Thursday, May 12, 2016

John Rhode's Dead Men at the Folly

Dead Men at the Folly was the thirteenth Dr Priestley mystery written by Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) under the pen-name John Rhode. It was originally published in 1932.

Street was a popular writer in his day but his work has languished in obscurity since his death. Or at least this was the case until quite recently. in the past few years the detective fiction of the so-called golden age has been experiencing a major revival in popularity. And with the reprinting by the British Library of a couple of the detective novels he wrote under the name Miles Burton the work of Street is now beginning to attract considerable interest. In fact at the present moment just about every vintage crime blogger seems to be blogging  about Street’s books. The excellent Beneath the Stains of Time blog has for example just featured an excellent review of the Miles Burton novel Death in the Tunnel.

Having only read one of the Miles Burtons I can’t comment too much on them although Death at Low Tide was certainly very good indeed.

On the other hand I’ve read quite a few of the Dr Priestley mysteries and I count myself as an enthusiastic fan.

Dead Men at the Folly opens with a motorcyclist lost in the countryside. He notices a very striking structure at the top of a ridge not too far off the road and feels compelled to investigate it. The structure is Tilling’s Folly, a tall circular tower topped with an observation gallery. On the ground at the base of the tower the motorcyclist makes a gruesome discovery - the dead body of a man.

Inspector Richings of the local constabulary at Charlton Montague is soon on the scene. It seems to be a fairly obvious case of suicide but Richings is a careful and thorough policeman. He is not inclined to overlook the small details and those small details cause him some concern. He suspects foul play. Fortunately the Chief Constable is a sensible fellow as well and both men realise that this has the potential to be a difficult case. Furthermore they can make no progress in identifying the dead man, which strongly suggests this might not be a purely local matter. The prudent thing to do would be to ask Scotland Yard for assistance and the sooner the better. As the discovery of the body took place on the Saturday before Christmas Day Superintendent Hanslet of Scotland Yard finds he has no-one available to assign to the case. He therefore decides to take on the case himself.

Hanslet doesn’t take long to realise that Richings’ suspicions were well-founded. This is murder.

Initially the case seems likely to be frustrating and time-consuming. No progress has been made in identifying the body. And then, as often happens, all the pieces start to slot neatly into place. It was all very straightforward after all. Within just a few days Superintendent Hanslet has solved the case. He is so pleased with himself that he can’t wait to tell his old friend Dr Priestley. Oddly enough the irascible but brilliant scientist and part-time criminologist doesn’t seem overly impressed by Hanslet’s solution, and Priestley is tactless enough to point out what appear to him to be some very major flaws in an otherwise satisfactory solution. Hanslet however is so convinced of the essential soundness of his own theory that he dismisses such annoying nit-picking. Dr Priestley is a fine fellow and a good friend and unquestionably brilliant but he is often inclined to cast quite unnecessary doubts on Superintendent Hanslet’s theories.

Hanslet returns to Charlton Montague full of confidence that he is just about to wrap the case up when a discovery is made that reveals that his wonderfully impressive theory is in fact a house of cards and, as houses of cards are wont to do, is about to collapse in an untidy heap. It appears Hanslet is going to need Dr Priestley’s help after all.

Dr Priestley does not make his first entry until quite late in the game and he remains very much in the background. He’s such a memorable character that he still somehow manages to dominate the story and there’s perhaps something to be said for keeping him in reserve so that the reader anxiously awaits his appearance knowing that his arrival will kick the plot into high gear.

Rhode’s plotting is strong, as always. While Rhode has often been dismissed as a dull writer I found the setting to be quite vividly rendered. The Folly itself is a perfect setting for murder. Rhode tended to avoid country house settings and the characters for the most part are drawn from the middle class or have even slightly more humble backgrounds. The book gives us quite an entertaining glimpse of a vanished but very everyday reality.

A fine entry in the Dr Priestley series, highly recommended.


  1. I have not tried any books by this author, under either name. This one sounds like a good place to start.

    1. Most people seem to agree that his pre-war books are his best.

      Unfortunately his books are not that easy to find. A couple of the Miles Burtons have now been re-issued in paperback.

      The only way to find the John Rhode books is to look for used copies. Copies of The Venner Crime and The House on Tollard Ridge are quite cheap and they're both extremely good. Dr Priestley Investigates (which is also excellent) was issued in paperback many years ago and can be found for reasonable prices.

      There was a 1980s paperback edition of The Claverton Affair that is also easy to get.

    2. Thanks for those suggestions. When I buy older books, I prefer to look for used copies because I like the covers, paperback or hardback, although hardback are sometimes too expensive. The only problem with old paperbacks is if the text is too light or too tiny and hard to read. So I will follow up on some of those titles.

  2. Agree with your sentiments here, especially the last two paragraphs. Dr P has been underappreciated as a totemic character and Rhode's milieu can be quite interesting. And his best books offer such densely plotted mysteries.

    Maybe if we tell people this is a Christmas mystery it will get reprinted.

    1. Maybe if we tell people this is a Christmas mystery it will get reprinted.

      All kidding aside that might just be an extremely good idea. The British Library would go for it - they seem to understand marketing. And the rights-holders might go for it since that way it might make some real money.

      Just re-title it Dead Men at the Folly: A Christmas Mystery.

    2. So we're going to weaponize the Spirit of Christmas to bring these forgotten gems back under everyone's attention? I approve!