Tuesday, March 3, 2020

John Rhode's Death in the Hop Fields (AKA The Harvest Murder)

Death in the Hop Fields is a 1937 Dr Priestley mystery by John Rhode, one of the pseudonyms used by English crime fiction writer Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964). It was published in the United States as The Harvest Murder.

It is the hop-picking season and that means major disruptions to the normal course of life in the small rural village of Culverden. Hop-picking requires a vast temporary labour force and in this community the hop-pickers are almost all Londoners, and interestingly enough almost entirely female.

It’s also a busier time than usual for Sergeant Wragge. Keeping the peace in Culverden is usually a very easy task for the sergeant and his two constables but in hop-picking season anything can happen. Even a spectacular burglary. Any kind of burglary would be big news in such a law-abiding place but in this case the thief or thieves made off with some very valuable jewels.

The good news is that it takes no time at all to establish the identity of the burglar. Sergeant Wragge is no fool. He sends the empty jewellery box off to Scotland Yard and they find a very nice set of fingerprints belonging to a known villain named Christopher Elver. Elver had served seven years for dope-smuggling. It’s an open-and-shut case, or it would be if Elver could be found. Detective Inspector Jimmy Waghorn of the Yard is sent to Culverden to lend a hand.

Culverden seems to be experiencing something of a crime wave. There’s a case of arson and since the cottage that was burnt out contained some very valuable antiques and objets d’art it’s also regarded as a fairly serious crime. And since Inspector Waghorn is on the scene he naturally takes an interest in this case as well. And the circumstances are quite puzzling. There’s a very obvious suspect but he has a cast-iron alibi. Waghorn thinks that this is just the sort of thing that would intrigue his friend Dr Priestley. Dr Priestley is sufficiently interested to leave London and travel down to Culverden (and anything that persuades Dr Priestley to leave his home in Westbourne Terrace has to be very interesting indeed.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with murder. Well I’m not going to tell you since even a hint might reveal a spoiler.

Street was known for coming up with ingenious methods of murder. There is definitely some ingenuity here although not necessarily relating directly to murder methods.

Dr Priestley is of the opinion that the solution to the case is perfectly logical and he’s right. The clues are all there. There are however enough false trails to lead poor Inspector Waghorn well and truly astray. Whether the reader will be similarly misled is another matter. I figured out the solution before Inspector Waghorn, but Dr Priestley was well ahead of me. To be brutally honest Jimmy Waghorn should have been transferred to traffic duty after this case. Even the broadest of hints from Dr Priestley don’t help him.

Structurally this book is quite interesting but again I can’t say any more since the structure is part of the puzzle.

I know there are those who find Street’s writing dull but I’m not one of them. I was actually quite interested by the detailed descriptions of the process of hop-picking and those details are relevant to the plot. For me the John Rhode novels are a kind of detective fiction comfort food. I find them to be reliably entertaining and I’m fond of the cantankerous Dr Priestley. As long as you don’t expect non-stop excitement Death in the Hop Fields is highly recommended.

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