Friday, December 2, 2011

FFB: Peril at Cranbury Hall - John Rhode

The more John Rhode I read the more I am beginning to admire his skillful handling of certain aspects of the detective novel. His reputation of being a boring writer - one of the "Humdrums" - is truly undeserved. His best books can be found in the mid 1930s to late 1940s. Rhode's use of ingenious murder methods, diabolical death traps, and labyrinthine plots keep me coming back for more. Yet often Rhode lets his hand show several times. In Peril at Cranbury Hall (1930), for example, he has not yet acquired the talent for misdirection that is the hallmark of his contemporaries Christie and Carr. That is not to say that the book should be completely dismissed. There is more than enough here to satisfy most devotees of the traditional fair-play murder mystery novel.

Oliver Gilroy has recently been released from a seven year jail term for fraud. His half brother Arnold Gilroy, a lawyer, is engaged in acquiring an old mansion Cranbury Hall and its grounds for use by Dr. Richards and Professor Verclaes as a nursing home where they will cater to wealthy patients in search of the professor's anti-fatigue "miracle cure." The treatment itself sounds less like bona fide medicine at a nursing home and more like an elaborate con. Cranbury Hall will be transformed into something akin to a luxury spa/hotel designed to make the patients addicted to the comforts and indulgences like fine dining, massage treatments, and an enormous swimming pool, rather than the "miracle inoculations."

While Dr. Richards and the professor will handle the care of the patients, he tells Arnold that he will need a business manager and suggests Oliver for that position. Dr. Richards confesses that he also knows that Arnold has been manipulating the will of his dear departed Aunt Hilda and is planning to cheat Oliver out of his share of her estate. Armed with this knowledge and proof of the true will in a government registry open to the public (but unknown to Oliver) he blackmails Arnold into hiring his half brother.

Then a series of bizarre accidents befall Oliver and it appears that someone is trying to kill him. Dr. Priestley and Harold Merefield just happen to come across Oliver after he suffers a near fatal car accident – the third strange incident that nearly kills the ex-con. From Muriel Verclaes, the professor's daughter, Priestley and Merefield learn of the other accidents and Dr. Priestley is intrigued enough to investigate the possibility of foul play.

Rhode spends much time in letting the reader in on everyone's thoughts and actions prior to the appearance of Dr. Priestley who steps into the story well past the halfway mark. As the story progresses nearly every character will reveal a secret and his reason for killing Oliver. In fact, nearly everyone in the book turns out to be dishonest, a crook, or a cheat of some sort. There is an interesting use of the Iago-like power of suggestion too, put to great use in Christie's Curtain and by Rhode again in his superior Death in Harley Street (1946).

I was reminded of some of the less tightly constructed detective novels of George Bellairs and John Russell Fearn while reading Peril At Cranbury Hall. The clues are prominently displayed as if Rhode had spotlights shining on each one. There is no attempt made to hide anything, no misdirection, and no camouflage. Any sharp-eyed, attentive reader can figure out what's going on fairly quickly. This may be slightly disappointing to many readers, but perhaps a highlight for someone who has never solved a fair play detective novel. In other words, this is a great book for anyone interested in a training manual on how to solve a fair-play mystery novel.

For those who crave real puzzles there is a complex cipher that plays an integral part in the story. An entire chapter is devoted to the explanation of how the cipher works and there are ample opportunities for the reader to join Harold in decoding at least three different messages. However, you need patience and more of a mathematical mind than I have to understand how it works even with Priestley's detailed explanations. I attempted to try my hand at one, but gave up after about three minutes when I got mostly gibberish. I later discovered I misinterpreted the cipher rules and was inverting some letter pairs.

Finally, there is the puzzle of the fourth murder method -- the only successful one which dispatches Oliver Gilroy. Unfortunately, for me this was ruined on the title page of my reprint edition with an ill-advised illustration that gives it all away. Since I had read a murder method similar to what is used in an Agatha Christie novel the actual means was not as gasp inducing as perhaps it was intended. To echo something Patrick (At the Scene of the Crime blog) once said when he encountered a similar illustrated spoiler on an Edmund Crispin novel, there should be a special place in Hell reserved for book designers and illustrators who create these unnecessary ornamentations.

There is no denying that the death traps created in Peril at Cranbury Hall are the one of the main attractions of the novel. Rhode always is impressive in this regard. But it is Dr. Priestley's astonishing  revelation about the multiple murder attempts that truly makes this book one of Rhode's better accomplishments. This violation of one of Father Knox's Ten Rules for Detective Fiction recalls a book by C. Daly King and another by Agatha Christie, both too well known for me to mention outright without ruining what should be a real surprise. Although most of the many mysteries can be easily solved there is this final twist that may be Rhodes' crowning achievement in this particular book. While not on the same level as something like The Claverton Affair (so far the best Rhode I have read) I would say Peril at Cranbury Hall is well worth a read if you are lucky to locate a copy.

NOTE TO COLLECTORS & BOOK BUYERS: This is one of the more difficult to find titles in John Rhodes' prolific output. Although there seem to be two copies for sale at reasonable prices at a site in the UK, I found five other copies for sale on the internet and all of them are priced over $100. One without a DJ (the Dodd Mead first US edition) although described as FINE is, I think, exorbitantly priced at $225.

6 comments:

  1. The only Rhode book that I've come across is Fatal Descent, co-written by Carr. It was a while ago, but it was decent enough - although I recall the explanation for the death in the elevator car was a bit too gadget-y for my tastes.

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  2. I agree with you about Fatal Descent. One of the death traps that figures in this book is similar in its "gadgetiness." It involves a natural gas powered engine and I didn't understand one bit of how it worked. All that was made clear to my un-mechanically inclined mind was that it blew up and Gilroy was severely injured but not killed. He certainly endures a lot of pain in the book before his final grotesque demise.

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  3. Another very interesting post, John. It seems like every week (or every day) there's something new to be learned about the lesser known Golden Agers. Thanks again.

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  4. As coincidence goes (especially around these parts), I broke into the first two chapters of a John Rhode novel and during the first chapter I was once again surprised at his reputation as a humdrum writer. Maybe I have been just picking off the exceptions from his prolific output, but I tend to believe at this point that he was grossly underrated by labeling him as a humdrum writer.

    John, have you read The House on Tollard Ridge or Men Die at Cyprus Lodge? Their plots take a more sober approach to the haunted house setting, by stripping them of the atmospheric trappings of Carr and Talbot, but that takes nothing away from them and they are very good mysteries.

    By the way, JDC wrote just such a story, The Man Who Couldn't Shudder, but it was, IMHO, not as successful or interesting.

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  5. Thanks for the plug, John-- although I personally still think the cover to "Swan Song" is one of the worst of all-time! I don't know if you've seen it, but I can send you a scan if you like.

    I think "Humdrum" really means "Authors Julian Symons did not like". I mean, he even included Gladys Mitchell among the Humdrums, not to mention one of my new favourites, Henry Wade. However, people labour under the illusion that these Humdrums "couldn't entertain a drunken fish".

    This sounds like a very enjoyable novel. I will keep it in mind. Personally, when it comes to challenging misconceptions about the detective novel's 'conventions', I think "The Corpse in the Car" is the best Rhode I've come across thus far.

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  6. I thought all this deathtraps were fun. To me this one had semi-thrillerish elements? The bit in Belgium was interesting too, I thought, and the cynicism rather pleasing. The cipher made me dizzy though. This was the genesis of Sayers' Have His Carcase, by the way. Street helped her a great deal with the cipher section.

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