“An affair like this is like a jigsaw puzzle. As soon as you get the first few pieces put together, the rest fall into their places quite naturally.”
No one likes Victor Harleston, least of all his sister Janet, who is desperate to escape his control. So when Victor drops dead during a breakfast prepared by Janet, Scotland Yard naturally takes an interest. Poison in the teapot and a bottle of deadly nicotine in Janet’s bedroom appear to make this an open and shut case.
Yet somehow it all looks a little too easy for Superintendent Haslet’s liking. A second murder seems to prove his instincts correct. Along with Inspector Jimmy Waghorn and the brilliant amateur detective Dr Priestley, Haslet must learn how very deceiving appearances can be.
With the cooler days of autumn approaching, I’ve been craving an intellectual puzzle mystery, and this seemed likely to fit the bill. Though I’ve read a few of the books Cecil Street published under his other pseudonym, Miles Burton, Death at Breakfast is my first encounter with Dr. Priestley and friends. The results are mixed.
The early chapters are hugely promising, as we are introduced to Victor, surely one of the most hateable victims of all time. While he dresses, Victor happily anticipates a financial windfall. “Money,” he reflects, “was a precious thing, to be carefully hoarded. There was only one way in which a rational man was justified in spending it. The purchase of freedom for himself, and of servitude for others.” By “others,” he largely means Janet, his downtrodden half-sister. Victor’s cold-blooded appraisal of Janet’s position in his home is chilling. “Dependent upon him for every mouthful she ate, every shred she wore. It was a delicious thought. He could dispose of her as he pleased.”
It’s quite a relief when Victor meets a nasty demise. His death is initially blamed on the early-morning tea served by his sister, but Haslet and Jimmy cleverly deduce another way the poison could have been introduced. This is just about the last clever thing they’ll do. None of this does anything to clear Janet or her other brother Philip, both of whom loathed Victor. Jimmy in particular is convinced of their innocence, but unable to make a case against anyone else. The investigation is at an impasse until a second crime takes place, even more baffling than the first.
At least, it’s baffling to Jimmy and Haslet. Dr. Priestley and I solved the crimes early on, which made all this scrambling around after tide charts and currency serial numbers just a trifle dull. If this had resulted from Rhode successfully misleading the reader along the way to a stunning conclusion, all would have been forgiven. Alas, that is not the case.
Jimmy frequently laments that they keep finding more clues without coming any closer to a solution. What he actually means is that the new clues aren’t bringing them any closer to their preferred solution, which is something else altogether. Come on, Jimmy, if your evidence doesn’t fit the theory, change the theory to fit the evidence! What follows is a dramatic reconstruction of his every conversation with Dr. Priestley.
Haslet/Jimmy: We’re definitely sure X is the solution. Help us prove it!
Dr Priestley: Um, no. Please check this very specific thing.
Haslet/Jimmy: We’re definitely sure X is the solution. Help us prove it!
Dr. Priestley: Did you check that thing I asked you about?
Haslet/Jimmy: No, but that doesn’t matter, because it has nothing to do with X.
Dr. Priestley: FML.
That said, a lot of good old-fashioned police work gets them there in the end. The first third of the book is especially strong in this, as both Haslet and Jimmy get to shine through their careful examinations of the crime scene.
Death at Breakfast is a decent read, let down by a saggy middle section. The early chapters do show that the author is capable of setting up intriguing characters and situations, while keeping a detailed investigation moving along. On the basis of that, I’m excited to try more from John Rhode.
In Search of the Classic Mystery
It’s a fun read, though, dragging a little in the middle third, but it’s nice to see some continuity, with Waghorn mentioning that he’s not going to make the same mistakes that he made in a recent case – I’m guessing in the preceding Mystery At Olympia – something that is not often seen in Golden Age supporting characters. The police really are a bit dim at times here, although, to be fair, their insistence on some characters’ guilt actually does make sense.
That murder method is quite cleverly devised and while the methodical approach to the investigation means that the reader will likely reason out the solution much faster than the detectives, I enjoyed reading how Jimmy was carefully piecing the elements together. There are some similarly strong investigation sequences in the middle third of the book, though I do agree with Puzzle Doctor that there is some dragging as the investigators put forward multiple explanations of how a crime may have been managed. I think though that the problem is that the investigators have obviously failed to consider every reading of the evidence at that point so if you are already aware of an alternate reading of that evidence, the reader may feel impatient for the detectives to catch up with them.
This is golden age detective fiction at its purest. No romance sub-plots, no time wasted on characterisation, just an intricate plot that works like clockwork and a remorselessly logical detective (although despite his devotion to logic I personally find Priestley to be quite entertaining as a character). Death at Breakfast achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve. Highly recommended.
Death at Breakfast is available in paperback and ebook format from HarperCollins
4 thoughts on “Death at Breakfast (1936) by John Rhode”
Of the recent Rhode reprints, this is the one I’m possibly least iterested in…and I’m really not sure why. I enjoyed Invisible Weapons and Death in the Tunnel, and I have Mystery at Olympia on my TBR ready to go, but for somereason this one does not interest me. Weird. Maybe I’ll feel differently after MAO, who knows, but the slightly repetitious nature of the blinkered investigation you outline above doesn’t exactly compel me to check this out.
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It’s too bad this first batch of reprints doesn’t seem to have any masterpieces. I can only assume they were selected on the basis of whether their covers featured middle-aged men with goofy facial expressions.
This one is…fine. The killer first chapter is what really made me sit up and take notice, so you might just read the sample on Amazon and call it a day.
Haha, noted. Though years from now I’ll have been bitten by the Rhode bug, and will be cursing my lack of foresight in failing to buy a readily-available edition of something I’m then required to fork out silly money for.
And, I mea, it’s not like I’m not already going through that with Freeman Wills Crofts. So it would appear that I’m one of those people who never learn…
The eternal problem! I actually got rid of a bunch of unread Crofts books years ago because the one that I tried was boring. (That was before I learned you have to try more than one before giving up on an author.) Kicking myself for it now.
So really, the only fiscally responsible thing is to buy more books at every opportunity.
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