Devilish Conspiracy

"The affair attracted enormous attention at the time, not only because of the arresting nature of the events, but even more for the absolute mystery in which they were shrouded."
- Freeman Wills Crofts' "The Mystery of the Sleeping Car-Express" (1921), collected in The Mystery of the Sleeping Car-Express and Other Stories (1956)
I have covered John Street, or "John Rhode," before on this blog, but not as often as I would have liked to.

Rhode had a technical mind and he could be described as a mechanic of detective fiction who engineered and constructed over a hundred tricky plots, which was not necessarily restricted to his own body of work – as he was credited by John Dickson Carr as the co-author of Fatal Descent (1939) for his relatively small, but very technical, contribution to the plot. But his reputation as a wholesaler of clever and ingenious contrived plots is best illustrated in an anecdote from Christianna Brand. She once suffered from a pesky case of writer's block and Rhode kindly offered the then young novelist to come down to his place, examine his bookshelves and help herself to one of his plots. Assuring her that she was "most welcome" to do so. What a gentleman!

Evidently, Rhode was a man who knew his way around a plot and his output was probably the closest you could get to an emporium of nefarious schemes, devilish plots and cleverly fabricated puzzles, but they tended to be technical in nature – which earned him an undeserved reputation in the post-World War II landscape of the genre as a boring, sleep inducing writer. You only have to read such titles as The House on Tollard Ridge (1929), Death on the Board (1937) and Men Die at Cyprus Lodge (1943) to know how wrong the detractors of the so-called humdrum writers were about Rhode. He was first and foremost a plotter, which meant characterization often took a backseat in favor of the plot.

One of the negative side effects of being reputedly dull was Rhode's name sliding into obscurity and a large swath of his work became rare or fairly hard to get, which naturally meant prize-tags with double, triple or even quadruple digits scrawled on them – effectively keeping them out of the hands of ordinary readers. So I have been carefully rationing the small stack of his books acquired over the years, but, recently, they appear to have reached the front of the line of Golden Age mysteries that were waiting to be reprinted. That brings us to the subject of today's review.

Death in the Tunnel (1936) originally appeared under Rhode's second byline, "Miles Burton," which has recently been republished by the Poisoned Pen Press as a British Library Crime Classic and is prefaced with an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards – who recently swooped up an Edgar statuette for The Golden Age of Murder (2015).

Sir Wilfred Saxonby is the president of an import company, Wigland & Bunthorne Ltd, who serves his community as the chairman of the local Bench of magistrates, but he "was a man of temperate" and "frugal habits." As a magistrate, his philosophy was that "the law was an excellent thing" and considered himself "a firm supporter of it," but it was made for a different class of people and did not always felt bound by it himself – which did not prevent him from being reluctant "to temper justice with mercy" when acting in the capacity of magistrate. So not exactly "the sort of character who inspires affection."

There seems to have been something very irregular on Sir Wilfred's mind when he boarded the train from London's Cannon Street to his home in Stourford for the very last time. He pressed a one-pound note in the hands of the train guard, Mr. Turner, to find him a first-class carriage to himself, which he was able to do and locked him into the compartment. Sir Wilfred is left to his own devices, but when Turner returns to the supposedly secure and impromptu private-compartment he discovers the body of his once generous passenger. Shot through the heart!

Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard is assigned to the case and the problem confronting him is rife with contradictory evidence. The death of Sir Wilfred is either a case of suicide or murder. There are some points in favor of the former: a small, automatic pistol engraved with his initials is found near the body, the request for private carriage that was locked and he sent his children abroad – which could have been done to make sure that they would not be suspected if the authorities mistook his death for a murder. Only problem is that he lacked a clear and conceivable motive for taking his own life. Business was thriving and he was opposed to the idea of suicide, but the presence of a mysterious murderer seems, literarily, an impossibility.

So Arnold turns to his good friend, Desmond Merrion, who's "something of an amateur criminologist" and even he remarks how "there is at least as much evidence in support of the theory of suicide as there is against it," which makes for an engrossing and meticulous investigation – as they sift through the evidence and hypothesize about the various clues. The best part of their investigation is figuring out what exactly happened when the train went into the titular tunnel on that fateful journey. A situation that forms the meat of the impossible situation of the plot.

When the train entered the Blackdown Tunnel, the driver claims to have been "held up by a man waving a red lamp," assuming it was simply someone working on the line, and "clapped on the brakes," but then the light changed to green and the train rattled on without losing too much time. There is, however, one peculiarity about this seemingly unimportant incident: nobody was reported or scheduled to work in the tunnel at the time and "some unauthorized person" could not have entered the tunnel, because at each end there's a signal cabin and "nobody could possibly get in without being seen by the men on duty."

My favorite part of the book is probably the exploration of the tunnel as trains murderously roared past them and more than once they had to crawl into one of refuges in the wall for safety. Arnold and Merrion are well rewarded for braving these dangers, because they discover some important pieces of evidence, such as shattered fragments of glass, which seem to indicate Sir Wilfed was the victim of a vast, strange and sinister conspiracy. But even better is the explanation they work out for entering and leaving a sealed and watched train tunnel, which does not hinge upon a spare uniform from a railway worker.

The method is very involved and perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, but you have to admire Rhode for finding a hidden Judas window inside a train tunnel!

Anyway, Death in the Tunnel concerns itself almost entirely with the reconstruction of the shooting and the particulars found on the body, which is both a major strength and weakness of the book. If you love pure, unadulterated detective work this book is for you, but, as a consequence, even I found the characters to be cardboard-like. I can usually forgive shallow characterization, if the plot is good, but even I can't deny the characters here where nothing more than chessmen. Death in the Tunnel is also primarily a how-dun-it and this came at the cost of the who and why, which is what bars the book from a place in the top ranks of the genre because the plot-thread explaining the motivation for this admittedly devilish ingenious conspiracy was introduced in the final part of the story.

I believe that could've been handled a bit better by a professional plotter, which Rhode was, but, if you read the book purely as a how dun it, they become fairly minor complaints. Above all, it's simply a lot of old-fashioned fun to read how Arnold and Merrion take apart the mechanics of a very tricky criminal conspiracy. It makes for an engaging and involved reading experience.  

Finally, Death in the Tunnel also made me want to read more from the so-called school of humdrum detectives, which even include writers I have not even touched yet! Scandalous, I know. How dare I label myself as rabid and fanatical when it comes to vintage mysteries, but give me some time. I'll get there and, in the mean time, you can look forward to more of these reviews. Oh, you lucky, you!


  1. I really do think it is time for the detective story critical community to rid itself of the "humdrum" designation for these kinds of stories once and for all. The problem with it is that it is highly inaccurate, and it is so libelous and injurious to the reputations of the authors that there is no way to simply treat is as another designation just because it is convenient and established. I suppose that Mr. Symons found the books boring, but a lot of other people did not. Freeman Wills Crofts was also of this school, and yet Howard Haycraft stated that Crofts was considered to be one of the Big Five in the Golden Age, and I can well believe this because I have seen numerous different editions of Crofts' works, with translations even as far abroad as Japan.

    Rhodes was published in the United States right up to 1961, at a time when the great majority of his Golden Age peers had put down this pens. I refuse to believe that an author can get away with boring his audience for almost 40 years and still stay in business.

    More to the point, just how are we to convince other people that these authors are very much worth reading if we are assuring them that they are in for a very boring time? This is the 21st century (alas). The computer has increased the velocity of processes by many times, and our minds are now geared to operate at these higher velocities. Does anyone really think we can interest a generation reared on the computer to read these books by guaranteeing to them they are about to have a really boring time?

    This ridiculous phrase was perpetrated by one man, and I do not see that he had the right or authority to perpetrate this libel; and I see no reason to perpetuate it. "Had I but known" is foolish enough, but at least it has some element of truth and is not injurious to the reputation like "humdrum" is.

    I think it is plain that Rhodes, Crofts and the others were essentially members of the school of R. Austin Freeman, which is the technical branch of detective fiction. The term "technical branch" does not have an inspiring ring to it, nor does it rest gently on the ear, but it is at least more accurate than the accursed "humdrum." In short, I think we need to come up with a new term for this subgenre.

    1. By and large, I agree with you, Anon: the label "humdrum" has been used as a slur for detective stories some people simply did not approve of and it has damaged reputations, which is why I prefixed "so-called" to "humdrum."

      However, I do not think we should shy away from pointing out these writers were once labeled as such, because it now reflects very poorly on the people who dismissed them as such. Someone like Julian "Bloody" Symons not only called writers like Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode "humdrum," but he also shoved Gladys Mitchell and R. Austin Freeman in the same camp – which is ludicrous and patently wrong even by their own definition of the label.

      Now that Mitchell and Freeman are widely available again, everyone can see just how bias or poorly researched his opinions really were.

      We only have to point out how undeserved these reputations were. That they were dismissed as "humdrum" because characterization in these books usually did not give you the idea you were reading excerpts cobbled together from several biographies. Instead they gave preference to the plot, the investigation and ideas in general.

      Something that was apparently a mortal sin to post-WWII critics. But you only have to glance at the responses on various sites and blogs to see how well received these books are by the readers of today. I don't think I have read a single negative reaction to Death in the Tunnel.

      As for a more appealing term for the "technical branch" of detective fiction... I have to give that one some thought.

    2. As for a more appealing term for the "technical branch" of detective fiction... I have to give that one some thought.

      I don't have a major problem with terms like "fair-play mysteries" and "puzzle-plot mysteries" although they do still have a slight connotation of dryness. I think they're an improvement on "humdrum" though.

      "Technical branch" is OK. We could also refer to them as the "intellectual branch" as distinct from the "emotional melodrama" psychological school. We could even refer to the psychological school as "soap-opera mysteries" or "psychobabble mysteries" if we wanted to be nasty.

      Mind you, I think Humdrum is starting to be used as a kind of perverse badge of pride! Take that, Julian Symons!

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I’d call Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr "fair play puzzle plot detective stories". The books of Freeman, Crofts, Rhode & co are a different kettle of fish. They’re not interested in puzzle plots; the detection (how the crime is committed, how the detective solves it) is more important than whodunit.
      What about the "pure" detective story or the British orthodox school? Otherwise, I'd suggest calling the Freeman-Crofts-Street school either the "Valerian" school (after the herb and the emperor) or the "Gruel-ling" school. Ralph Partridge (who reviewed detective stories for decades) said Freeman Wills Crofts was as bland and heavy as unseasoned porridge.
      Partridge asked – and it’s an intelligent question – why people read detective stories. His answer: Because they have nothing better to do.
      It's a harsh remark, but essentially true - at least of these writers. Their books were entertainments for tired office workers, in much the same way that cop shows or Sunday evening murder mystery shows are today. They’re competent, soundly constructed, formulaic, and ultimately disposable. They’re also — not badly written, but what is worse: *flatly* written.

    5. In the past, I have often referred to "soap-opera mysteries" and "pyschobabble mysteries" as "fictionalized psychology textbooks," but that's a mouthful. So your suggestions are better, even if they give them too much credit by calling them mysteries.

      Yes, the venom of the "humdrum" label has somewhat diluted over the past couple of years, but the best part is how this dismissive, snobby finger-wagging is now recoiling on people like Symons. Slowly, but surely, these books are becoming available again and they show themselves as everything but "humdrum," which is why I don't want to term to be memory holed.

      History will continue to vindicate these writers and Symons' willfully wrong, politically-tinged and narrow minded view of the genre will prove in the end to be particular caustic to his own reputation, memory and body of (critical) work – because it shows itself to be very tainted and eventually his opinion will be nothing more than echo from the genre's Dark Age.

    6. Partridge asked – and it’s an intelligent question – why people read detective stories. His answer: Because they have nothing better to do.

      To be honest the same can be said of all crime fiction. Whether it's a John Rhode or an Ellery Queen or a Dashiell Hammett or even a Julian Symons, whether it's a puzzle-plot mystery or a howdunit or a "psychological crime" novel it's all just entertainment.

      If you want to find the meaning of life, try reading philosophy or theology. If you want a blueprint for a better world, read a political tract. If you want profound insights into psychology, but a psychology text book. If you're looking for these things in crime fiction you're not going to find them.

    7. I think the quoted statement of Partridge is one of remarkable foolishness. Anything we do purely for pleasure is something we do because we have nothing better (like earning our food) to do. This applies to any hobby or entertainment, not just reading books. More to the point, if Partridge absolutely insists that the only worthwhile activities are those which produce useful results, then I would say that reading detective stories does have useful results:
      1. We now know that the brain is a plastic organ, and it is a useful and healthy activity to exercise the brain and form new neuronal connections by performing intensive intellectual activities. A fair-play or technical detective story requires close intellectual activity: it requires memorizing a large body of facts and reasoning about those facts. In other words it is a biologically healthy activity. Detective literature probably does this better than any other branch of literature.
      2. Reading just about any book increases your level of literacy. You rehearse grammar and learn new vocabulary.
      3. You learn new facts, especially from the technical detective stories. You can't escape from R. Austin Freeman without this happening to you.
      4. Because the books we are reading are older books, they expose us to different ways of looking at things. I find it amusing to see the expressions of dismay (indeed, profound dismay) from some readers and critics when they discover that people in other times and places actually thought differently than they and were fully capable of expressing their viewpoints.
      5. Entertainment is absolutely essential for our well-being. It should not be surprising that almost the only industry that remains stable in an economic depression is the entertainment industry.

      As far as the politicization of popular culture goes, it would not surprise me if the mystery story was not the first target. Although science fiction has a very long history of suggesting new political arrangements, I don't think science fiction was actively used as a vehicle for political propaganda until Robert Heinlein started using it to air his libertarian views in the early 1960s, followed by the New Wave and such types as Le Guin.

    8. I don't think science fiction was actively used as a vehicle for political propaganda until Robert Heinlein started using it to air his libertarian views in the early 1960s

      H. G. Wells used science fiction as a soap-box for pushing his socialist views back in the 1890s. That sort of explicitly political science fiction did fall out of favour in the first half of the 20th century and I agree that Heinlein was instrumental in re-politicising the genre.

    9. I think the quoted statement of Partridge is one of remarkable foolishness.

      It's also remarkably elitist.

      The implication in much of the criticism hostile to the "humdrums" is that such books are fine for shop-girls and clerks (people who actually have to work for a living) but are hardly suitable reading for Superior Beings such as Intellectuals (people who generally do not have to work for a living).

    10. The Golden Age detective story actually seems to have had its fair share of support from the intellectuals; T.S. Eliot comes to mind, and there were others.

      As far as Wells goes, it appears to me that from In the Days of the Comet onward, Wells was pushing his Utopian world government program, rather than a distinctly political program. As I noted, suggested political, i.e. utopian programs, have a long history in science fiction. I think this is different from the party and identity politics we see in Heinlein and later.

    11. Partridge's implication was that detective stories are time fillers, in the way that crossword puzzles are. Elitism doesn't enter into it.

      Everything that follows the quotation is mine, elitist or foolish as it may be. ;)!

      Social class... The humdrum writers were middle class professionals (Crofts, Freeman), officers (Street), scientists and intellectuals (Connington, the Coles), and Tory aristocrats (Wade).

      (And in passing, Gladys Mitchell and Anthony Gilbert, both towards the "arty" end of the spectrum, were working class.)

      Their readers are more likely to have been at least lower middle rather than working class. Shop girls would probably have read Ethel M. Dell; office boys would probably have read Edgar Wallace, Sexton Blake and Zane Grey.

      In those days, people mostly borrowed detective stories from lending libraries. The humdrums' books were lending library staples. These were, if you will, solid, average fare. On the other hand: "You borrow detective stories; you invest in a Carr." (Torquemada in the Observer) While people could borrow Carr from a library, his books were thought to be in a different class from the run of the mill detective story, and certainly good enough to pay money for and own.

    12. Now, the objection to the humdrums is more likely to be aesthetic than political.

      R Austin Freeman claims that the detective story is a logical argument conducted under the guise of fiction, and criticises anything that distracts from its aseptic logical purity - style and characterisation, for instance. These are unnecessary, and must take second place to the detection. He's also harsh on imagination, and criticises Doyle for his unrealistic stories. Freeman proposes a new sort of detective story - one which focuses on medical jurisprudence, avoids unrealistic incidents, and "by the sacrifice of a certain amount of dramatic effect" focuses on detection.

      A few of Freeman's books are excellent (Eye of Osiris, The D'Arblay Mystery, As a Thief in the Night); so are a couple of Crofts and Connington's and a handful of Street's. Their ingenuity at devising murder methods or solving them is undeniable. They invented or perfected devices that other writers would use: the inverted detective story, scientific detection, the breakdown of identity plot, the disposal of the body, and the unbreakable alibi.

      But Freeman’s doctrine doesn’t make good fiction. His belief that characterisation and style are secondary to detection, and that realism is better than imagination, is artistic self-hobbling. It's also a useful get-out clause. If a writer is better at technical description than at characterisation, and declares that characterisation and style are superfluous, he can't be faulted (or so he thinks).

      Their books are, as you would expect from engineers, doctors and scientists, technically sound; they're well constructed, ingenious, and play fair. But the writers are far more interested in railway engines, ship innards, marine molluscs and industrial chemistry than in people. Many of their books are dull slogs in which an elderly scientist stares at dust particles through a microscope or a policeman interrogates people, eats British Railway sandwiches and tries to work out how long it would take 495 lb of water to run through 7 x 1/6 inch small holes.

      The humdrums weren’t good stylists. Freeman can be charming in an Edwardian way, but as a stylist is not in the same class as his contemporaries Chesterton, Mason, Bentley or Bramah. (Admittedly, very few writers stand comparison to GKC!) He’s often prolix, heavily facetious or melodramatic. Crofts and Street lay the words out carefully on a page, like the engineers they were, but they don't bring those words to life. Crofts's attempts to enliven his style are embarrassing (see Golden Ashes or Sudden Death), while Street’s prose is functional, often clunky. Pick up a Carr at random and compare a page to anything in Crofts or Street. Carr's prose is lively; it's clever, it's vivid. He's a born writer. The humdrums aren't.

      Ronald Knox, Dermot Morrah and Robin Forsythe's books, and several of Street's, are bloodless intellectual exercises in which the sleuths sit round a fireplace and argue about logic. The suspects barely enter the story, and might as well be called X and Y. (To be fair, it's not only the humdrums who do this; Rex Stout often doesn't have enough story to sustain a novel.)

      Symons is right when he writes the average detective story is ingenious and finely constructed, but has almost no literary merit. However, I disagree with his view that the answer is to throw out detection altogether, and write a psychological thriller or an absurdist Existentialist psychological comedy of manners. The crime novel is not better than the detective story; it’s a different genre.

      It’s perfectly possible to have a detective story that plays fair and has an ingenious solution – and also has literary merit. The works of Carr, Chesterton, Christie, Marsh, McCloy, Sayers, Berkeley, Blake, Mason, Brand, Van Dine and Queen, for instance, are well written, stylish, sophisticated, have interesting characters, are funny or exciting or scary, and show something of the world.

    13. The only problem we have here is what we will call that group of detective story writers the focus of whose story rests on technical matters. To call them "humdrum" is a value judgment, not a description. I am sorry that Symons finds them boring. Others, such as Raymond Chandler, do not. So to categorize a group of authors as "the boring authors" is both insulting and not descriptive of their work. There are plenty of writers out there who write boring books who are not writing detective stories.

      It is not a criticism of their work that they write primarily of technical matters; plenty of people are fascinated by technical matters. They are worth reading because they can handle their chosen subject matter with superb skill. I think it is given to few writers to be able to be simultaneously superior stylists with deep insight into human nature and society and at the same time possess great facility in the employment of logical construction and technical matters. I will applaud anyone who can handle well any one of these aspects of writing.

      Plainly Freeman Wills Crofts does not possess the skills of Shakespeare, but neither does Shakespeare possess the skills of Freeman Wills Crofts. There is room for both. The skills of the technical writers do in fact have literary merit: they have a masterful grasp of structure. Their prose is plain but it is well suited to the nature of their material. I think that the detective field as a whole has very few superior stylists. Most of the authors you state, such as Christie, Van Dine and Queen, appear to me to be only adequate stylists; but I think this is proper because their style suits their subject matter. As far as their ability to write character goes, I think that the critique of Chandler is definitive; their characters are second-rate because they must be tailored to suit the exigencies of the plot. And when detective story writers cease to concentrate on their plots, then they cease to be writing something of value in their own field. Good detective novels that are simultaneously good mainstream novels are rare things.

    14. The works of Carr, Chesterton, Christie, Marsh, McCloy, Sayers, Berkeley, Blake, Mason, Brand, Van Dine and Queen, for instance, are well written, stylish, sophisticated, have interesting characters, are funny or exciting or scary, and show something of the world.

      Sayers was a hopelessly inept writer. Her characterisation is on the level of schoolgirlish wish-fulfillment fantasy. Her pacing is often terrible. Her books are often dull to an extent that would make the most humdrum of humdrums blush. Strong Poison may well be the worst detective novel of its era. The best part of Julian Symons' Bloody Murder was his hatchet job on Sayers.

      The case of Cecil Day Lewis (Nicholas Blake) is very amusing. A hardline Marxist whose social elitism was breathtaking. Murder is OK as long as it's committed by superior beings. Like privileged poet-intellectuals. In fact, people just like Cecil Day Lewis. Creepy.

      Queen's attempt to move from plot-driven to character-driven stories resulted in the train wreck that was Calamity Town. One thing you can say for Street - he never wrote a book as dull as Calamity Town.

    15. One of the problems is the insistence of some critics on judging all fiction genres by the same rules (and I include "literary" fiction as just another genre). In fact each genre has its own rules. Criticising detective fiction for not putting enough emphasis on character is like criticising a still life painting for not having any mountains in it. You might personally prefer pictures with mountains but that's not what a still life painter is trying to do. Just as it's pointless to complain about the lack of exciting action scenes in Jane Austen's novels.

      Even worse is the insistence on regarding some genres as inherently superior to others. Or talking about "literary merit" - a term that is so vague and subjective as to be meaningless.

      As for style, very different styles are appropriate for different books. Agatha Christie was a wittier writer than Dostoyevsky but Dostoyevsky probably didn't put a high premium on wit.

    16. Of course I used the word Humdrum in my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, but I try to take the word back from Mr. Symons. It's the privilege of Symons and people like Nick to view the writing they like as the only type of writing people should like, but in Masters I try to explain what it was about the Humdrums that people did (and still do) like. As a historian I'm interested in what other people think too.

    17. Nick wrote:

      "Partridge asked – and it’s an intelligent question – why people read detective stories. His answer: Because they have nothing better to do. It's a harsh remark, but essentially true - at least of these writers. Their books were entertainments for tired office workers, in much the same way that cop shows or Sunday evening murder mystery shows are today."

      HRF Keating made similar remarks. And it's sheer bunkum. You think Jacques Barzun had nothing better to do with his time? Masters of the Humdrum Mystery cites a number of cases of intellectuals who enjoyed the Humdrums. Tired office workers were more likely to read thrillers as a pick me up, not some puzzle-oriented "Humdrum" tale with an involved, nitpicky plot line.

      Some of the "fine writers" you list you can find other critics denigrating. Sayers's Gaudy Night had its defenders, but it was also lambasted by other intellectuals who mocked its literary pretensions. And if you think Van Dine is an example of great writing, I'm happy for your pleasures, but good luck convincing me of that one. He may have had greater imaginative scope, which it seems to me is what you prize above all else in Golden Age mystery,but he was a stodgy, and sometimes silly, writer. I think he gravitated to writing detective fiction precisely because he was not a successful literary writer. He wasn't the first to do that, nor the last.

    18. Well I am late to this discussion, but Nick Fuller is right. Humdrum is le mot juste, a splendid coinage by Symons. It refers, descriptively, to the emphasis on the quotidian and routine in the detection, and, as an aesthetic judgment, by the bland interchangeability flatness Nick describes. It fits both ways, which is why it lives on. They will never be hugely popular again, because of their deficiencies as writers. As Nick rightly suggests, good idea men, weak writers.

    19. I can forgive a lot in a mystery writer if he's a good idea man and plot-technician. If a writer has a good plot or original idea, I can look pass less than stellar writing or cardboard characters. This is, for example, why I liked John Russell Fearn's Thy Arm Alone more than JJ, who judged it more as a novel than for its central idea. Which was brilliant and genuinely original.

  2. Have yet to try anything by Burton / Rhode but good to see more of his stuff becoming available again!

    1. It's wonderful, isn't it? Hope you'll enjoy discovering the Rhode/Burton mysteries.

  3. I think I agree with everything you say here, TomCat. My review - part of a month-and-a-bit Rhode-a-thon - will be up soon. It's a shame that the how is wrapped up relatively early, to concentrate on the who-and-why, as that is definitely the better aspect of the tale, but it's a fairly unsubtle method that might have ended up being disappointed if the reveal had been dragged out. The nagging question of why go to such extremes is still bothering me a bit too...

    1. To answer the question that has been nagging you, without giving too much away: the motive has always been a good incentive for crime, but during the period the book was written in it was especially advantageous to have some security/independence – which makes it somewhat understandable why they went through those extremes.

      But I understand where you're coming from. A detective story was basically molded around this clever, complex and very involved trick. And as a story, it was its best when it was examining that trick.

  4. to know how wrong the detractors of the so-called humdrum writers were about Rhode.

    You have to consider why they were wrong. It's not that puzzle-plot mysteries were just not to their taste. They actively disapproved of them. They didn't want to make a place in the market for the supposedly new style of psychological crime novels - they wanted to exterminate the puzzle-plot mystery. The motivation was mostly political. Critics like Symons (a Trotskyite) wanted crime fiction to be political propaganda. The opposition to the puzzle-plot mystery was ideological.

    The problem was that readers liked puzzle-plot mysteries. Which explains the venom directed towards them.

    1. Considering what's been happening in places like science-fiction and video games, I have often wondered over the past couple of years if detective stories were the first frontier of these (attempted) political takeovers.

    2. Considering what's been happening in places like science-fiction and video games, I have often wondered over the past couple of years if detective stories were the first frontier of these (attempted) political takeovers.

      Yes, I think detective stories were the first such battleground. The first literary genre to be targeted. Of course movies had already been targeted as early as the late 1930s.

      Eventually every area of popular culture will find itself in the firing line.

      With golden age detective fiction masking something of a comeback at the moment it will be interesting to watch for the backlash. My guess is that the books we love will be smeared as offensive and publishers will find themselves under pressure to stop reissuing them. It will be similar to the attacks that have been made on writers like Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft in the fantasy/science fiction genres.

  5. I'm pleased by your mention of The House on Tollard Ridge - that's a fine book.

    1. It's one of the best I've read by him, thus far. Highly recommended!

    2. I bought a stack of Dr Priestley mysteries a couple of years back and like you I've been rationing them out. Now I only have a couple of unread titles left - it's very worrying.