Death In Harley Street by John Rhode

Death In Harley StDr Richard Mawsley has been found dead in his office in Harley Street. Apparently he injected himself with a fatal dose of strychnine – but Mawsley was not believed to be suicidal. There are clearly only three possibilities.

Number One: There was an unknown reason for Mawsley to suddenly become suicidal in a matter of moments since his last visitor left him.

Number Two: The extremely careful and methodical Dr Mawsley meant to inject himself with something else but accidentally picked the Extra-Strong Strychnine bottle instead.

Number Three: Someone managed to sneak into the locked office (and out again) and managed to inject Mawsley without any signs of their presence.

The problem is posed to Dr Priestley at his weekly dinner party. But Priestley is convinced that the truth is something else – something other than accident, suicide or murder…

First released in 1946, this was the forty-third book by John Rhode to feature Dr Priestley. At this point, Priestley is mostly in the background as his friend Inspector Waghorn makes enquiries into this intriguing puzzle. It’s only towards the end of the book that Priestley takes the reins of the investigation to steer it to its conclusion.

It’s interesting to compare this book to Death In The Tunnel, written under the Miles Burton pseudonym. In that book, the crime was solved step by step as the book progressed, but here, Priestley is much more like the classical detective than Merrion was in that book, keeping his cards close to his chest until the reveal at the end. To be fair, Priestley has a reason for keeping his thoughts to himself – although whether the reader will agree with that reason is another matter.

And whether the reader will agree that the solution isn’t Accident, Suicide or Murder is debatable as well. I think it pretty clearly falls under one of those categories – a damn clever example of that category, although the introduction of one technical element makes the crime pretty much unsolveable by the armchair reader.

One criticism that is often levelled at Rhode is his paper-thin characters, but that’s not really a problem here. First off, the characters do have some depth – much more than in Death In The Tunnel. And secondly, the book keeps moving to distract from those shortcomings anyway. It’s an excellent read with a clever central idea, full of red herrings to keep the reader looking the wrong way.

Definitely the best of the Rhode/Burton titles that I’ve read so far. It’s not that hard to find a copy – there was a reprint as part of the Perennial Mystery Library (along with The Claverton Affair) in 1974 so there are some affordable copies out there in the second hand market. Definitely worth looking for, this is Highly Recommended.

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21 comments

  1. I’m glad you are enjoying these books, I just wish the estate literary agency would allow his books to be made more accessible to modern readers again. Harley Street may feel more static to readers, but on the other hand this was one of Jacques Barzun’s favorites by the author (which is how it got reprinted in the 1980s).

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    • I think this would do well with modern readers – it hits the same beats as a classic Christie or Carr in the plotting. You never know, maybe the estate will read this post and change their minds – stranger things have happened…

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    • No, that’s the original one. Mine was too damaged to scan. Oddly the paperback has become very brittle over time and pieces keep snapping off. Very odd – never seen it happen before…

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      • Oh, when I said this was reasonably attainable – just checked at Abebooks and the prices, including postage, go: £9.86, £10.20, £19.94, £25.82 – and that’s for the “cheap” paperback reprint. Buying Rhode really is an exercise of being in the right place at the right time – doesn’t help that his surname is a swine to search for without wading through countless stuff by Cecil John Rhodes…

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      • Yes, I almost posted back to you on that – I also did a quick check one Abe (which it turns out is owned by Amazon, did you know that?) and was a bit disappointed

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  2. I have read this book.
    Though the plot is ingenious and the characterisation good, I found it verbose.
    Also, I doubt if the technical element referred by you is based on fact.
    The death certainly falls under one of the 3 categories Accident, Suicide, Murder . Priestley’s talk of a fourth dimension is rubbish !

    Incidentally, this book reminded me of Agatha Christie”s Five Little Pigs where c****** is used.

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    • There is some truth behind the technical bit – the use of SPOILER as SPOILER was used into the twentieth century. And, to be honest, Rhode strikes me as one of the more technical mystery authors – my gut feeling is that he heard about such a thing and wrote a story around it…

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