Cecil John Charles Street, who wrote as Miles Burton and John Rhode, published more than 120 mysteries in his lifetime. My last encounter with his work was A.S.F., a book notable as much for its massively elaborate drug-smuggling tactics as its excellently-named villain, and good fun.
I was prompted to pick up another Rhode by a) the British Library’s attractive new edition of High Eldersham, and b) the Puzzle Doctor’s #IreadRhode month, which I hereby gatecrash…
Curtis Evans argues that Rhode possessed a ‘genial, worldly and intelligent personality‘ which came through in his stories, and that he offered ‘an engaging grounding in solidly English settings’ – especially the pub. Despite his plain style, he had a sense of the odd (best demonstrated by his use of a green hedgehog as an instrument of death). Both tendencies are at play in High Eldersham.
We begin with the stabbing of a retired copper, now running a pub in the remote coastal village of High Eldersham. Village bobby Viney is obviously out of his depth, as are the local detectives, and so the chief constable calls in Scotland Yard to be baffled.
To be frank, Scotland Yard is baffled rather too quickly. In fact Inspector Young has barely lifted a finger – following up a total of one lead – before he calls in the cavalry in the form of his erudite friend Desmond Merrion.
It’s a good job he does, though, because High Eldersham has a mystery that goes deeper than the murder of a single publican. The discovery of a gruesome object in a parlour puts Merrion on the track of a conspiracy involving the entire village.
Merrion is described as a living encyclopedia, but actually he is much more a man of action, and clearly in the dilettante detective mode. Despite Merrion’s ostensible lack of qualification, Inspector Young rates him so highly that he gives him pretty much free rein, and so Merrion leads a lesiurely investigation in the vacuum left by the Yard. His theory means he can only really detect on particular evenings, so he has plenty of time on his hands, some of which he occupies by falling in love with daring local girl Mavis Owerton.
There is also a bit of Riddle of the Sands (or Swallows and Amazons) mucking about on the water and observation of mysterious comings and goings. About half-way through, I realised that the murder of the pub landlord was only being investigated in the most tangential way. They do get there in the end, but I think his family would have every reason to complain about police negligence.
As I pointed out in my review of A. S. F., Rhode wrote at an even clip and Eldersham is never boring. Merrion and his sidekick Newport are a likeable pair (and went on to star in 59 stories). Put aside the slightly silly plot, and this is another good slice of Golden Age entertainment.
If you want to learn more about Rhode than Martin Edwards’ introduction can supply, I suggest getting hold of Curtis Evans’ Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.
The Secret of High Eldersham
First published in the UK by Collins, 1930
This edition, The British Library, 2016
Source: Review copy (thanks!)
Final destination: A keeper
Still very much looking for the ideal Burton / Rhode jumping on point, but this might be close methinks!
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It’s more on the thrillerish side, which can be a plus or minus according to one’s own lights. Interestingly puzzle purist Jacques Barzun selected it for reprinting of all the Burtons.
Thanks for the mention of the book, Rich, I am hoping we will see more reprints of Street. Obviously I think he merits it or I wouldn’t have devoted so much space in that book to him!
I like him so far. It takes a certain kind of chap to begin a thriller with half a chapter on brewery management…
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OK, maybe not the right one for me – the criteria of course includes affordability 🙂
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Sounds fun – I can barely keep up with these BL mysteries! 🙂
I have a copy of this which I’ll be getting to soon. Yes the Scotland Yard presented in these books is quite a different animal isn’t it.
There’s an aspect of this book which is never discussed in ANY of the reviews I’ve glanced at. It’s the only reason the book was interesting to me. I’m tempted to bring up some 1970s movie analogies but I guess I’ll refrain from even hinting at it since the part of the plot is apparently considered a spoiler by the masses. It’s not even mentioned on the plot blurb of the reprint though it is mentioned in the marketing material for the book when it was first sold in 1930. Very odd to me.
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You’ve got me wondering now….. don’t suppose you could add a link to the marketing material? Then that way those who have read the book can find out what it is without it spoiling things for others.
I thought it might be a spoiler, is why. I kind of mentioned it in the Golden Age group on Facebook.
(assuming it’s the obvious secret of High Eldersham, and not a more secret secret)
I’ve been and checked the FB group and I am even more confused. Feel like I am being incredibly dim now and missing something totally obvious
I’ll make sure to copy the DJ blurb on my US edition from 1930, Kate, and send it to you in a private email. I’m not at home now. Maybe I’m making too big of a thing about it. You do mention it in passing on your review (“superstitious conspiracy of sorts”), but as Rich says it does relate to the title and is probably the reason why it has been skirted over. The behavior of the primary villain and his hold over the town is reminiscent of two movies I know very well both of which have occult aspects. OK, here I go…
The scene which stands out in my memory most prominently (I read this book over ten years ago, BTW) is almost identical to a scene in a 1970s movie called Race with the Devil. The conspiracy also reminds me of a much more well known cult movie that I prefer not to name. If you’ve never heard of the named movie nor seen it now you can go look it up on the internet to see the connection I’m so circuitously hinting at.
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Rich tweeted me so I think I know what you are on about now. I think I was overthinking it too much.
Can you copy me in John? You’ve piqued my interest too.
And the cover illustration is so cheerful and sunny, so people who are expecting garden party mystery may be a little surprised. I certainly talk about the other aspect in Masters, the book is one of the notable instances.
Yes, a run-down pub might have been more appropriate, if less commercially attractive…
Oh, #IReadRhode is going to last more than a month – especially if I decide to dip into the thirty-ish books in the Internet Archive… Glad you liked this one – it’s probably next on the list.
Rich, Street loved his pubs! There’s another one, Licensed for Murder, which has a lot on that subject.
By the way, Inspector Young never set the world on fire. He was replaced after one more book, with Inspector Arnold, who appears in a great many books with Merrion.
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