Friday, December 2, 2011
FFB: Peril at Cranbury Hall - John Rhode
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.
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.