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