Vegetable Duck by John Rhode

Your progress, Inspector, is not unlike that of a man in rubber-soled shoes trying to cross a frozen pond. You take a step in one direction, but the slippery surface betrays you and you find yourself going off at a right angle.

Vegetable DuckMr and Mrs Fransham sat down to eat their dinner, but before he could even touch his starter, a mysterious phone call lures Fransham away. Returning from the hoax call, he enters his lodging with his neighbour who he met on the stairs, only to find his wife dying – killed by the vegetable duck!

Inspector Jimmy Waghorn is soon on the case, and his suspicions fall immediately on Fransham – there seems to be no one else who could have perpetrated the crime. But all of his theories fail to take into account a strange letter – something that Dr Priestley insists needs to be explained. Can Jimmy get to the bottom of the mystery by himself?

First off, I suppose I’d better tell you about the mysterious vegetable duck. It’s a stuffed marrow, basically, and if ever you want to read a treatise on how to evenly poison a marrow, then I’d highly recommend this book. More on marrow poisoning than you could ever need to know. But that’s the nature of Rhode – he feels the need to dot every “i” and cross every “t” in the investigation` but he still manages to fascinate this reader while he does it.

It’s a pretty standard Rhode formula – Waghorn follows lead after lead with occasional visits to Priestley who basically just nods or shakes his head sagaciously and, in this case, explains how the trick with the letter was done – but it’s Waghorn who actually solves the crime. And as is usual with Rhode, the criminal’s scheme is long and intricate and involves a complex frame-up of someone else. It’s the story of the investigation, following each thread until a problem arises and then moving on to the next lead – that’s Rhode’s formula and when it works, it works very well.

It’s not flawless – the letter business, where a letter arrives one day later than it should have, has a much more normal explanation, i.e. the British Postal Service – and the US title, Too Many Suspects, is basically a lie. There’s basically one for the experienced reader, so the murderer is pretty obvious really by elimination, although working out their scheme is the main attraction.

What’s most interesting is the link to one of the other Rhode reviews, this month, The Telephone Call, which you may recall was based on the famous-at-the-time Wallace case. Well, the set-up here is roughly similar as well, close enough to be commented on, which Waghorn, Priestley and co do, several times. Yet in The Telephone Call, where the set-up is EXACTLY the same as Wallace, everyone seems to have forgotten all about the real-life murder. If this was a TV show, the message boards would be full of continuity explanations…

Oh, and Priestley’s betrays an odd dislike of abbreviated names – he addresses a note to Inspector “Jimmy” Waghorn, rather snobbily using quotation marks.Probably trying to undermine his confidence so that he doesn’t start asking that these be called the “Inspector Waghorn Mysteries”…

As ever, this is a swearword to get hold of – I managed to find a copy under the US title in a three-volume book also containing those classics Out Of Control by Baynard Kendrick (no, me neither) and An Eye For An Eye by Oliver Weld Bayer (nope). This is for #1944book for Crimes Of The Century at Past Offences but there’s not much in the text to tell us about 1944, like mentioning there’s a war on, for example, apart from the fact that people are eating marrows. But there’s a great note at the start of the volume:

Note to the reader: In accordance with wartime paper regulations the size and thickness of this volume have been reduced. The actual wordage, however, has not been cut in any way and the book contains three complete, full-length, mystery stories.

It’s actually no different in height that another US hardback from ten years earlier, but the paper thickness is much reduced, and the font is slightly reduced, as is the footer on the bottom of the page, so there’s a nice bit of publishing trivia for you.

Anyway, should you ever get the chance to get a copy, this isn’t first class Rhode, but it’s still pretty good. Recommended.

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14 comments

  1. Thanks for all the Rhode reviews. 🙂 I was wondering which of all the Rhode and Burton titles would you classify as first-rate Rhodes? If I recall correctly the only title to snag a Highly Recommended rating would be “Death in Harley Street”…?

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    • The House At Tollard Ridge was first rate as well. At the end of the day, I’ve not seen anything that would ever crack the top 10 mysteries of all time, nothing on a par to the best of Christie or Carr. Rhode basically has a formula that he tends to stick to, and two things tend to determine how well it works – the setting, which he can really bring to life at times, such as in The Motor Rally Mystery, and the complexity of the plot – he can make it too simple and also too complicated (Death In The Tunnel for example) but when he gets it right, it works very well.

      At the end of the day, I’ve only read two that I wouldn’t recommend – Early Morning Murder (written as Miles Burton) and The Fatal Pool (which is just boring). A shame, as Early Morning Murder is one of the more attainable titles…

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      • The current count is nine Rhode and three Burton. It’s a bit soon for a top ten (or top five to be blog consistent) but stick Claverton, Tollard Ridge and Harley Street at the top, ignore Fatal Pool and Early Morning Murder and shuffle the other seven randomly…

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  2. As a vegan, the title caught my eye. A vegetable duck?! Glad you explained. I’ve only read one Rhode, The Claverton Affair, but I enjoyed it and hope to read more of his.

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    • Claverton is a good example of a Rhode – probably one of the better ones due to the impossible poisoning. The other one from the same republishing, Death In Harley Street, is well worth tracking down…

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  3. That ought to win a prize for oddest title of a mystery novel. It sounds like a character from the Alice books, like the Mock Turtle.

    You must have gotten hold of a Detective Book Club copy, since those were usually 3-in-1s. I’ve seen the paper shortage notice in other U.S. books from the war period. There were paper drives at the time and a lot of recycling done, which is why pulp magazines and comic books from the time are so scarce.

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  4. “Note to the reader: In accordance with wartime paper regulations the size and thickness of this volume have been reduced.

    Editions like these used to be all over UK second-hand bookshops in the ’60s and ’70s. I used to really like them, and bought and read plenty. The one I recall most of all was Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, in the Gollancz wartime edition. Although I’d read all the “international” Queens (Greek Coffin, etc.), this was my introduction to “his” middle period, and I loved it. I have no idea how many times I must have read that copy before, somewhere along the way, I must have lent it to someone or left it on a train or . . .

    Anyway, if ever you want to throw away any of your wartime economy editions, lemme know.

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  5. I’ll have to do a list on my blog. Of course I go through the titles in great detail in Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery, but the book is $40 in pb so am not expecting a mad rush of buyers. You could always ask your local library to order though!

    I like vegetable duck, though the central device is a clever adaptation from another well-known British crime writer.

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  6. […] I’ve already written about the physical book itself – I’d post some pictures of the wartime adverts but it was practically falling apart as I read it and I’m trying to touch it as little as possible now. But John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books has some other Cherry Tree Books, and to quote his comment – “I have several of them and they are all 95 pages long. I have a feeling that almost all of them are abridged. It’s seems far too coincidental to be able to print each and every book at exactly 95 pages no matter how much you reduce the font. I’m sure there was some cutting.”  Add that to Santosh’s detective work with the borrowable copy from the Internet Archive – you’ll have to join a queue apparently – and this looks like it is an abridged copy. It’s an economy of wartime, I guess, and makes more sense than the other techniques, like miniscule print (Slippery Ann) or tissue thin paper (my copy of Too Many Suspects aka Vegetable Duck). […]

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