The Claverton Affair by John Rhode

The Claverton AffairDr Lancelot Priestley (had to look the Lancelot bit up – the second book in a row to dispense with a character’s forename) has lost touch with his old friend Sir John Claverton when he receives an dinner invitation. Claverton has health problems and a will with some labyrinthine “only in a detective book” conditions, so when Priestly is told about a possible attempted arsenic poisoning, it’s no surprise when a week later, Sir John does die.

Convinced his friend has been murdered, Priestley’s convictions are thrown when the autopsy shows no trace of poison in the body at all. With no evidence of murder, all Priestley has left is his belief that something is wrong about the situation. Was Claverton murdered? And if so, how?

Cecil Street, writing under the pseudonym of John Rhode, Miles Burton and a couple of others, certainly churned out plenty of mystery novels between 1925 and 1961 – at least 130 of them, so about four a year . Dr Priestley features in 72 of these but Rhode’s work has yet to join the growing list of reprinted authors – there’s one short story available as an ebook – in fact, there aren’t many books available on abebooks at all under Rhode’s name at all. But I managed to pick this one up cheap so I thought I’d give him a try.

Rhode (as I’ll call him) was a member of the Detection Club and a good friend of John Dickson Carr, who he co-wrote Fatal Descent with, a locked elevator mystery with a rather gadgety solution. If you want to know more about Rhode, then Curtis Evans’ post here has links to a number of his own articles about the man, or you could just read Curtis’ Masters Of The Humdrum Mystery, of which one third is about Rhode.

Back to this book and it’s an interesting read – a new (to me) take on the impossible crime. The Claverton household contains some interesting characters and there’s some interesting bits on the social expectations of… something, an idea that Rhode clearly doesn’t agree with. Don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it is murder, and although there’s some science behind the explanation, it’s all fairly clued and an extremely clever solution. The plot drags a little in the middle section but the solution to the impossible poisoning redeems it. Unfortunately Rhode is more interested in the “how”, as the “who” is a little uninspired.

Overall though, it’s a good classic mystery and it does surprise me that no-one has pilfered the back catalogue yet – although with so many books, people might not know where to start. But as one of the authors of The Floating Admiral, maybe the re-issue of that might propel him back onto the shelves (or e-shelves) of a bookshop near you. Recommended, if you can find it.

UPDATE: Wow, just has a look online and good luck finding anything affordable by Rhode. For someone who wrote so many books, there are only a handful that even seem to exist, and most of those have prices that exceed what one would pay for an impulse buy. Rather pleased with that cheap copy of Early Morning Murder that’s staring at me from the shelf now…

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22 comments

  1. From the review, it seems that there is a murder but there is no indication of it in the body. Perfect murder? Rather intriguing.
    However, you say that it is difficult to get an affordable copy which is a let-down.
    You seem to be emulating the Pretty Sinister man. 🙂

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  2. Sounds fun. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of Golden Age writers struggled to find a way to fix the mid-section lag. It’s not easy, because the format of a fair play mystery (sufficient information up front, solution at the end) often forces the middle section to be largely inconsequential. And the setting of most Golden Age mysteries means there’s usually a lot of suspects to talk to, in order, about basically the same things. Combined, it can be a real drag.

    I was surprised John Rhode had written so much. I thought there were a dozen at most. I’ve read The Murders in Praed Street because I was told it was the best one, but actually I thought it was pretty dull. I much prefer the sound of this one.

    Having looked at his bibliography, I’m also intrigued by The Bloody Tower, which Wikipedia describes as: “Inspector Waghorn identifies a ruthless murderer and solves a set of clues to the whereabouts of long-hidden treasure.” That sounds exactly like my kind of stupid story!

    I also love how dull his titles get towards the end: “The Two Graphs”, “By Registered Post”! I guess that’s the humdrum shining through.

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    • Oh, and another thing – I have no idea if this is supposed to be a good Priestly or not. It was one of two (Death In Harley Street is the other) to get a re-issue. If this is the best, then, given it’s flaws, especially in not finding an interesting killer (apart from the method) , then maybe those titles are reflective of the content…

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  3. I rather like the sound of Death On The Lawn. Presumably other writers had taken all of the rooms. Three Cousins Die is a nice example of putting the blurb in the title as well…

    What is bizarre though is that if you hunt around trying to buy any of these, you would think that he’d written maybe twelve books at the most. What on earth happened to them all?

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    • Well, if you apply my methods, Watson, you will discover that John Rhode’s books are horrible to find. I count myself lucky to have snapped up a copy of THE TOWER OF EVIL (although VEGETABLE DUCK is still eluding my grasp.) Also, I’d be careful about “Death on the Lawn” — books from Rhode’s later period can be notoriously boring to read. Even my enthusiastic review of “Death in Harley Street” concluded that it was a boring book for the most part, with a complete lack of pacing. Anyways, back to the original topic — as far as I can tell, the only online presence of Rhode is a couple of Kindle copies of his books on Amazon’s US store, which quite frankly look illegal.

      Curt Evans has attempted to bring Rhode back into print, as there would be a market for his stuff, but has had no success. I believe I’ve heard that it’s difficult to get the literary agents in question to so much as reply to an email.

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      • Thanks for the info, Patrick. I wonder what happened to the books so they’re not even available second hand. They must have been a reasonable success for him to get so many published. Maybe they only came out in hardback? Who knows…

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  4. I’ve read half a dozen of Rhode’s early books (all from the 20s and 30s). He’s one of my favourite golden age detective writers. DR PRIESTLY INVESTIGATES is great fun, as is THE MOTOR RALLY MYSTERY. THE VENNER CRIME is even better.

    I have heard that his later books aren’t so good, but then that’s true of many writers (possibly even most writers). So stick to the early stuff and you’ll find it well worth reading. It is very difficult to find his books – you do need a good deal of patience and you have to grab them when you can find them.

    Rhode’s reputation will stand much much higher if and when the controllers of his estate finely start to act sensibly and allow his books to come back into print.

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  5. This was one of the first Dr. Priestley books I read and I was duly impressed with it. So far it stands as my favorite. I can recommend almost all of the Rhode books I’ve read with these being exceptional: VEGETABLE DUCK (aka TOO MANY SUSPECTS in the US), INVISIBLE WEAPONS, and PERIL AT CRANBURY HALL. Two of those books are reviewed on my blog along with TRAGEDY ON THE LINE which is only middling in my estimation.

    THE CLAVERTON AFFAIR is actually easy to find in the US since it was reprinted in a Harper Perennial paperback (the one pictured at the top of the post). Currently about 15 copies for sale online. There’s also a hardcover reissue from the Collins Crime Club which is the edition I found for only a very cheap price at a book sale years ago. Quite a few of his books were reprinted in hardcover (US reprint publishers A.L. Burt and Grosset & Dunlap in the 20s and 30s) as well as paperback editions (after 1945) both in the US and the UK during his lifetime. They’re scarce, I think, because collectors don’t let go them.

    I am suspicious of St Swithin Press, the outfit hawking the Kindle editions of the Rhode books on amazon.com. They also have their own website: stswithin.com. It consists of only one page with zero info on who owns the “press” and where they’re located; a huge tipoff that it’s not a real business. They only release digital editions (no print books at all) of out of print Golden Age crime novels. The selection is eclectic but oddly distributed. Included are two digital Helen McCloy books that can’t possibly be legal. I dealt with her agent in London (there is no agent in the US according to her daughter) and they asked me for too much money for the rights to reprint four books.

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    • It’s odd that they only reprint a small number of each book. And they’re not available in the UK at all… But as the estate are apparently apathetic about doing anything with their resource, I doubt they’ll chase it up.

      But on the other hand, if it wasn’t legit, then given the number of Carr ebooks, why hasn’t someone legitimately published The Judas Window? But And So To Murder is available from a second publisher – in fact, you can only find the St Swithins version on Amazon if you go via their own website. How peculiar…

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      • “But And So To Murder is available from a second publisher – in fact, you can only find the St Swithins version on Amazon if you go via their own website. How peculiar…”
        This applies to all St Swithin Press kindle books. The reason is that these kindle books can be bought only by people in US. Hence if one accesses amazon.com from a non-US IP address, then these books will not be shown. To see these books directly at amazon.com, use a US based VPN without logging in. However, still one will not be able to buy the books since once he logs in, it will be known that he is not from US.

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  6. I’m sure St Swithins Press are honest citizens, when I asked if the John Rhode books were going to be available to buy in Australia, they said probably not for sometime but as I was keen to have them they sent me epubs of them for free. Hardly sounds like a rip off publisher does it ?
    A fair few mostly later John Rhode’s and Miles Burton’s are now available on internet archive if you search under his real name of Cecil Street.

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    • It remains a question why the ebooks aren’t available in the UK – surely it’s simply a matter of making them available. And I’m not convinced of the legality of the Internet Archive either – the rights to those books still belong to someone and giving copies away seems wrong to me. Other readers may be happier to check them out though.

      On a plus point, though, Death In A Tunnel from Miles Burton is coming in May from the British Library range.

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      • Yes, as many as 32 books by Miles Burton/John Rhode/Cecil Street are available for free downloading at the Internet Archive. Now Internet Archive is supposed to be legal…..

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  7. I tried to contact the supposed rights holders years back about reprinting some titles, they didn’t even bother to reply to my email. It is always possible that the British Library is just going to keep funds available and use the orphan works copyright scheme to pay any copyright claim later. Any rights holders who haven’t bothered to reprint anything in 30 years aren’t really doing a very good job.

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