Friday, 21 October 2016

Forgotten Book - The Motor Rally Mystery

The Motor Rally Mystery, first published in 1933, is a John Rhode novel featuring Dr Priestley. The context for the story is a round-Britain rally, evidently inspired by a real life counterpart, which sounds more like a feat of endurance than anything else. Drivers talk quite light-heartedly about falling asleep at the wheel, and when two bodies are discovered in the crashed car of a competitor, it seems to be the result of an accident.

The discovery is, however, made by a group of three men travelling in a rival car, one of whom happens to be Harold Merefield, Dr Priestley's secretary and general dogsbody. The good doctor is intrigued by the story of the car crash, and he and his old chum Superintendent Hanslet start to look into the circumstances. It begins to look as though it may not have been an accident - but how can the crash have been contrived deliberately?

At least half the book is devoted to attempts to answer this question, and you couldn't have a clearer illustration of the difference between this type of  Golden Age fiction and present day crime crime fiction. This is a story where Rhode's interest focuses almost exclusively on the ingenious scheme dreamed up by the killer (yes, I don't think it's giving away too much to say that this is a murder story!) at the expense of pretty much everything else.

I must admit that I rather lost the will to live as the doctor and his friends analysed tyre tracks. There's an odd paradox here, in that while certain technicalities are explored in excruciating detail, the introduction into the story of a character whose role clearly points to a potential murder motive is paid little or no attention. Even by the standards of Golden Age whodunits, Rhodes' lack of interest in characterising the culprit, and at least one other suspect, is striking. For good measure, he doesn't bother with a "fair play" plot, with Priestley conducting some of the key inquiries off stage. All in all, I was very disappointed with this one. A clever murder method can be a pleasing ingredient of a mystery, but here it's the be-all and end-all. I've only read a portion of John Rhode's output, but this is the feeblest book of his that I've read so far.


neer said...

Actually I quite enjoyed that "Love" in the telegram. :)

Ron Smyth said...

Clever murder methods are something in which Rhodes rather specialized. I recently read Death Sits On The Board and almost the entire book is simply a litany of ingenious murder plots and traps although I think he did a better job with characterization than in The Motor Rally Mystery.