Tuesday, February 22, 2011

IN BRIEF: Tragedy on the Line (1931) - John Rhode

Fairly routine story about the death of Gervase Wickenden, a wealthy single man, and the battle for his fortune between his heirs - a motley group of nieces and nephews. His body found alongside train tracks not far from his home, the face crushed beyond all recognition, can only be identified by his clothing and personal effects. An inquest rules the death an accident. Enter Dr. Priestley who smells foul play. He and his secretary, Harold, discover a bullet hole in a fir tree opposite the accident site and are determined to prove that Wickenden was shot and that the "train accident" was done after the murder to obliterate any signs of a bullet wound.  It's a bit repetitive in the telling with lots of rehash and recapping as if it were a serial (This is a unfortunate practice of Rhode/Burton in his early books).

For me the best part of the book was the character of Nancy Wickenden -- an outspoken, no-nonsense, modern woman who dares to live with a man and remain unmarried. Her dialog is sparkling and witty. The scene where the uptight and conventional Supt. Haslet visits her apartment and finds a different man and woman (Nancy's brother and his girlfriend using her place in lieu of a hotel) in the apartment is hysterical from a 21st century point of view. Also, Wickenden's lady friend to whom he was engaged is a lively and modern character.

Priestley plays a peripheral role providing the police with the impetus to pursue the case then disappears into the background until the end when he serves as the murderer's confessor in the rather Anthony Wynne-like final chapters. The murderer, suffering from injuries received in a motor vehicle accident and with only hours to live, tells a long-winded tale of the past revealing Wickenden to be a sadistic rogue who allowed his seemingly devoted wife to suffer a cruel death when he tired of her. The crime turns out to be a vendetta years in the making similar to the one constructed by the killer in Queen's Tragedy of X. Even the most astute reader would never be able to figure any of this out and it's far from the kind of "fair play" plot expected from a writer who was a member of the Detection Club.

This was the first Rhode book I read from start to finish. My judgment is that he gets a raw deal as a writer whose books are boring. Tragedy on the Line held my interest all the way despite its unfair ending. I have also read The Claverton Mystery which is a remarkable detective novel on many levels. However, Priestley overall seems too intellectual and lacking humanity in a kind of Holmesian way for him ever to be one of my favorite detectives in the genre. Though I should add once or twice he shows a sense of humor in Tragedy on the Line and, at end of this book at least, exhibits a tender compassion.


  1. I have read only two of his Dr. Priestley mysteries so far, "The House on Tollard Ridge" and "Men Die at Cypress Lodge," and they weren't boring at all – perhaps a bit dry in parts, but not dull or tedious. Heck, it was actually interesting to see him handle the haunted house setting in sober and rational manner.

    Tollard Ridge and Cypress Lodge would've been completely different books in the hands of Carr and Talbot.

  2. I haven't read any of Rhodes books (although I've heard/read a great deal about them)...on my long TBR list of things I hope to get to one of these days.

  3. Haven't read any of these. Have never even heard of this guy. Obviously my education is lacking.
    So NOT a surprise.

    Playing catch-up with the past ain't easy. HA!

    But these sound like my kind of thing.

  4. David here:

    Major Street, whether as Rhode or Burton was one of the great constructionist of the Golden Age, and his reputation for being dull probably comes from the books written late in his career since he continued to churn them out well into the 1960's far past his prime.

    One of his best, THE SECRET OF HIGH ELDERSHAM as by Miles Burton could hardly be described as dull and he even penned a couple of thrillers in the twenties (THE ARP MYSTERY) full of drug smuggling and chasing around.

    Mostly he is what Curt Evans identifies as one of the great 'humdrums,' a breed of mystery writer primarily interested in aspects of the mystery other than the thrills.

    This isn't one of his best, and admittedly Dr. Priestly can be on the dry side, but Rhode could write and even collaborated with fellow Detection Club member and admirer John Dickson Carr.

    But the early books are probably his best both as Rhode and Burton.

  5. Apt review of this book.

    I would just add that, as pointed out above, Street is rather sympathetic to Bohemianism here, which should come to a surprise to people always seeing him lumped in with Freeman Wills Crofts, a much more puritanical writer.

    Priestley rather reminds me of Nero Wolfe. Not that he's that memorable, but the way he invariably puts down the police is something I always find amusing. Though I do feel sorry for poor Harold sometimes!

  6. I just read this myself (and have only read a handful of Street's books). Compare to the later books where Priestly does little more than discuss murder cases once a week after dinner, the good doctor is incredibly active in this one. Though again, perhaps this is typical of that period. And yes, I did note with approval his tender treatment of the older woman towards the end. Of the ones I've read so far, this may be my favorite.

  7. It's really only after Jimmy Waghorn is introduced in Hendon's First Case (1935) that Priestley starts to become almost entirely sedentary (and Harold becomes totally superfluous). I think the active Priestley is more enjoyable, though he still functions significantly for another ten years or so. He even leaves his house as late as the early 1950s.

    In the last decade or so that he wrote, however, Street seems so bored with Priestley that he would have been better off dispensing with him entirely. Jimmy's conferences with the trio of old men (Hanslet, Priestley and Oldland) becomes increasingly pro forma and dull.

    But then wasn't this the same time that Christie lost interest in Poirot, Allingham in Campion, Carr in Merrivale and Fell?