Several years ago, when I was first embarking on the endeavour of beginning a classic crime fiction collection, I was in conversation with a book dealer who had specialized in golden age detective fiction for many years. We were discussing, as we collectors are wont to do, the difficulties many readers encounter when trying to find the rarer books by their favourite authors. In the course of our discussion, he told me that until very recently, when he had seen one or two copies, he had always considered the UK edition of Death at the Dance to be the scarcest of all Rhode’s books. Whether that is true is debatable; Proceed with Caution, Death on the Track and Death at the Helm are among some others that are also notoriously rare and, before its reprinting by Harper Collins in the Detective Club Crime Classics series, I had only ever seen two copies of the first Dr. Priestley novel, The Paddington Mystery, for sale over a period of approximately 15 years – a strange situation when it was one so particularly suitable for reprinting. This situation is all the more regrettable when it prevents readers from having the opportunity to read these books without scouring the internet for months or sometimes years – or relying on dealers like my contact to hunt them out.
It was with a certain sense of irony then that, barely a week after the conversation mentioned above, I managed to secure a copy of this most rare of books from an unexpected source. Having now read it, I find myself lamenting even more its apparent rarity, as I believe it is on a par with anything from the last ten years of Rhode’s career – a period during which C. J. C. Street published 18 books under that pseudonym alone – and better than almost all of them. The story begins with the apparently motiveless murder of an insignificant woman called Mrs Dartford at the local dance – not in this case some kind of party held inside but a street parade which has been a tradition for many years in the country town where the novel is set. The death – by injection of an arsenic-based poison – brings Supt. Waghorn to the aid of the local police, who are already baffled by a series of daring robberies in the neighbourhood. Waghorn begins to suspect that the motive for the murder may be connected with the home that the woman owned – a sprawling property which used to be used for tin-mining but has fallen into a state of dangerous neglect but about which strange stories of buried treasure persist among some of the local inhabitants. When Mrs Dartford’s daughter Margery becomes the killer’s second victim Waghorn’s task becomes even more difficult but, thanks to a hint from Dr Priestley, he finds a clue, which helps him unravel not only the murders, but also the thefts that had mystified the local police.
Other reviewers, such as Barzun and Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime, have praised the ingenuity of plot but perhaps justifiably criticized the second half of the book as less successful than the first. Be that as it may this is still one of the best of his late books and devotees of Rhode will find this is well worth seeking out – and will hopefully discover that it is not as difficult to track down as it is reputed to be.
Dr. Lancelot Priestley # 55
Preceded by Death In Wellington Road
Succeeded by By Registered Post (US – The Mysterious Suspect)
No record of any modern reprint, ebook or audiobook has been traced by the reviewer.
First Edition Details
Originally published by Godfrey Bles, London 1952
Red Cloth Boards, pp 224, 8vo
Title and Author stamped in black on spine, separated by single line with double line above and below. Godfrey Bles and eagle motif stamped in black at bottom.
Front board plain.
Dustwrapper priced at 10s. 6d net on front flap.
Originally published by Dodd, Mead & Company, New York 1952
Red Cloth Boards pp 243, 8vo
Title and Author stamped in white on spine. Dodd Mead and Red Badge symbol stamped in white at bottom.
Red Badge symbol stamped in white on front board.
Dustwrapper priced at $2.50 on front flap.
R E Faust
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