WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What’s this book about?
Rupert Burtonshaw of Mytton House, a solicitor in the county town of Yarminster, has been hosting his neighbour and client, Henry Watlington, to dinner. Watlington likes his bottle and as the end of the evening approaches, it’s clear that he is in no shape to do anything further that evening. Nevertheless they are discussing Burtonshaw’s objective, that of reconciling the wealthy Watlington with his errant son, Cecil.
Although the hour is late, there’s a knock on the door and a Yarminster policeman is announced, P.C. Fawkes. He’s discovered Watlington’s chauffeur Ellers, drunk in charge of Watlington’s limousine, passed out at the wheel. This is surprising, since Ellers is known to be a teetotaller, but the discovery of the dregs of a bottle of whiskey in his pocket seems to close the case. P.C. Fawkes volunteers to drive the muzzy Mr. Watlington home to Pomfret Hall and then take Ellers into custody, and leaves his bicycle in Burtonshaw’s charge when he does.
At Watlington’s own Pomfret Hall the next morning, however, Mr. Watlington is nowhere to be seen, nor is Ellers. Elders staggers into the kitchen early in the morning, covered in earth and leaves and soaking wet. His story is … well, he doesn’t quite know what happened, but he woke up in the woods with a splitting headache lying under some rhododendrons, and staggered home. The limousine and Mr. Watlington have vanished, and P.C. Fawkes is also found to have been mysteriously stupefied (and his cape and cap stolen) the night before.
After a general search and quite a bit of plot entanglement, a “road patrol” employed by the Automobile Association unlocks the door of an A.A. telephone box some fifty miles from Yarminster. The dead body that falls out of the box, with “every bone in his body broken”, starts the plot in motion in earnest, and Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn is assigned to the case. His friend Dr. Priestley, the series detective, takes a more active role than usual. I’ll slide over the details to preserve your enjoyment, but an investigation of the long-ago history of Yarminster discovers a deeply hidden motive and the correct criminal is finally brought to justice.
Why is this book worth your time?
I don’t discuss the identity of the murderer, but the next section will discuss some things that underlie this book that you may prefer not to know; explanations of some of the puzzling bits in this novel. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
I’ve been reading a lot of John Rhode/Miles Burton novels lately, dozens of them in the past couple of months; they’ve recently come into the public domain in Canada and I’ve found heaps of them at The Internet Archive (archive.org). It’s an interesting privilege to be able to read so much of an author’s work when I’d never encountered much of it before, and I’ve rather been wallowing in the pleasure.
This author is one of the leading lights of the Humdrum School of detective fiction, and I’ve started to identify the limited range of Rhode’s inventive powers that make him a Humdrum. This is not disparaging. As far as I can tell, he knew what he was good at and what made his audience happy, and he wrote that. Not a problem for me.
He wrote four or five books a year for decades; I would be more surprised if he had NOT had a couple of basic plot structures that he kept repeating with different situations and characters. He seems to have been fond of mechanical traps and “infernal machine” plots, where someone rigs up a device that kills when the murderer is at a safe and alibied distance. Another one might be paraphrased as “two characters both benefit from someone’s death but no one knows they’re working together.” And then there’s the very common structure that underlies this novel. “Someone from the past has a reason to seek revenge upon the victim and puts together a complicated plot to hide his motive.”
That last structure makes for an interesting novel, but it’s not the kind of thing that a reviewer can usefully talk about. The first third of the novel sets up a situation where most of what you “know” is later proved to be either (a) an incorrect assumption, or (b) an effect produced by the murderer to leave an incorrect impression in your mind. Most of the rest of the book lets you know that, by golly, that murderer certainly was thorough and diligent and created a huge plot to get away with murder. But there’s not much in the way of clues; just finding a different way of looking at the facts. And if I tell you how to look at them, I’ll spoil your pleasure. This book is worth your time, but I can’t really tell you why. It is a pleasant time-passer that has some clever things in it; it is gentle and sensible and polite, and everyone ends up happily in the end except the murderer, who is sent to the gallows. I liked it and found it pleasant, and in a year I probably won’t be able to tell you a thing about it.
So instead, I’ll talk about why this particular volume interested me in terms of social history. I’ve been thinking about social history a lot with respect to Golden Age detective fiction lately, and I frequently am finding it more diverting than many Humdrum plot structures once you figure out what’s going on. In this type of book, one doesn’t compete with Dr. Priestley to see who can solve the crime first; one sits back and watches Dr. Priestley solve it and enjoys the process. So my mind has plenty of room to think about social history while I’m watching Dr. Priestley at work. 😉
Here, there are three things that struck me as interesting.
- The Automobile Association
As I understand it, the Automobile Association maintained a network of “road patrol” people who drove around looking for people with car problems and helping them — if they were members of A.A. They also maintained a network of locked telephone boxes where members could phone for assistance. It’s not clear to me whether these phones could only talk to an A.A. operator or whether they were just regular telephones, but I think the former. Otherwise, people would break into them and make free phone calls (no, not in 1947 they wouldn’t. That way lies anarchy).
So when you became a member of A.A., you apparently were issued a key that would allow you to open the door of an A.A. box and phone them for assistance. I was trying to imagine the sheer good fortune that it would take to arrange to have an accident or mechanical trouble within easy walking distance of an A.A. box … hard to say. I’ve read novels where people walk a couple of miles to get to one and request help. It also makes me wonder about the general state of mechanical readiness of the average car in 1947. Did they break down so often that there was need of a huge corporate apparatus to backstop the system? Did no one let strangers use their land lines to call for help? Was this a large expense, or was the price kept quite low and the costs of the system divided among a huge number of users? It’s still in operation in Canada, certainly, but they don’t operate a private telephone system, of course, nor these cute little kiosks.
It also made me think that having a dead body fall out of a locked A.A. box was very transgressive. Not what one wants to find if you’ve already had a flat tire to ruin your day. And there’s an opportunity for an interesting deductive element here; the person who hid the body must have been an A.A. member. Unfortunately that’s never followed up, which makes me think that there must have been a hell of a lot of those keys around.
2. Artificial tanning
There’s a mention in Chapter 13 of:
“… There are, I believe, preparations on the market which produce artificial tanning.” “Quite right, Jimmy,” Hanslet murmured. “We’ve all seen the advertisements: ‘Handsome men are slightly sun-burnt’.”
I was lucky enough to find one of the advertisements, which I’ve reproduced nearby. I always find this interesting because the gradations of skin colour for white males that are considered “handsome” differ wildly from era to era. Sometimes untanned skin is a sign of the wealthiest class and apparently as here sometimes it’s the outdoorsy type who is celebrated. There’s also a growing awareness of skin cancers that changes perceptions into the 21st century. But I wasn’t aware that cosmetic preparations for males were sufficiently well-known in 1947 as to be a matter of common knowledge, and even more surprising to me that someone doesn’t remark how effeminate is the use of such a product. Of course, they’re discussing the impersonation of a South African farmer, not social advancement.
3. Drug use
In this book there are two drugs used as major plot points: one is hashish and the other is “pentothal” — the “truth drug”. To the best of my knowledge, Rhode got everything about these drugs quite wrong.
He suggests that the smoking of hashish results in about 12 hours of complete befuddlement ending in unconsciousness and retrograde amnesia; having lived in the 70s as a university student, I can tell you that that’s not the case in the slightest. 😉 And may I add that that would be rather a hard sell as what’s been called a recreational drug. There’s very little recreation in that; Rhode regards it as a kind of home-grown sleeping pill.
Similarly Rhode has a very rosy view of the effects of pentothal, in that when Dr. Priestley administers some to the murderer in a glass of whiskey, the result is an hour’s worth of complete willingness to tell the truth about the murder plot, followed by, again, a convenient retrograde amnesia. Um, no, not as far as modern science is concerned.
Both the “effects” that Rhode claims for these drugs are really, really convenient for the plot — particularly the use of pentothal, which telescopes the final chapters into a manageable length by completely obviating the need for evidence.
It’s pretty horrible that, although Dr. Priestley says particularly that the murderer’s utterances are of no evidential value whatever, there’s a general acceptance that the police are entitled to use these revelations because the murderer has forgotten saying them. None of that nasty “fruit of the poisoned tree” in Rhode’s legal system, conveniently. After the murderer babbles the details for an hour, it’s a quick trip to the gallows and the inherent legal issues are forgotten.
There are two interesting points to this. One is that, although John Rhode was well known for getting the details of things right, particularly including complex mechanical and/or chemical traps that are central to some of his novels, he completely failed to get the details of the drugs right here. This probably has to do with the illegality of the drugs concerned; he may have actually seen and touched hashish, since he appears to report its characteristic smell correctly, but he can’t possibly have used it or talked to anyone who had.
Given that he was making it up as he went along, there seems to be a peculiar double standard operating here that is unstated but powerful. Essentially, it’s that the use of drugs by private citizens for recreational purposes is criminal and morally unsound (hashish), but the use of drugs by private citizens for reasons connected with crime-solving (truth serum) contains no moral issues and is, as Dr. Priestley says, “merely a demonstration of the effects of pentothal” upon an unknowing subject. The end apparently justifies the means here. This is a cognitive dissonance that doesn’t appear to have registered in the slightest upon the reader, or author, of 1947.
My favourite edition
As previously, I read this in an electronic copy I obtained from archive.org; this copy seems to have associated itself with cover art for a book with the same title but from a few years ago, which is annoying and inexplicable. If the copyright situation in your home country permits, you may find the book here.
There really is only one print edition of this book, to the best of my knowledge; the first and last is from Geoffrey Bles, London, in 1947, although it appears to have been reprinted in 1949. A Near Fine first edition in a Very Good jacket will today set you back just under $100 US once you include postage from New Zealand, but you can have a reading copy without a jacket for perhaps US$40.
Past Offences (March, 2016 collects reviews from the media of 1947)
I am delighted to finally be able to contribute something to the excellent blog, Past Offences, because this month’s group topic is 1947. (I very rarely am thinking sufficiently far in advance to make something like this happen, so this has been a happy serendipity.) You can read a number of reviews of material from 1947 by following links in the comments section here, soon to include my own contribution. I do think this is an excellent idea; you are better able to appreciate fiction of a specific year by considering it in a broader context and this idea of a group topic for a specific year is an excellent one.