The Motor Rally Mystery by John Rhode

Motor Rally MysteryIn March 1932, the Royal Automobile Club Rally was held, the first major rally to be held in the UK. Over three hundred cars, started from nine different towns and made their way via a series of checkpoints to Torquay, a distance (as it was a circuitous route) of roughly one thousand miles over three days. It wasn’t a race, but a test of reliability of the cars, who were expected to maintain an average speed and perform a series of other tests, such as braking, along the route. This bit is true, by the way. The next bit isn’t…

Bob Weldon and his crew, co-driver Richard Gateman and navigator Harold Merefield, are running late due to terrible fog – why this hasn’t affected any of the other competitors is never really mentioned. They find themselves stumbling upon a fellow team, who are rather worse off though. Their car has veered off the road and the two drivers lie dead. A clear accident.

But the local constabulary are a little suspicious. Something about the tire-tracks doesn’t seem quite right, but when the car is inspected by the police, there seems to be nothing wrong with it. And that would be the end of the story, if it were not for Harold Merefield’s employer – Dr Launcelot (well that’s how he spells it here) Priestley who soon smells a rat and finds himself on the trail of a cunning murderer.

Fascinating stuff about the rally. Now I don’t give two hoots for motor racing – if you’re going to call it a sport, make everyone drive exactly the same car – but this slice of history had all the appeal for me of the historical novels that I keep trying to persuade you to read. Admittedly it was written less than a year after the Rally took place – this dates from February 1933 – but this slice of life from the thirties feels so much more real that the plethora of modern novels set in that period. The fascination of the author with this odd event (which was the precursor of the Wales Rally GB) shines through while never getting stale or in the way of the tale.

Following on from The Claverton Mystery/Affair and Death In Harley Street, this is my third encounter with Dr Priestley, immediately preceding the impossible Claverton poisoning, but this has much more in common with Death In The Tunnel, written three years later by the same author under his Miles Burton pseudonym – the entire plot structure, in fact. Act One – work out if it was murder or not; Act Two – work out how it was done and Act Three – work out who did it, and, crucially, explaining each bit as we go along, rather than holding everything back until the finale. The alibi of the guilty party also have distinct similarities, as does the “just in case someone suspects murder, I’ll implicate someone else” idea, despite the effort put into making it look like suicide/accident. And both murderous plans are more than a little over the top…

This is a better read than Tunnel though. Priestley and the drivers are much more entertaining company than Desmond Merrion and the murderer’s plan is much easier to follow – especially the motive. I’m definitely enjoying my Rhode investigations and there will be plenty more to come. The little deluge of affordable books on eBay seems to have subsided but I’ve come out of it with eight more titles – two Burton, six Rhode – to tell you about soon. Unless I bought one and forgot about it… Don’t think so, but I’ve been a bit distracted recently. I’d say this was Recommended, but good luck locating a copy.

Oh, and one final bit of historical fun. Suppose you were a toothpaste manufacturer in the 1930s. Where would be the best place to advertise your brand? That’s right – on the BACK cover of a mystery novel UNDER the dust jacket. Loads of people will see it there…

Kolynos

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44 comments

    • Just repeat the same comment next time… 🙂

      I know it’s a pain to read a tempting review of a nigh unobtainable book. Still annoys me that Martin Edwards keeps recommending Mist On The Saltings by Wade – cheapest copy (of only 9 on Abebooks, including those not in English) being around £35!

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      • Rhode/Burton is an author I’d like to take a decent crack at, what with you and Curtis making it all sound so appealing … I’ll keep reading vicariously, but one day … 😉

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      • Not remotely. John (and Curtis, and many others) post about books that I’ll probably never be able to find but I’m interested to hear about. That particular example from Martin has been on the recommended reading list for the Bodies From The Library conference two years running. There’s a difference.

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      • That’s what I presumed as well regarding copyright – looks like mostly one person uploaded their collection. Datewise, the books seem to be in clumps – mostly later titles with some early Rhode books – including this one.

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      • I’m still trying to ascertain the legality of this – given the estate’s reluctance to reissue these books, I’m not sure how these still-in-copyright texts can be offered legally. It’s entirely possible that they’re there simply because the estate hasn’t noticed. But Santosh is right, this is an established source, so I guess it’s OK – and The Motor Rally Mystery is one of the available books, although only in epub form to annoy us Kindle readers… Of course, all Sergio needs to do now is get an e-reader…

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      • “…although only in epub form to annoy us Kindle readers…”
        This is no problem. There are several websites which can convert epub to kindle (mobi or azw) online.

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      • Thanks for that Santosh, well worth knowing, although for the moment I can only read books on paper. Internet Archive is amazingly huge and wonderful – but I will tell you, a lot of the content shouldn’t be there, not least because it is only PD (if that) in the US. Strictly speaking, none of the books by Cecil Street should be out of copyright until at least 2018 and mostly 2034. But that is a whole different can of worms 🙂

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  1. I think I had to spend £35 on a second-hand copy of Christianna Brand’s “Death of Jezebel” – which is cheap relative to the prices of the existing copies on Abebooks…

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear that this title turned out better than “Death in the Tunnel” – which I found intriguing if slightly over-convoluted. I have “Claverton Affair” and “Venner Mystery” sitting on my shelf, awaiting reading. Will you be reviewing “Venner Mystery” sometime soon…?

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  2. The Motor Rally Mystery is my favourite of the John Rhode books I’ve read. Anyone who dismisses Rhode as dull hasn’t read this one.

    The good news is that it’s one of the easiest of the Dr Priestley books to find. For some reason used copies can be found at remarkably cheap prices.

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  3. Re the legality of the downloads available on the Internet Archive. I believe that John Rhode/Miles Burton etc. books are in the public domain in Canada, which has a copyright length of Life+50 as opposed to Life+70 as in the UK and US. Therefore, this author is out of copyright in Canada, which might be where these texts have originated from. So if you are a resident of Canada you can download these texts perfectly legally. However, residents of Life + 70 countries should be aware that, although they are able to download these texts, they are technically breaking the law if they do so. I’ll leave it up to you whether you should or not…
    You might also like to know that if the TPP agreement is ratified it may force countries with a Life+50 copyright law to conform with the longer copyrights imposed in the UK and the US. So if you find the Canadian Public Domain a rich source of material you might like to download it now while you still can. Just saying…

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    • Good news that the TPP agreement cannot now be ratified due to withdrawal of USA ! Hence Canada will continue to have life+50 copyright law.

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  4. I own this book in the US edition which was re-titled Dr. Priestley Lays a Trap, but have yet to read it. I thought I’d find a few copies under that title, but there are currently none of the US edition for sale — unless some smart person or persons snapped them up the few copies only a few hours after you posted this review. That actually wouldn’t surprise me.

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    • I’m not helping some devious swine buy low, sell high am I? Actually, some of Rhode’s plots are dafter than that… But it’s odd that at so e point, this was apparently relatively easy to find. Maybe my review caused the copies to be snapped up by connoisseurs of old toothpaste adverts – hope they bought the right edition!

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  5. Publishing history trivia: Fry’s Chocolate was another company to advertise their product on the rear cover of the “cheap editions” of the 1930s Collins Crime Club books. I ought to do a post on advertising in UK mystery books, the ads appeared both inside and on the books themselves.

    The rear panel of the DJ also has the advert. Here’s the Kolynos toothpaste ad as it appears on the back of my copy of THE MYSTERY OF STOW HOUSE.

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    • So they have been uploaded legally for that country – Rhode died in 1964 – but I suppose it’s up to the individual’s conscience if you’re in another country.

      I’ll be honest – I’m undecided, due to the near impossibility of getting hold of some of these titles. But I’ve enough to keep me going for now…

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  6. I don’t have too much of a problem with those who want to download public domain texts from Australia/Canada. The ones I object to, and which I do NOT support, are those sites which allow illegal downloads of current texts. Those sites are chipping away at the work of authors still living who are trying to make a success of their writing. They’re illegal, and they’re immoral. Shame on them.

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  7. At the moment, Abebooks has only two copies, for £30 and £50 respectively. I think the availability really depends on when you’re looking…

    Yes that’s very true. I checked before I posted my comment and they had a copy of The Motor Rally Mystery for $7. But obviously it got snapped up very quickly.a Luck and persistence are both needed – especially luck!

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  8. The ones I object to, and which I do NOT support, are those sites which allow illegal downloads of current texts. Those sites are chipping away at the work of authors still living who are trying to make a success of their writing

    Agreed. The problem is that copyright laws are so idiotic that people end up losing all respect for them. Copyright is supposed to protect the rights of living authors, not the rights of authors who have been dead for more than half a century. The distant descendants of those authors didn’t create anything and have no moral right to make money out of the work of their distant ancestors.

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  9. Hey Puzzle Doctor, I think ‘Mist on the Saltings’ has just been re-released cheaply as an ebook by The Murder Room! 😀

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  10. In fact, 18 books by Henry Wade (including Mist On The Saltings) will be available on 14th June.

    Are they being released as ebooks only? If so it’s of no use whatever to me, unfortunately. And I do love what I’ve read of Henry Wade’s work.

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  11. Street was a great car enthusiast, and expressed that enthusiasm in a number of his books.

    On the subject of Rhode reprints, I have tried for years, but have not been able to move the powers that be. Certainly there are publishers who would like to reprint Rhode.

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    • I know there’s Murder At Olympia that’s set at a car show. His interest in the subject shines through here, and, despite my disinterest in the subject generally, really pulled me along.

      You never know, if I keep up with these reviews, the estate just might notice the interest they’re generating. Certainly the most responses that I’ve seen for a while.

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      • Yes, indeed, that is nice to see. Blackthorn House is a later one I enjoyed that involves the stolen car racket in postwar England, though P rather pulls the (clever) solution out of a hat there.

        Rhode’s knowledge of things like the motor rally in the book you reviewed adds a layer of interest, as you indicate.

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  12. Out of interest I tried eBay just now and bought The Claverton Affair for $4.50AU. Some other titles were very much pricier. I’m open to revise my opinion of John Rhode whom I found unbearably tedious fifty years ago. My tip for hard to get books, keep trying and be patient, as reasonably priced copies can come up unexpectedly. It’s often worked for me.

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