Wednesday, July 16, 2014

John Rhode’s The Motor Rally Mystery

Major Cecil John Charles Street
Major Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) was the author of around 140 detective novels, including more than 70 published under the pseudonym John Rhode and featuring his best-known detective, Dr Priestley. The Motor Rally Mystery, which appeared in 1933, was the fourteenth of the Dr Priestley mysteries. It was published in the US as Dr Priestley Lays a Trap.

The Motor Rally Mystery differs in several ways from the conventional golden age detective tale. It is not strictly speaking a fair-play puzzle-plot mystery. The main emphasis is on the unusual and very clever murder method, and on the brilliant and intricate manner in which Dr Priestley elucidates this method. 

Three friends are taking part in a motor rally. Bob Weldon has entered his powerful Armstrong-Siddeley saloon in the rally and is confident it will give a good account of itself. His co-driver is a business associate, Richard Gateman. The third member of the team is a younger man, Harold Merefield, who task is to take care of navigation. Harold Merefield happens to be employed as a private secretary by Dr Launcelot Priestley, a circumstance that will become important. The three men are having a rather frustrating time of it, having been delayed for several hours by a fog and they will be struggling to reach the next control point within the allotted time. They are however not destined to reach that control point or to finish the rally. They see a Comet sports car that has run off the road into a ditch, apparently at high speed. This car is also competing in the rally. The three friends naturally stop to see if they can render any assistance and make a grim discovery. The driver of the Comet and his passenger are both dead.

They naturally notify the police at once. Their investigation is fairly brief. This was obviously a tragic accident, and at the inquest a verdict of accidental death is returned. The matter seems to be resolved, until a curious discovery is made. The driver of the Comet sports car was an Aubrey Lessingham, but the Comet sports car in which and his cousin and co-driver Tom Purvis were killed was not Aubrey Lessingham’s car. It was a car of identical make and of the same colour, but the chassis number and the engine number reveal that it is a different car. This odd circumstance leads Superintendent Hanslet to suspect that Lessingham had been involved in a car theft racket. At this point Hanslet’s old friend Dr Priestley takes an interest in the case. Dr Priestley comes to a most startling conclusion - there has certainly been a crime committed but the crime is not car theft, it is murder.

In order to solve this crime Dr Priestley will have to reconstruct an extraordinary and intricate sequence of events and the way in which he does so constitutes a tour-de-force on the part of the crusty scientist-detective, and an equally impressive tour-de-force on the part of the author.

Those who insist that their golden age detective yarns should conform to the rules of fair play will have some major issues with this book. In my view these issues have nothing to do with any lack of competence on the part of the author; he was simply not interested in writing a conventional puzzle-plot mystery although no-one familiar with his book could reasonably doubt that he was perfectly capable of writing very fine books of that type. In this instance he was trying something slightly different. On the basis of the few John Rhode books I’ve read so far I’d be inclined to say that the author liked to vary his approach at times, and on occasion to be slightly daring. I find it difficult to understand critics who have dismissed him as a dull writer. To me he seems anything but dull.

As in the other books in which he features Dr Priestley proves to be a very satisfying fictional sleuth. He is a scientist and he is at his happiest whenever he has discovered an embarrassing mistake in the work of a fellow scientist. If the mistake happens to be found in an extremely arcane and esoteric piece of research he is even happier. He takes a similar approach to the science of detection. Dr Priestley can be relied upon to express his disagreements with accepted theories in a trenchant and rather acidic manner. He is not perhaps a man to inspire instant affection but his penetrating intelligence and his refusal to take anything for granted make him an entertaining and stimulating companion.

In The Motor Rally Mystery his unwillingness to take even the most apparently obvious and clear-cut facts at face value is shown to particularly good effect.  

Golden age detective fiction purists may take issue with this book but if you’re prepared to accept it on its own terms it’s delightful entertainment. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I have read very few of the Dr. Priestly books but this is one that I did read. I did find it rather plodding, as is to be expected of the painstaking type of investigation that was required to obtain the solution to a very complicated crime.
    That does not mean that the book was without interest, but it was of a rather dry and academic type of interest. So far the book of his that I have enjoyed the most was DEATH IN THE HOP FIELDS, more for the description of the hop harvest and the social setting than the plot. His books do indeed have more going on than just the mystery.