Friday, 14 November 2014

Forgotten Books - Hendon's First Case

I've warmed to John Rhode, author of today's Forgotten Book, Hendon's First Case, which originally appeared in 1935. When I first read Rhode, a long time ago, I found his work less than enthralling, and this reaction chimed in with a widespread consensus that Rhode's work was rather dull. Julian Symons thought so,and so did Harry Keating, along with other good judges. Dissenters who argued Rhode's merits were heavily outnumbered. However, Barry Pike and Stephen Leadbeater were among his advocates years ago, and I recall lively discussion about Rhode and other "humdrum" writers at the Shots on the Page convention at Nottingham in the Nineties. Over the years, too, I noticed how eagerly sought after Rhode's novels are, and I started coming across collectors who not only liked Rhode, but were prepared to pay prices I found startling for some of his scarcer titles.

A few years ago, I decided to give him another try, and was more impressed. Perhaps you just have to be in the right mood to enjoy Rhode -although I think much depends on which book you read. He wrote far too much, and didn't take as much care over his writing as he did over the elaborate murder methods used by his criminals. I now think, however, that if you pick the right book, you can find plenty of interest in John Rhode, while Curt Evans in particular has sung his praises to such good effect that Rhode's fan base continues to grow..

For me, much of the appeal of Hendon's First Case lies in the light it casts on developments in police work. This was actually a very topical book indeed when it first came out. The eponymous Hendon is the police college that turned out a new breed of well-educated officer, and the theme of the story is the contrasting methods and outlooks of traditional policemen, such as Rhode's Superintendent Hanslet, and younger men like Cambridge-educated Jimmy Waghorn. In this story Waghorn makes his debut; he went on to become an important series character. Rhode explains the tensions between the old style of police work and the new, and does a very good job of integrating those tensions with the narrative.

The plot involves ptomaine poisoning, and there is a characteristically clever idea behind the crime at the heart of the novel. There is also extensive discussion of ciphers, although Rhode delves into too much detail here for modern reader tastes. Where the book falters is in the finale. Once the cunning scheme has been explained, Rhode (like his amateur detective Dr Priestley, who of course is even smarter than Hanslet and Waghorn put together) loses interest. The story is wrapped up in a perfunctory way, and the last few pages read as though written by a man desperate to meet a deadline (all writers know that feeling,but it's a big mistake to rush an ending.) Not a masterpiece, then, but a book that is clever, and noteworthy for the material about British policing..

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