Monday, October 1, 2012

The House on Tollard Ridge

Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1965) wrote detective novels under a variety of pseudonyms, including John Rhode. The House on Tollard Ridge was published under this name in 1929.

It was one of many books to feature Dr Priestley, although he does not appear in this book until quite late. Dr Priestley, like R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke, was a scientific detective. Dr Priestley is a slightly eccentric maverick scientist who has discovered that solving crimes can be a pleasant intellectual diversion. He is not motivated by money, nor by any passionate belief in justice. A crime is merely a puzzle to be solved.

In this case the crime is murder. A Mr Barton is found dead, his skull crushed by a blunt instrument. Mr Barton had been living in seclusion in a house on Tollard Ridge, a house a few miles from the village of Charlton Abbas and accessible only on foot. The town of Lenhaven is about fourteen miles distant. Since the death of his beloved wife he had been living there alone until a Mr and Mrs Hapgood had prevailed upon him to move in with them at Tilford Farm.

Mr Barton had been a wealthy man but quite a generous one and was generally so well liked that no-one can conceive that anyone could have a motive for murdering him. Mrs Hapgood has always referred to Mr Barton as Uncle Sam and regarded him almost as a father although in fact they were not related by blood.

Superintendent King is soon on the scene. Slowly a solution to the crime suggests itself to him. A son who has been disowned by Mr Barton, a young man given to drink and violence, seems to be a more and more obvious suspect. At least until Dr Priestley takes an interest in the case. What seemed like an open-and-shut case now proves to be far more complex than anyone could have imagined. The solution to the murder, and to another related murder, is as ingenious as anything you’re likely to come across in golden age detective fiction.

The solution is in fact so intricate as to appear slightly far-fetched but there’s no denying the skill with which the novel is plotted.

D Priestley is in the great tradition of amateur detectives but he has little time for leaps of intuition. He relies on solid facts, on mathematically precise reasoning, and on science. The solution to the murder is, fittingly, very much a product of science.

The style of the book is fairly austere. The novelist and critic Julian Symons classifies Street as belonging to the “humdrum” school of crime fiction, which is perhaps a little unfair. Street certainly treats crime in the same way that Dr Priestley does, as an intellectual puzzle, but it would be unjust to conclude that he was a dull writer. His style gets the job done and is not displeasing. The emphasis is very much on plot (and his plotting is certainly excellent) but Dr Priestley is an interesting character. Street is careful to take the obvious route by making him a grandiose larger-than-life character but he is clearly an exceptional man and his faith in the scientific approach is taken so far as to make him anything but a colourless character.

A very entertaining crime novel, and warmly recommended.


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