Friday, 25 February 2011

Forgotten Book - Shot at Dawn

Shot at Dawn, first published in 1934, is a whodunit by John Rhode (real name, Major Cecil Street) and features Rhodes’ regular amateur sleuth, Dr Priestley, who is the original grumpy old man, attended by a secretary called Harold Merefield, who helps him to deliver solutions to murder cases to Scotland Yard’s Superintendent Hanslet.

This case concerns a man whose body is found sprawled on his motor cruiser, which has anchored in the River Ridding. Who shot him, and why? His fellow sailor appears to have been in a drunken stupor when the crime was committed. But has he got something to hide?

After a pleasing start, the story gets bogged down in a lot of stuff about tides, and at one point Dr Priestley even commands the hapless Harold to draw a graph to cast some light on the mystery! The graph is duly reproduced, and provides a clue to the solution, but suffice to say that this method of investigation is less than exciting.

Happily, there is a very good solution to the puzzle that redeems the story. A weakness, though, is that the precise, as opposed to generic, motive remains unclear. Rhode was more interested in the velocity of motor cruisers than in a criminal’s psychological motivation. Unlike me.


Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for this. I confess I haven't read much of Rhode's work. I had to chuckle at your final two sentences, though...

Maxine said...

I know this is heresy, but I found The Riddle of the Sands pretty much unreadable because of all its excessive detail about tides. As it is a short book, I persevered but I did not enjoy it that much and could not quite get why it was such a huge favourite with many...perhaps it is one of those "of its times" books.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It's what comes when you do too much research.

vegetableduck said...

Dorothy L. Sayers and other reviewers had a high opinion of this book. Sayers valued John Street's plotting skill and scientific knowledge, drawing on it for her "Have His Carcase" (she thanked him in the book for helping her with all the hard bits). I thought the scientific "twist" was brilliantly done (so did Sayers).

Back then some people liked science in mysteries. Street was following in the grand tradition of R. Austin Freeman (I know most people are going who? right now). Today people would much rather read copious literary quotations. C. P. Snow's "Two Cultures" thesis has been triumphantly vindicated. Michael Innes going on about seventeenth century English poets for pages interests people, Street on science, no. Whatever floats people boats, I say; but I'm just not sure why the one form in inherently intellectually superior to the other.

Street was most interested in plotting, but then so was Christie, on the whole. Yes, she wrote some books with more emphasis on character in the 1940s, but, then, interestingly, so did Street (see Death at the Helm or Murder M.D.). It was a trend of the time.

By the way, John Street did not want to be "Cecil." It seems people usually don't. Cecil Day Lewis always wanted to be called C. Day Lewis. Cecil in UK seemed to be rather like Myron, say, in the US.

Martin Edwards said...

As ever, thanks for your comments. Margot, I don't think you will find John Rhode as much fun as Agatha Christie, but he does have some merit.
Maxine, I'm ashamed to admit I have never read that one, but as I know your tastes are often similar to mine, I won't hurry to fill that particular gap in my reading!

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, on my rather limited reading of him, I agree that he was pretty good at plot. I am no scientist, but I don't mind books with some science in the plot, as long as I can make sense of it without becoming bored. I did see quite a bit to admire in this story, but felt deeply frustrated that we were never told the culprit's dark secret..

vegetableduck said...

Oh, Martin, mild spoiler:

I thought it was implied that one character in the book was a closeted homosexual. The writing was left sufficiently vague to suggest that possibility, anyway.

The outcome of the book struck me quite unique and original.

And I liked all the stuff on ballistics and tides. I always think of Street (or R. Austin Freeman) when I read P.D. James' comments about how Golden Age writers didn't know anything about science. I don't believe P.D. James ever read Street or Freeman!

People who like Agatha Christie and want to read something by this writer without as much science would be advised to read something in his Miles Burton line of books.

vegetableduck said...

On the matter of doing too much research, I think that's what some critics used to feel about Sayers in The Nine Tailors!

Bob Houk said...

Vduck: "Today people would much rather read copious literary quotations."

That certainly seems true of modern crime books, but look at the popularity of science-based detection on TV. Makes an interesting contrast.