|John Rhode (Major Cecil John Charles Street)|
The Venner Crime, published in 1933, was one of John Rhode’s many detective novels featuring the amateur scientific detective Dr Priestley. John Rhode was one of a number of pseudonyms used by prolific English crime novelist Major Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1965).
This is the third of the Dr Priestley novels that I’ve read so far and I’m finding them more and more to my taste.
The novel starts with a disappearance rather than a murder. In fact, though there are several sudden deaths it’s not until very near the end of the book that Dr Priestley can be certain that any actual murder has occurred. Even the disappearance does not initially seem all that sinister. The vanished man is a young man named Ernest Venner. He had told his secretary he’d be away for a few days and then later the same afternoon told his sister (with whom he lives) that he’d be back later that night. If he had intended to disappear why would he tell one person he’d be gone for some days and tell someone else he’d return that evening. It’s these tantalisingly minor discrepancies that arouse Dr Priestley’s interest.
The most suspicious circumstance is that Venner’s uncle, Denis Hinchliffe, had died suddenly under curious circumstances shortly before Venner’s vanishing act. Hinchliffe’s symptoms strongly suggested strychnine poisoning. Dr Priestley’s friend Dr Oldland was not satisfied the death was due to natural causes and refused a death certificate. A subsequent post-mortem carried out by the distinguished Home Office pathologist Sir Alured Faversham (also an old friend of Priestley’s) established beyond doubt that there was no trace of strychnine in the body and that death was due to tetanus.
Hinchliffe had been a very wealthy man and both Ernest Venner and his sister Christine were hoping to inherit his fortune, Hinchliffe having no other family. The hoped-for inheritance certainly provides a strong motive and Hinchliffe’s death was very fortunate indeed for Ernest Venner who was in very serious financial difficulties. But the post-mortem ruled out murder fairly conclusively.
There’s still the matter of Venner’s disappearance and when several weeks pass without any trace of the missing man the possibility that he has been murdered has to be considered. On the other hand a man might well wish to disappear if he has committed a serious crime, although in this case his uncle’s extraordinarily fortuitous death was due to natural causes.
A body is eventually discovered, but it is not the body of Ernest Venner. In fact it seems to have little connection with Venner’s disappearance, apart from a few details that could be explained by coincidence. Dr Priestley is inclined to believe that innocent coincidences are quite possible, but he is also aware that not all coincidences are so innocent.
Although he is less well remembered than some of his contemporaries John Rhode’s Dr Priestly detective novels were extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Since only a handful were ever published in paperback surviving copies can be a little on the expensive side. Rhode was one of the author’s dismissed by critic Julian Symons as belong to the “humdrum” school of detective fiction. To some extent I can understand Symons’ reasoning, especially given his own preference for psychological crime novels. The Dr Priestley novels are very much of the puzzle-solving type and the atmosphere can be rather genteel (although Dr Priestley Investigates features quite outrageously extravagant plotting). Personally I’m inclined to regard those aspects of his writing that Symon disliked as features rather than bugs. While Dr Priestley can be a little of the gruff side these novels are essentially civilised intelligent entertainment. Those who prefer their crime fiction uncivilised are probably not going to enjoy them. And, sadly, crime fiction has become increasingly uncivilised since Rhode’s heyday.
I find Rhode’s style to be pleasing, with just enough dashes of erudition and sophistication.
Rhode can certainly not be accused of failing to play fair with his readers. His clues are all hidden in plain sight and the eventual solution to the mystery is eminently logical (Dr Priestley being a profoundly logical sort of fellow.
It should perhaps be noted that Dr Priestly is a scientist rather than a medical doctor. He’s rather in the style of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke, putting his trust in science and logic rather than intuition.
The Venner Crime is a fine example of the English golden age detective story at its best, with strong plotting and a detective hero with just enough inherent interest to avoid blandness but without being deliberately eccentric to the point where his eccentricities would overshadow the plot. A thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.