Monday, July 17, 2023

John Rhode : Poison for One, 1934



John Rhode alias Miles Burton were the two pseudonyms used by Cecil John Charles Street (Gibraltar, 1884-Eastbourne, 1964), to write Mystery: the first being used for the series with Sir Lancelot Priestley, retired scientist, the second for the one with Desmond Marrion, former Naval Officer.

Before dedicating himself to writing he was first an artillery officer and then an officer in MI7, the Counterintelligence of the time. He wrote many novels, and this penalized him because he could not always maintain a certain narrative and inventive quality. However, a good number of novels brought him to general attention, so as to earn him the consideration of John Dickson Carr, with whom he wrote a brilliant novel, Fatal Descent.

The consideration of critics, as well as that of the public, was not always unanimous.

If in fact Willard Huntington Wright better known as S.S. Van Dine, in 1927, in his essay The Great Detective Stories, stated: “Better written, conceived with greater moderation, and clinging more closely to human probabilities, are John Rhode's novels dealing with Dr. Priestley's adventures-Dr. Priestley's Quest, The Paddington Mystery, and The Ellerby Case. Dr.-or, as he is generally referred to in Mr. Rhode's text, Professor-Priestley has many characteristics in common with Dr. Thorndyke. He is a schoolman, fairly well along in years, without a sense of humour, and inclined to dryness; but he is more of the intellectual scientist, or scientific thinker, than Dr. Freeman's hero. ("Priestley, Willard Huntington Wright cursed with a restless brain and an almost immoral passion for the highest branches of mathematics, occupied himself in skirmishing round the portals of the universities, occasionally flinging a bomb in the shape of a highly controversial thesis in some ultra -scientific journal.") His detective cases to date have been few, and he suffers by comparison with the superior Dr. Thorndyke”; and Julian Symmons in Bloody Murder (Penguin, 1974), designated him as belonging to the Humdrums genre, considering him a pretentious author : " as a prominent member of the "Humdrum" school of detective fiction. "Most of them came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it. They had some skill in constructing puzzles, nothing more, and ironically they fulfilled much better than S. S. Van Dine his dictum that the detective story properly belonged in the category of riddles or crossword puzzles. Most of the Humdrums were British, and among the best known of them were Major John Street ..,” other critics have extolled this more recently, notably Curtis Evans in his Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920–1961 (McFarland Press, 2012) : “.. long overdue reappraisal of these purportedly "humdrum" detection writers as accomplished literary artists. Not only did they produce a goodly number of fine fair play puzzles, but their clever tales have more intrinsic interest as social documents and even sometimes as literary novels than they have been credited with having”.


The novel discussed here is a locked room, rather unusual. In fact the crime perpetrated is the murder of Sir Gerard Uppingham in his mansion by prussic acid poisoning. Why am I talking about an unusual case? Because usually when we talk about locked rooms, cases of disappearances, murders, thefts perpetrated in a strictly defined and closed space are mentioned, and because all these crimes can be worth being considered in this genre, it is it is necessary that the criminal action has been carried out personally in the closed space, and then the murderer has managed to escape, maintaining the limit situation, i.e. the effective closure of doors and windows; poisoning, on the other hand, does not necessarily presuppose a direct action by the murderer in the closed room, i.e. his presence at the time of the victim's death, because poisoning can be prepared first, and then let the victim, drinking or eating something , dies, like a rat in a trap. Normally. But here the poisoning is served up in an absolutely ingenious way, which does not exclude the presence of the murderer.

This is one of the two cornerstones on which the novel rests. The other is being a classic whodunnit, where motive and killer must be reasonably identified and proven.

Sir Gerard Uppingham is an industrialist who made his fortune mining albanite, a mineral used to generate light in lamps. Although he is rich and respected, however, he is not loved. He is not loved by his partners Somerton-Jackson and Tibbott, but not even by his fiancée to whom Muriel Featherleigh is promised, and especially by his future brother-in-law Rupert; even her sister Elvira doesn't show much attachment; and also his secretary Percy Richards has an ambiguous attitude towards him. But everyone, and especially Lord Cossington and his sons Muriel and Rupert, should be far from having a grudge against him because Cossington's family is on the verge of ruin and therefore only Muriel's marriage to Sir Henry could restore sixth the family; yet only the old Lord shows himself not averse to his future son-in-law. The fact is that in such an environment, one evening when everyone or almost everyone was invited to dinner, and there was also a moment when the wife of one of the envoys played Beethoven on the piano, he was found locked in his study , Sir Gerard Uppingham, died of prussic acid poisoning. Doors (3) and French windows, closed, except for the one forced by Somerton-Jackson, Tibbott and Percy Richards, the secretary of Uppingham.

The three immediately call the family doctor, Doctor Emery, who had also been to the evening at first, leaving immediately afterwards. He diagnoses Uppingham's death and suggests calling the police, as he believes death is not natural. It appears that the vehicle is a bottle of cough syrup, to which a generous amount of hydrogen cyanide has been added to kill in seconds. And therefore its content was poured by the murderer or by the victim himself into the glass, but there is no trace of saliva on the rim of the glass which therefore would not appear to have been used for poisoning. Then how?

Another strange thing are the glasses of port, wine and whiskey that the landlord had asked his butler to have found in the study and which lead the investigators, Sir Lancelot Priestley and Superintendent Hanslet, to doubt whether Uppingham should have hosted for discuss not only Somerton-Jackson and Tibbott, but a fourth character as well. By any chance a certain John Woodville, who seems to have arrived in the village but no one knows where he went?

To identify the culprit, it is necessary to establish the Cui Prodest, i.e. the motive. Apparently no one would have one. But the strange thing is that at the time of the industrialist's death, very few, practically only Lord Cossington, are saddened by his death and indeed are relieved by it.

Hanslet soon discovers  the victim had not only impregnated a village girl while he was engaged to Muriel, but had also attempted to have sex with Somerton-Jackson's wife while he was busy at the factory. Therefore, Somerton-Jackson himself would have a motive, but also Rupert and perhaps even Muriel. Only Lord Cossington seems to be sad, because it seems that with the marriage he would have become director of a company, he who had squandered his and his wife's assets in horse bets, and would have revived the family finances, by virtue of a new will that Uppingham he would sign on the day of the wedding. He would have gained new liquidity, the other his noble title. But the sudden death made the second will invalid, so with the first, Uppingham's sister, Elvira, who inherits everything, gained everything. And then you add her to the others for motive. Moreover, hers is double: to inherit the fortune and to prevent another person from inheriting it. Uppingham is linked to Percy Richards, and this must be evaluated because he is the one who says he brought a bottle of syrup even though she was stolen from him (he says so). Furthermore, the issue of telephone calls is linked to Richards: he says that a telephone call was received at 10.15 pm of which no one knows anything, while he claims that he has not heard any telephone calls ringing, while from the telephone company it is learned that this call was arrived at 10.43pm. And in those moments, the doctor said that Sir Gerard presumably died.

The investigation goes on. Someone, the phantom John Woodville, sent a crate to the factory containing raw albanite. Hanslet learns here that Somerton-Jackson took potassium cyanide a few days before Sir Gerard's death (cyanide is produced from cyanide gas produced by processing albanite), and is about to issue a warrant for Somerton-Jackson's arrest , when Dr. Priesley intervenes and upsets everything: no syrup was found in the victim's stomach, yet it was in the syrup that a small amount of concentrated prussic acid was dissolved. Furthermore, the victim could not bear the smell of bitter almonds and therefore would never have drunk a syrup that had that smell. So it follows that the syrup was put to mislead, it's a red herring. The victim was killed by hydrogen cyanide and that's for sure, but how? Slowly one begins to think that it was inhaled in the form of anhydrous gas, but this leads to the possibility that someone made him inhale it (so how would it have come out?) and then the Locked Room problem reappears, or that it is a deadly mechanism has been set up. Somerton is still among the suspects, because hydrogen cyanide can also be obtained by the reverse process from potassium cyanide. But..

Here's a twist! Her wife, with whom Uppingham wanted to have sex with, accuses herself of the murder, without however providing evidence of her action, and therefore making her suspect that she wants to cover for someone, perhaps her husband. But the husband also adopts a similar or almost similar tactic: isn't he in turn suspicious of his wife?

However beyond these true or false confessions, the investigations go on and lead to the discovery of…a cork in Uppingham's studio. Together with the testimony of the person behind the pseudonym of John Woodville, that is Lemaitre, the president of the French national company competing with the British one of Uppingham in the exploitation of albanite, according to which he was the fourth person waiting for Uppingham that evening been killed, will provide the clues that will lead Dr. Lancelot Priestley (and Superintendent Hanslet of Scotland Yard), to detect the killer.


Beyond a certain tortuosity in the first part of the novel (to arrive at the decision that it was certainly a matter of murder, one would expect almost 100 pages), this one by Rhode is a good novel! Even if the undersigned to the murderer and the accomplice got there 50 pages earlier, even before the cork was found. Call it sixth sense? I don't know. However, the memory of another novel made me think, if I'm not mistaken later (I don't remember which one it was: ah the memory !) in which the culprit was the same, and for the same thing, he hadn't initially been considered among the suspects. And furthermore he is a character who later becomes known, he frequented Govery Manor, the residence of Lord Cossington.

The absolutely ingenious weapon, and I would never have thought that such an object could be used to kill, but if anything.. to pass the fever! And the cork goes well with the rest. After all, it is a characteristic of Rhode, that of inventing mechanisms capable of killing, which can be derived from the fact that he had been an officer in the English army. A direct consequence of Rhode's origin, it is an object the killer uses to get himself invited to Uppingham's house. Using hydrogen cyanide gas as a weapon, on the other hand, is nothing new: in fact it had already been used six years earlier, in what some consider Rhode's masterpiece (but was it really?): The Murders in Praed Street. If anything, the medium changes: there a light bulb, here…

The Locked Room is only apparent, because the door through which the assassin enters and exits is provided with a snap lock, however how we arrive at conjecturing his presence and how he managed to get himself invited and how he killed, is a nice to say. The clues are there, and the culprit doesn't just fall from the sky, because he is present throughout the story, several times; if anything, his motive does not spring directly from the facts, which is, for once, not greed, hatred, revenge, but… love. And we get there, only per absurdum.

But then it is said that by reasoning in this way, one cannot catch the culprit.

Pietro De Palma

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Margaret Erskine: The Voice of Murder, 1956


Margaret Erksine (aka Margaret Doris Wetherby Williams), wrote 21 detective stories featuring Inspector Septimus Finch, between 1938 and 1977. She was born on May 2, 1901 in the city of Kingston, Ontario, Canada but grew up in Devon, England. She died on July 9, 1984.
One might think that she was of Canadian origins, but this is not the case: her parents were temporarily in Canada and therefore she was born there, but in reality they were English: her father was Thomas Wetherby Williams and her mother Elizabeth Erskine. On her father's side he was descended from Thomas Williams (1737-1802), the great copper baron of Llanidan on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales, while on her mother's side from the Erskines, a noble Scottish family, related to the Stuarts. Indeed, it is very probable that she herself descended from that Margaret Erskine who was the lover of James V of Scotland, father of Maria Stuarda.
Why did Margaret Erskine, then 30, start writing detective novels in 1937? Mysteries scholar Ellen Nehr said in 1984 that she Margaret Erskine had once said she did it as a form of revolt against her family by her name.
Margaret Erskine later became a member of the Crime Writers Association, and she died in a nursing home in 1984 (news learned on Curtis Evans' The Passing Tramp blog).
Voice of Murder is a 1956 novel and is the ninth in the series.

Alice Carne is 48 years old and still a beautiful woman. She writes a letter in the evening. The next morning they find her dead. His doctor Stephen Leighton is forced to report his suspicions to the police: namely that Alice was murdered, by poisoning with an opiate, which later turns out to be morphine: someone had taken the pills of the late Miss Page (the housekeeper) , forcing the cabinet where they were placed. Augusta Parrish, Miss Alice's niece on her mother's side, witnessed part of Alice's speech the night before, before writing the letter (which has since disappeared), to an individual she identified as Dominick Potter, former fellow soldier and friend of Charles Forrest, cousin of Augusta, rescued by Dominick during the conflict, although he died anyway. Alice would have been scandalized because she thought that he and Barbara, the woman she lives with, were married and instead they are not, since she is even married to another man.
Inspector Septimus Finch is called to investigate, the seventh of seven brothers, son of lawyers, but who had made his entire career as a simple agent earning the esteem of his superiors and ending up working in the CID. Finch, together with Sergeant Gilroy, will unravel the skein and catch a diabolical assassin, but not before he has killed two more times, removing dangerous witnesses, and who are also attempting on Augusta's life, in a pyrotechnic finale, in which one time the other possible suspects will be set aside.
The story will end with a pink ending.
Very fine and elegant writer, Margaret Erskine wrote stories that often concern family mysteries, with dark secrets that peep out: here there are extramarital affairs that intertwine.
Very skilled in plotting, and in the psychology of the characters, she mixes mystery and thriller in an irresistible amalgam. In Anglo-Saxon countries, her novels have been defined as gothic, not really being so, because they are real detective stories, despite the trappings sometimes enriching them with gothic elements (sleepwalkers walking in their dressing gowns in the moonlight, for example). Even if "gothic" is an adjective not exactly fitting. Of course, in the sixties and seventies, when Margaret Erskine's books were successful again, there was a fashion for books and films that sometimes even bordered on the pseudo-erotic-horror genre. And therefore, they defined her series with Finch, gothic. In reality, the gothic atmospheres of her novels do not arise as they refer to this neo-gothic vein, even cinematographic, but much earlier: since the end of the 30s and in the 40s and 50s, when Margaret wants to instill fear and tension always describes nocturnal landscapes, with the sounds and colors of the night; and this tendency to recover this type of fear of the dark is in her an effect of having read about her in her youth, the many books about her that her father's enormous library had made available to her.
We do not know if she had read the ghost stories of Henry James, of Montague Rhode and those of vampires and doppelgangers of Joseph Le Fanu; it is certain that Margaret Erskine, she had appropriated that way of writing, of evoking dark and nocturnal atmospheres, which only in this way already instilled fear in her pages.
We don't know if she had read John Dickson Carr or J.J. Connington, but it is certain that, like them, he knew how to nonchalantly master the tremors, sighs and gasps, and not only the song of hoopoes and owls, but also of other birds, if done at night, becomes an omen of misfortune: it is no coincidence that , Aunt Alice's death, happens when? Late at night. And when she sees a barred, swollen face that she tries to peer at it from outside the kitchen window? Late at night. When it's dark. And when she distinctly feels that there is someone behind her watching her, while she is writing the letters with which she offers herself to the police as a witness, and when she comes out onto the landing, what do she see? The darkness that swallows her. And she is afraid. Because she suspects that there is someone watching her in her shadow. And she's not wrong, because a few minutes later when she comes back, her letter has disappeared from the desk.
Psychological depth is another of the strengths of her novels and in this she is immediately noticeable: everything is the opposite of everything. No one can be said to be innocent until Finch puts him aside. Each subject is what he says he is, but also what he doesn't say he is: Alice hates Timothy in words, and Timothy hates Alice in words, because she cheated on him by putting herself with another. But.. then they get married, secretly. And someone kills them. But not for the money motive. The motive of money, even if it is waved wide, is not the right one. Here the one of the Deep South stirs, of the shame of a secret union, of the amorality of a union more uxosio which is not matrimonial. Of course everyone would give a damn about the bigoted morals of the not even fifty-year-old Alice, if they didn't all depend on her, for her money: Gordon and her wife, to open a bigger school for handicapped children; Dominick Potter for the bequest of five thousand pounds; Pauline Forrest, to continue spending on hats, perfume, purses, shoes and dresses; Augusta and her mother for the bequest of twenty thousand pounds.
It won't be Augusta, the fourth failed victim, who remembers the words that the killer thinks he heard and instead didn't hear because he was already shocked by the revelation of his aunt, that his father had killed himself out of shame for an extramarital affair revealed by anonymous letters, she fled to the first floor and locked herself up in her room. But Barbara, Potter's shameless companion who, having followed her companion to Alice, will reveal the last words of the assassin nailing him to her responsibilities. 
Furthermore, the reading and the sentimental ending with Augusta leaving, together with a gloating Septimus Finch, brought back to mind the plot of another novel, from twenty years earlier: Artists in Crime, by Ngaio Marsh. In truth, not only does Margaret Erskine describe situations, places and subjects in Marsh's way, but it seems to me that she also takes from Marsh the love between a CID Inspector and the heroine of the moment: there Roger Alleyn and Agatha Troy, here Septimus Finch and Augusta, an event certainly not usual in detective literature.
Historical courses and appeals.
Pietro De Palma 
Lots of news, about Margaret Erskine, on Curtis Evans' blog, The Passing Tramp