The Auspicating Bone Counter Murders

"Calm down, doctor! Now's not the time for fear. That comes later."
- Bane (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012)
First of all, an explanation is needed for the unusual and archaic-sounding post-title I slapped on this review, which is nothing more than a contorted attempt at linking Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders (1936) with John Rhode's The Murders in Praed Street (1928) – one of the first detective novels to examine the handy work of a serial killer.

John Rhode has a reputation for being a dry and dull writer, whose books herded flocks of insomniacs to dreamier pastures, but I think that reputation is undeserved. Back in 2011, I wrote jubilating review of Death on the Board (1937), in which I "defended" Rhode against the charge of being dull and have often praised The House on Tollard Ridge (1929) and Men Die at Cyprus Lodge (1943) – both handling the haunted house setting in a sober and rational manner. The Murders in Praed Street is basically an overdose of imagination peppered with out-right acts of super villainy!

The opening of the story depicts the shop strewn Praed Street, which has turned in recent years in a dreary traffic artery of London, and the people who toil there. There's the simple-minded, but hardworking, green grocer, Mr. James Tovey. The chatty tobacconist, Sam Copperdock, whose son, Ted, is friendly with Tovey's daughter, Ivy. And the herbalist, Ludgrove, is the confident of many of the secrets of the inhabitants of Praed Street.

After being lured from his home with a telephone call, Mr. Tovey collapses in the street with an unusual blade buried in his back. The old baker, Ben Colburn, buys a brand new pipe in Copperdock's shop and cuts his tongue on a poisoned crumb of glass lodged in the stem and dies a few hours later. A middle-aged poet, Mr. Pargent, died under similar circumstances as the green grocer. The only thing Inspector Whyland has to connect these deaths is that each victim received a white bone counter, about the size of a half penny, with red roman numerals etched on them in sequential numbering. But it gets better!

A former resident of Praed Street, Mr. Martin, who resided there as a receiver of stolen goods from only "the aristocracy of thieves," is lured back with a blackmail note and is poisoned in the small cellar of No. 407, Praed Street. The house was locked and bolted from within, windows securely fastened and the body blocked the door of the cellar – and all of the keys were accounted for. And even if we learned of the solution in the next chapter, it's still a bone-fide locked room mystery and there was even more impossible material. Another bone counter was found in someone's bedroom when the house was locked up and the key in possession of the owner. Not very difficult to solve, but I appreciated its inclusion nonetheless.

This is the point where Dr. Priestley enters the picture, but the analytical and cerebral is incredible dense here and that may be due to his personal involvement in the case. The murderer is easily spotted as was the then original, well hidden-and clued motive that will be viewed today as hackneyed, but you can't slam Rhode for coming up with it first. However, the background of the motive reads like an origin story of a hero (Priestley) creating a super villain (the murderer) and involves something that is still considered controversial today. I couldn't help but feel somewhat sorry for the murderer and Priestley came-off as a dick in that part.

Under its pulp-like exterior, The Murders in Praed Street has a lot of modern-day grim and grit. It's the Golden Age of Detectives' answer to The Dark Knight Rises and I just love how apt the opening quote of this post is for this book. Even the endings share some similarities. But for the villainy, Rhode seems to have tapped from the Sherlock Holmes canon. The image of The Black Sailor and the numeral warnings recalled the vengeful Jonathan Small from The Sign of Four (1890) and Rhode's love for deadly gadgets got echoed another one of Holmes' iconic adversaries.

My only quibble is that none of the victims made the connection themselves. It seems such an obvious thing to remember, especially in the face of a rising body count. Anyway, I was glad to discover that I had not become too jaded and was still able to enjoy the ride, even if it's one of the oldest, timeworn rides in the park.

Oh, and shame on you, Mr. Rhode. Writing about working class people and criminal folks, and addressing controversial topics while you're at it, when you're suppose to be writing posh thrillers with smart aleck dialogue or the gentry's plight. You were a man and published this book in 1928. What are scholars supposed to do with you? Do you think Curt Evans' book, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery: CecilJohn Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (2012), hawks itself? 


  1. Thank for the mention of course. I do talk about this one in the book, but don't go nearly in the plot detail! I like a lot of features of this book, but it is hard to swallow that Dr. P. could be so slow to make that connection. Rhode here does seem to have originated this particular now much-overused serial murder plot.

    1. You're welcome. The problem with Priestley could've been fixed, I think, if it was Inspector Whyland who solved the case with Priestley just being a side character popping up at the end.

  2. I have been thinking about just what constitutes a serial killer novel by definition. It seems to me that it needs more than just a lot of victims to meet the definition of "serial killer."

    In other words, there are many mystery novels where you wind up with about three dead bodies. The first body, let us say, was the intended victim, and then the murderer has to kill two more people who have begun to suspect him. There is nothing random about any of these killings. All of them are rationally linked together. You have a lot of dead bodies, but there is no element of randomness in the killings.

    It seems to me, then that there is a distinct difference between a "multiple murderer" on the one hand and a "serial killer" on the other hand.
    a) The multiple murderer is generally rational and the killings have a direct motive linking them all together. There is nothing random about the killings.
    b) The serial killer generally has an element of irrationality in his personality and he kills at random, except perhaps for some identifiable trait in his victims which sets off the killing. Dr. Lecter, for instance, would be both. He killed identifiable people for the specific motive of revenge for his sister, making him a multiple murderer, but then he killed random people to eat them, making him a serial killer.

    The distinction is important because you are really dealing with two different types of plots.

    If this distinction is valid, then maybe Philip MacDonald's Murder Gone Mad is the first real serial killer novel. I have noticed on even these blogs that hardly anyone takes much notice of MacDonald's work, even though it is of seminal influence in the field.

    1. But nobody would call a mystery novel with multiple murders a serial killer story. It's just that there are some detective stories were the murders are presented as the work of a serial killer or the murderer simply work like one, while there's a clear motive hiding in the background. As to be expected, there books that are a bit of both (e.g. Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails).

      I've read Philip MacDonald's Murder Gone Mad in 2010 and it was easily the worst book I read that year. The opening was interesting enough, for sure, but after that the plot became repetitive. A gruesome murder is discovered, a letter arrives, talking with suspects who've little or nothing to do with the case until another murder is discovered. Rinse and repeat.

    2. I see your point, and have thought about this myself, but Praed Street, Silk Stocking Murders and The ABC Murders all have the form of serial killer novels (another is The Last Trumpet, by Todd Downing). Of course the word serial literally means, of a series. Our friend Wikipedia declares that serial murders are three or more killings over a period of more than a month. The motivation is usually based on "psychological gratification" but motives may include "anger, thrill, financial gain and attention seeking."
      How accurate do you think this definition is?

      While the killings aren't random in Praed Street, I would hesitate to define them as entirely rational behavior!

    3. I am not saying that Murder Gone Mad is a good book, just that it seems to me to be the first in a long line of very similar books, so credit is due MacDonald for his originality..

      As far as the definition of these killings goes, I am attempting to distinguish between different motivations. If we take McBain's Ten Plus One, for instance, it seems to me it is a different sort of book depending on the motivation of the killer. If the killer were motivated by a desire for revenge against particular individuals, then the killings might seem random whereas they are nonrandom rational killings. I think I may say that a desire for revenge is often a rational motive. Which of us has not experienced it? On the other hand, let us assume that the killer slays random men because they resemble his father. I think this is plainly nonrational; the killings are completely random and the killer does not derive any rational profit from the killings. An investigation into the past of the victims would be fruitless because their is no connection between the murderer and the victims. The investigation would therefore have to be directed to external evidence in an attempt to draw up a psychological and physical profile of the murderer. So these are really two different types of mysteries. It is of course possible for the murderer to attempt to confuse the issue by attempting to make the scenario appear to be random killings when there is actually a rational motive to kill one of the victims, but that is just a variation on the theme.

    4. They may be two different types of mysteries, but they also may both be, by definition, "serial killer" books. I've seen varying definitions.

  3. I read Philip MacDonald's Murder Gone Mad recently. Not really to my taste, but I take the anonymous commenter's point about the difference between true serial killers and rational multiple murderers.

    As for John Rhode's books, I find them anything but dull. In fact at times quite outrageous.

    1. And for anyone interested, here is a link to D's review of Murder Gone Mad and a link to a very recent review of another John Rhode novel.

    2. Murder Gone Mad certainly is more the ancestor of the modern serial killer novel, when the motivation of the culprit is considered.

  4. Fascinating stuff TC. I really will jhave to knuckle down and read some Rhode - with regards to MacDonald, I prefer MYSTERY OF THE DEAD POLICE (aka X V REX) on the serial killer theme from 1933 (and as by 'Martin Porlock').