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The Claverton Mystery

Page history last edited by J F Norris 11 years, 9 months ago

Rhode, John -- The Claverton Mystery (1933) aka The Claverton Affair


Review by Nick Fuller


One of Rhode's undoubted classics. Dr. Priestley is both mentally and physically alert as he investigates the death of his friend Sir John Claverton, which turns out to be a near-perfect murder. Indeed, so foolproof and unproveable is the method used that Priestley is forced to resort to a theatrical (if effective) séance to extract a confession, and one wonders whether the murderer would have been suspected had he not been forced by the conditions of Claverton's will to attempt a second and obvious murder. Surprisingly for Rhode, the interest does not lie wholly in the plot, for the writing is excellent, both drawing original characters (the Littlecotes and Dr. Oldland - Rhode could draw character, but his regulars, such as Merefield, became more stick-like as time went on) and steeping the book in spiritualistic gloom.


The Claverton Mystery (1933), recently acquired at a used-book store, has an almost apologetic yet still defiant Introduction by H.R.F. Keating:


“It is a mistake (and one that I myself have committed precisely in the case of John Rhode) to categorize a writer as dull simply because he has written a number of dull books. But certainly Major Cecil Street, who between the years 1924 and 1961 produced no fewer than 78 detective stories under the name John Rhode as well as 63 as Miles Burton, could be astonishingly dull.”


Nevertheless, Keating feels that The Claverton Mystery is “‘a book to hang on to’...the unthinking blanket condemnation of an assumed dullness is in all probability the reason why Dr. Lancelot Priestley, eminent scientist, hobbyist investigator, has as a detective largely disappeared from sight.” (And one wonders who it was that spread that “unthinking blanket condemnation of an assumed dullness...”)


Keating feels that Dr. Priestley has all the essentials necessary to be a Great Detective, especially “the quality, I believe, that made such figures so widely popular for so long: their being creatures of myth. He, or rarely she, was more than an outstanding person. He was a person become a representation. He embodied something of the eternal human condition for us, and with him we were, and still are, enabled to make discoveries. They are discoveries about ourselves, no less. And none the less discoveries for being wrapped in the trappings of mere entertainment.”



The Claverton Mystery (1933)

by John Rhode

Selected and Introduced by H.R.F. Keating

Collins Crime Club: The Disappearing Detectives Series

Hardcover Reprint (no date; presumably post-1980)

206 pages




Introduction by H.R.F. Keating (3 pages)

16 Chapters (198 pages)




“Her voice was utterly dull and lifeless, contrasting oddly with the lithe vigour of her body.” (page 15)


“That queer kink in Claverton’s nature had not been straightened out.” (page 21)


“In each specimen I tested, there were abundant traces of arsenic.” (page 37)


“It was Dr. Priestley’s habit to look at matters from a common-sense point of view.” (page 41)


“Dr. Priestley smiled. ‘I am not superstitious myself,’ he replied. ‘But I believe I can understand something of what was at the back of Claverton’s mind.’” (page 57)


“No arsenic had been administered in this case. That’s a matter on which I’ll stake my reputation.” (page 73)


“From the nature of the case Dr. Priestley was condemned to work alone.” (page 83)


“In any case, a study of character could not be conducted from an arm-chair.” (page 100)


“What the devil could it matter to him whether Durnford married this girl or not?” (page 113)


“No amount of cross-questioning will ever get the truth out of her.” (page 126)


“But the truth is often silly, isn’t it?” (page 136)


“You mean somebody shot him?"

"That’s how bullets usually find their way into people’s anatomy.” (page 160)


“Claverton had been a worshipper of Respectability, that stern god who so mercilessly visits the sins of the father upon his children.” (page 162)


“Dr. Priestley felt that he was making very little progress. It was as though a veil had been drawn between himself and these people, through which their actions appeared indistinct and motiveless.” (page 183)


“As for the difficulty of proof, I believe that I have discovered a way of getting round that.” (page 186)


“The seance, which I had already determined upon, seemed to lend itself to the purpose.” (page 204)




An early entry in the series and definitely one of the better books.  Sir John Claverton calls Dr. Priestley to his claustrophobic and Gothic home in a part of London that is undergoing vast urban renewal.  When Priestley arrives he is surprised to find the household increased to four – there are three unknown people staying with Calverton.  We later discover they are his niece, nephew and the niece's mother – an odd woman who dabbles in being a medium.  Claverton tells Priestley a nearly incoherent story about his medicine and how a capsule went missing and that he suspects his butler of tampering with it.  Priestley then hears a story from Dr. Olderton, who is caring for his friend, who thinks his patient was being poisoned with arsenic by someone in the house.  Exactly two days later Claverton is dead.  A post mortem shows he died of a perforated stomach, but there is no sign of arsenic in his body or the last meal he consumed.  Nonetheless, Priestley suspects foul play.  The story involves a convoluted will that introduces two more characters, (Mrs. Archer and her daughter Mary) seemingly no relation to Claverton, who receive the bulk of his estate.  Who are they?  Why would Claverton change his will within a few days of his death to make them his primary heirs?  There is a weird séance sequence in which Mrs. Littlecote (the odd aunt) summons the spirit of Claverton and speaking in his voice reveals some secrets of the doctor and alludes to Claverton's death as a murder.  Really the book is chockfull of gripping scenes, is a lively story that rarely drags, compounding mystery upon mystery as Priestley slowly discovers that an ingenious plot (and a fiendish murder method) was concocted to murder Sir John and let the murderer escape almost undetected.  The final sequence in which the murderer is forced to confess takes place during yet another séance, but this one with some ghostly surprises concocted by Priestley.  (July 2010)


J.F. Norris


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