Friday, 13 June 2014

Forgotten Book - Vegetable Duck

John Rhode, like so many of his Detection Club colleagues, was fascinated by true crime, and he was one of those novelists (Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and recently P.D. James, are others) who was enthralled by the mystery surrounding the Wallace case. Did the mild-mannered insurance agent William Wallace batter his wife Julia to death with a poker, or was someone else guilty? To this day, there is not a total consensus. Sayers suspected he was innocent, but I'm not sure Rhode took the same view.

He adapted the case for fictional purposes in The Telephone Call in 1948, but he'd also made use of it four years earlier in Vegetable Duck, which is my Forgotten Book for today. Here is where I confess my ignorance - "vegetable duck" is apparently a delicacy of sorts, a marrow stuffed with mince, which happens to be the favourite foodstuff of one of the characters in the novel. I must admit, though, that I'd never heard of it. And it's not on the menu at any of the happily numerous pubs which do meals in this neck of the woods!

Rhode makes explicit reference, more than once, to the Wallace case in this book. The circumstances of the murder are very different from those in the original crime - you guessed it, the vegetable duck is poisoned - and the setting is a reasonably prosperous part of London rather than a northern city. But the type of "alibi" put forward by Wallace is used by the victim's husband here. Dr Priestley utters words of wisdom in the background, but the main detecting is done by a cop, Jimmy Waghorn, who often featured in Rhode stories.

I enjoyed this book. It was crisp and readable, and contained a number of points of interest. Rhode's technique means that I was able to spot the culprit on first appearance, but the means by which the dreadful deed were done remained unclear to me at that stage. "Means" fascinated Rhode rather more than they do me, or most other modern writers. But he was a capable performer, and this is a good example of his post-war work.


J F Norris said...

I think this is tour de force of Rhodes' specialty which as you mention is the murder method. I wish more contemporary writers were fascinated with that aspect of mystery writing. Guns and knives are more realistic and get the job done, but I still think the more fanciful detective novels of the past had the ability to mesmerize a reader with the writer's bold imaginative strokes and ingenious ways to dispatch a victim. Too many modern crime novels put me to sleep with their "gritty realism".

Martin Edwards said...

Hi John, delighted to hear from you as ever.I think there are two points here. One is "gritty realism", and I'd definitely agree that there is plenty of scope for fun and ingenuity in the detective story - impossible crimes being an example. As to unusual and complex murder methods, I think they have their place too. But speaking for myself, I've always had reservations about putting them at the centre of the story, rather than having them just as an incidental pleasure. I suspect the overwhelming majority of other writers, including those who aren't overly concerned about gritty realism, feel the same. Books where the central puzzle is about whodunit appeal more widely, I think, than puzzles about howdunit, and that is among the reasons why Christie, for instance, was always more popular than Rhode.

Ted said...

What a wonderful title! Unfortunately, we Americans will more easily find it under the blandly retitled - 'Too Many Suspects'.