The Misadventures of the Ironmongers

"You're very difficult to convince, Professor."

"I’m only difficult to convince when the facts appear to me inadequate for positive proof."
- Death on the Board (1937)
Before we examine today's yarn of calculated murder, unmarked sins and cherished revenge, I have to begin with a shout-out towards William I. Lengeman III – who blogs over at Traditional Mysteries. When he opened up for business, the focus began to shift after a few weeks from book critiques to supporting fellow bloggers and now that he's back on track with the former I want to return the favor. So check out his reviews and drop him a line. Now that's out of the way, it's time to assume an air of feigned intelligence and began reviewing this book.

Your honor, ladies and gentleman of the jury, my client, John Street, has been accused of a most heinous crime. A monstrous atrocity in the literary world that's worst than mass murder or grand larceny. Yes, this man has been wrongfully, slanderously and maliciously accused of what John Dickson Carr described as the one unforgivable sin: namely, that of being dull. Well, my dear fatheads, I would like to enter Death on the Board (1937), published under the penname of John Rhode, as counter-evidence against these trumped-up charges. 
The Corporate Body
The focal point of Death on the Board are the members of the board of directors of Porslin Ltd., a corporate imperium dominating and monopolizing the iron mongering business, which began as a small hardware store expending rapidly after the Wiggenhall brother took over the helm from their deceased father – and adopted an aggressive, cut-throat business model to drive local shop keepers into the ground. As a result of this take-no-prisoners stance, the map of the country is dotted with red specks indicating the locations of their branch stores. Unfortunately, for them, opulence comes at a price when it's obtained by drawing guiltless blood and one day the board members begin to drop one after another, stretched over a one year period, but until the fourth corporate body confirms an undeniable pattern they were filed away as deaths by misadventures.

John Street establishes here why he's the mechanical engineer of crime. These shrewdly plotted murders aren't subtle deaths that quietly suggest an accident, like a dive down a flight of stairs or a deadly hunting accident, but a grand scale booby traps like an exploding country estate and a burning bed that barely leave a thread of evidence in their wake – and he effortlessly shakes five of such tricks from his sleeve. This is the equivalent of a Dr. Gideon Fell novel featuring five seemingly impossible situations or Ellery Queen trying to decipher half a dozen dying messages within the ambit of one story!

The official police, represented here by Hanslet and Waghorn, are completely out of there debt with these lethal booby traps, but the cerebral Dr. Priestley reconstructs them without getting up from his armchair – aside from a trip to his upstairs, private laboratory for a scientific demonstration. Here's where the main interest in Street's works lies: crime isn't treated as a fine art, but as an applied science and that's in all probability how he acquired the label of being humdrum.

However, let me assure you that this is not a story that trots along by employing a smattering of gimmicks as a crutches, even though the diabolical murder traps do usurp the spotlights, but its also a well-written story with some fine touches of characterization. I was especially intrigued by the chapter in which Turnstead began to reminiscence on his early days with the company, when he was appointed as a manager of a newly established branch in charge of destroying a local merchant, while the vexatious Grimshaw was launching an embarrassing eulogy for their late founder. Say about his prose what you want, but that excerp was a fine example of good writing and aptly foreshadows the inevitable culmination of this murky plot. And no, that's not a spoiler. It's evident from early on that we're dealing with an avenger from the past, but the question is as who this person is masquerading and how the traps were set-up.

There's only one minor quibble I have to throw out here regarding the final fifty pages, which was basically a repetition of the previous two-hundred pages and began to drag you down a bit when the only thing you want to do is confirm your deductions, which, even without paying too much attention to the clues, should be entirely correct at this point in the story. If they 'd trimmed thirty or forty pages from this story it would've tightened the plot and made this book even better than it already was.

So, my esteemed and highly regarded collection of dunces and numskulls of the jury, I will not stand before you and claim with a straight face that the accuse was without his fair share of faults, but then again, who within the confines of the genre was? John Dickson Carr, who I affectionately refer to as the maestro, produced Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956) – a serious contender for the worst mystery novel ever written.

I therefore have the effrontery not to beg, but to tell you, to carve this into your minds when you're in that jury room deliberating: whether this man was a gifted novelist or a boring hack is completely subjective, but there's no denying that he was a mystery writer who had some interesting ideas to offer and therefore deserving of this retrial that should, if there's any justice in this world, lead to be finally released from biblioblivion. The decision is yours.

EDIT: don't be offended, the jury members I adressed in this post exist only in my beautiful mind! ;-) 


  1. Clever angle on this post. I've read a handful of Rhode's Dr. Priestley books and - probably because I wisely chose to start with the most lauded titles listed in Barzun's Catalog of Crime - I've yet to be disappointed. So you can't count me among the numskulls of the jury. Nearsighted, yes; a numskull, no. I agree with you: writing as John Rhode Street was a master of the murder method. THE CALVERTON MYSTERY has a killer who is postively dastardly in how he commits the murders. It's one of the most nightmarishly devised murders in all of GA detective fiction.

  2. Thanks for reviewing a John Rhode book. I have read quite a few of the Miles Burton books, but have yet to read a John Rhode novel. I must make an effort to read one soon. Maybe I can get an interlibrary loan of this very book.

  3. @John

    I made an annotation noting that the jury members I addressed only exist in my beautiful mind just in case someone might take it serious. That's the problem with being insane; you expect everyone else to see and hear what you're perceiving as reality. ;) I will put the book you mentioned on my wish list.

    By the way, this book has a murder that makes you think twice before opening a can of beans!

    @Monte Herridge

    I can also recommend the two other Rhode's I've read, The House on Tollard Rigde and Men Die at Cyprus Lodge. It's interesting to see someone handle the haunted house setting in a sober and rational manner.

  4. I was being as tongue in cheek as you were, my friend. Why does everyone think I've suddenly become incredibly literal-minded? [...sigh...]

    I'll add that in addition to THE CLAVERTON MYSTERY I liked FIRE AT GREYCOMBE FARM and TRAGEDY ON THE LINE, the latter is most notable for Priestley's tender side on display which I believe never showed itself ever again.

  5. Great review (see my comments on GAD).

  6. @John

    I know you weren't taking it literal, but your comment made me realize that not everyone might get it that I was addressing an imaginary jury.

    Anyway, Patrick reviewed Fire at Greycombe Farm in his pre-blogging days over at the JDCarr forum, but it ended on a rather negative note – comparing it to Van Dine at his worst. It somewhat dampened my interest in that particular title, but I will keep that other one in mind. I think that was one of the Rhode's you discussed on your blog, right?

  7. Thanks for the shout. Your site is one of the ones on my must-read list.