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Books, Reviews

Friday’s Forgotten Books: The Claverton Affair, by John Rhode

08.21.15 | 4 Comments

Dr. Priestly had not seen his old friend Sir John Claverton in almost a year when he received a note asking him to come round for a visit. When Priestly arrives he finds that Clarverton’s sister Mrs. Littlecote and her adult daughter Helen have taken up residence, and Claverton’s nephew through his other sister, Durnford, is also lurking about.

Priestly sees Claverton soon enough, and learns he’s been ill for some time. Nothing serious, according to Dr. Oldland (a mutual friend). But Oldland is oddly insistent that he and Priestly share a car as they leave Claverton’s residence, and he soon makes the reason clear: Claverton is only just now recovering from a severe spell caused by arsenic. Oldland is unsure what to do about this – he can’t accuse anyone without at least some idea of who did it – so he asks Priestly to keep look in on old Claverton from time to time and see what he can turn up.

Unfortunately, they are too late. Claverton dies two days later from a gastric attack that bears the hallmark of arsenic. Priestly is convinced of this, and convinced he knows who is responsible, and is more than a little surprised to find out he is completely and totally wrong.

Author John Rhode belonged to a school of Golden Age writers in England who were more concerned with the mechanics of plot puzzles than with characterization or prose style. As Julian Symons said, “”Most of them came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it.” They were called the “humdrums”, and no book written by any of them could possibly have been more humdrum than The Claverton Affair.

No character in this story exhibits more personality than the precise amount called for by the plot. The prose is impeccably precise, and the events happen in a sensible order. The story doesn’t seem particularly dull, but neither is it particularly interesting. An episode of Dragnet has more suspense and more laughs. Halfway through I began to amuse myself by imagining Dr. Priestly speaking in the most pompous manner possible – Claude Rains, for example, in one of his aristocratic roles. This was much more entertaining than the book itself.

The mystery is eventually explained, at length, and the malefactor is brought to justice. But I can’t honestly recommend this book to anyone with more than an academic interest in it. Some books deserve to be forgotten.

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