was perfectly entitled to feel that way ,most thriller readers would be misguided and feel that Ambler wrote slow uniteresting books only except Dimitrios, if they limit themselves to pre war books and miss the pleasures of A passage of arms or The Levanter .
    I have this very same objection about his opinions on GAD novels .. Its just like watching Exorcist and criticizing it because it failed to make you laugh .

    1. Exorcist failing to make you laugh? Does make your head spin...

    2. Yes..just read some random reviews on goodreads and you will see what I mean ...
      Simply put ..critcizing books on grounds which are utterly irrelevant for that book .Symons criticizing Rhode/Crofts for lack of characterization or for being humdrum is just like that ...why would anyone pickup a Rhode and expect social drama ??

    3. A lot of "criticism" is merely people trying to impose their own aesthetic preferences on other people. Symons had a very pronounced aesthetic view of mystery fiction, he was a missionary if you will, and he wanted to get that view across in his criticism. He thought the Golden Age, as he imagined it, was a sort of freakish deviation from the main path of literature. Ironically, it's not so different from how Sayers came to see things, even though he disliked Sayers on the whole I would say.

      I think Symons had an ideological aversion to the whole concept of the privileged, posh gentleman sleuth type. Thus if you look at his writing not just on the Humdrums but the Crime Queens, Agatha excepted, it's really pretty dismissive.

    4. Yet curiously Symons extolled "Cameron McCabe"'s The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, both the ultimate "puzzle" novel and its own demolition.
      I must admit, I think Symons' wrote about it from a burnished memory without rereading it, because the one thing he doesn't mention is that it's a bloody awful book.