Sunday, February 14, 2016

John Rhode's The Hanging Woman

The Hanging Woman, published in 1931, was the eleventh of the seventy-two Dr Priestley mysteries written by Major Cecil Street under the pseudonym John Rhode.

Although dismissed by critic Julian Symons as one of the less interesting products of what he dubbed the Humdrum School of detective fiction the John Rhode books are slowly gaining a degree of respectability amongst modern critics and have been enthusiastically championed by Curt Evans among others.

The Hanging Woman is certainly a pure puzzle-plot mystery. And a fairly successful one.

The novel opens with the inquest on the death of André Vilmaes, a young Belgian pilot employed by a wealthy scientist named Partington. Partington is involved in some rather esoteric scientific research. Vilmaes was returning by air from Brussels when his aircraft crashed on landing at Partington’s private landing field. There’s not the slightest question it was an accident and the inquest is a mere formality.

A week later a young woman hangs herself at Wargrave House, a few miles from Partington’s estate. Wargrave House has the reputation of being haunted after another young woman hanged herself some years earlier. For some reason this latest suicide seems to have chosen to kill herself in the same room and in exactly the same manner. Superintendent Everley has no reason to doubt that this latest death is a suicide but he does mention the matter to his friend Superintendent Hanslet at Scotland Yard. Purely as a matter of routine Hanslet makes a few enquiries in London.

This time the inquest is not quite so routine. A bombshell is dropped when the medical evidence reveals that this was no suicide - this was murder.

Superintendent Hanslet has no obvious leads to follow up so he does the obvious thing - he tries to interest Dr Priestley in the case. This is always something of a challenge. Priestley is an irascible sort of fellow and while he is a keen amateur criminologist he will not involve himself in an investigation unless it happens to strike him as being particularly interesting. And there is never any way of predicting whether Priestley’s interest will be aroused or not. In this case Superintendent Hanslet need not have worried - Dr Priestley is very interested indeed.

There’s the usual array of possible suspects and red herrings. There is a suggestion of a romantic triangle. There is a young woman with a surefire plan to get very rich and there is another woman who may well have similar ideas.

There are also lots of alibis, all of them complex and all of them apparently watertight. This is a book for detective fiction fans who love stories involving railway timetables and calculations of the time it might have taken a particular suspect to travel from Point A to Point B by various means and by various routes. This is a style of detective fiction that has been much disparaged over the years but in the hands of a skilled practitioner (such as Freeman Wills Crofts) it can be immensely entertaining. John Rhode was certainly such a skilled practitioner, perhaps not quite as expert as Crofts (no-one did this sort of thing better than Crofts) but still very skilled indeed.

Dr Priestley is a detective very much in the mould of Dr Thorndyke - a man of science who relies on hard evidence and rigorous logic. He is not much given to leaps of intuition. He belongs to another popular detective tradition as well - the detective who approaches crime-solving purely as a stimulating intellectual exercise. He does not concern himself with justice. As long as he can solve the puzzle to his own satisfaction he is content. Justice and the law are matters for policemen and he is no policeman. Priestley is an abrasive and eccentric character but having now read quite a few of the Dr Priestley mysteries I’ve grown rather fond of him.

The Hanging Woman does what it sets out to do - it provides a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle in which much of the emphasis is not so much on the identity of the murder as on how the murderer managed to commit the crime and cover his tracks.

Highly recommended.

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