Thursday, April 9, 2015

John Rhode's The Davidson Case

The Davidson Case, published in 1929, was one of the early Dr Priestley detective novels written by Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) under the pen-name John Rhode. It illustrates some of the author’s great strengths as a mystery writer while also suffering from some fairly serious weaknesses.

John Rhode was one of the authors contemptuously dismissed by critic Julian Symons as belonging to the Humdrum School of detective fiction. My own view is that Symons was quite wrong about these writers in general and very wrong about Rhode in particular. I’ve found the Dr Priestley mysteries to be anything but humdrum. The Davidson Case is not however one of his better efforts.

Sir Hector Davidson is the head of a chemical engineering firm. The firm was built up by his father and grandfather but Sir Hector is running the company into the ground. He cares about nothing other than extracting as much money from the company as possible in order to finance his dissolute lifestyle. His cousin Guy Davidson has been watching Sir Hector’s activities with despondency for several years. Guy really does care about the company and about its employees. He is a research chemist himself and has a genuine passion for the subject.

When Sir Hector is found dead no-one is very upset. In fact there is a general sense of relief. His cousin Guy Davidson, who now succeeds to the baronetcy and who will now control the firm’s fortunes, is as relieved as anyone.

The circumstances of Sir Hector’s death are peculiar. He had been returning to his country house. On arrival at the railway station he had been surprised that his servant was not waiting for him with the car. He engaged the services of a local carrier to transport him in his van to his home. He was found dead in the back of the van, stabbed to death by a rather curious improvised stiletto.

It is not an impossible crime but finding a theory that will adequately account for the circumstances is a challenge even for Dr Priestley. The local police are baffled. When Chief Inspector Hanslet of Scotland Yard is called in he can make little progress either until Dr Priestley puts forward a theory that seems watertight. Or is it?

The murder method is certainly ingenious. It’s exceptionally complex but it is worked out in intricate detail and it hangs together remarkably well.

The problem lies in the solution. There are a couple of factors in this case that are just a bit too obvious. Rhode is careful to provide most of the clues necessary for the solution but the alert reader is almost certain to spot the main points of this solution. It also has to be said that the story relies a little too heavily on the police failing to follow up certain very obvious lines of inquiry, and in order to keep the issue in doubt the author perhaps is guilty of holding back some important information until rather late in the day. Once this information is revealed the solution is straightforward. Rhode was usually very skillful in his plotting but on this occasion he was obviously aware that had he not held back this information the explanation of the crime would have been all too obvious.

One interesting feature of Dr Priestley as a detective is that his only interest in crime is the purely intellectual interest it provides. If he is able to solve the crime to his own satisfaction he is perfectly content. Whether the criminal is brought to justice is of no concern to him. The Davidson Case provides an example of this approach that is slightly startling for a novel published in 1929. A Hercule Poirot would certainly not have approved of Dr Priestley’s indifference to the matter of seeing that justice is done.

If you have not sampled any of John Rhode’s Dr Priestley mysteries then I strongly urge you to do so but The Davidson Case is definitely a lesser effort. The Venner Crime, The Claverton Mystery and The Motor Rally Mystery are on the other hand quite superb examples of golden age detective fiction while Dr. Priestley Investigates is rather outrageous fun.


  1. Interesting review. I have this book and The Motor Rally Mystery near the top of my TBR pile, so perhaps I should prioritise the latter!

  2. I quite liked this one and discuss at considerable length in Masters. Dashiell Hammett thought the solution was unfair, but not for a reason you discuss. Really an ingenious murder, with an interesting moral dimension. I would suggest anyone interested in this book, take a look at Masters, if you can.

    Motor rally is interesting too, and certainly plays up Street's love of cars.

  3. Thanks for the suggestions of your favorite John Rhodes novels. I have not read this author and will have to look for some books by him.