Sunday, 24 August 2014

Penguin no. 98: The Murders in Praed Street
by John Rhode

Although the unexplained murders which had taken place in Praed Street were soon forgotten by the general public, their shadow hung heavily over the neighbourhood in which they had been committed...The police, under the direction of Inspector Whyland, were engaged in passing a fine-toothed comb through the Paddington district, and the minor offenders disturbed in the process were as concerned as a colony of ants unearthed by a spade. Mr. Ludgrove was visited furtively late at night by anxious people seeking advice how to conceal the evidence of their misdemeanours from the prying eyes of the police.

The murderer seems, at first, to be targeting shopkeepers. James Tovey, a 'Fruit and Vegetable Merchant', is killed on Praed Street as he returns from the only outing which could ever tempt him from his home on a wintry Sunday evening, and so it is immediately evident that this was no random crime, and that the killer has devoted time to the study of his victim. Tovey went out believing that he was needed at 'St. Martha's Hospital' as the only person able to identify the victim of a fatal accident.

And as there was nothing that Tovey enjoyed more on a Sunday evening than reading of the week's murders and accidents in the Sunday papers, the late-night phone call summoning him to the hospital has him fairly thrilled at the prospect of featuring in just such a story himself the following week. And so he does, but not in the way he had imagined.

London's Praed Street, which runs between Paddington Station and Edgeware Road, is introduced as 'not at any time one of London's brighter thoroughfares'. You are left with the impression that the whole area is rather seedy though perhaps improving, as just as Tovey had fashioned himself as a merchant of produce rather than as a greengrocer, his fellow shopkeepers have lately become merchants, purveyors and dealers. But John Tovey's final thoughts were on how satisfied he was about not being a resident of the street itself, with all its railway station-seeking crowds. He dies as he passes a public house when a slim paper-cutter's knife is pushed through his clothes, and into his heart.

And no one living within the vicinity of Praed Street can feel safe when the old baker Ben Colburn meets his end a few days later in even more unusual circumstances. He is poisoned by means of a shard of glass inserted into the stem of the pipe he smokes at the same time every afternoon; once again the murderer had studied his victim and taken advantage of one of his enthusiasms.

It doesn't end with these two: The Murders in Praed Street is the story of a serial killer, and the first part of the narrative describes the deaths of several men by varied and ingenious means. In the end the victims are not all shopkeepers, nor are the murders all committed in Praed Street, but a fair proportion fall into the two categories.

I doubt if there would be many readers who wouldn't recognise the motive underpinning these murders within the first few pages, and who wouldn't have identified the perpetrator by the time the third man is found dead. And while it is perplexing that all but one of the prospective victims fail to identify the pattern, the ease with which you can work out the solution doesn't undermine the enjoyment to be had from reading this story at all. It seemed to me that it only increased the tension, as you are forced to watch in frustration as the policemen assigned to the case draw one wrong conclusion after another, and then to watch in impotence as one of the characters puts himself into harm's way. The question of interest becomes not who is responsible for the murders, but how many murders will be committed before someone in the story works out what is going on.

And it is always clear that the person who will work this out will not be from Scotland Yard. The official investigator, unable to understand what is happening and why, soon settles upon a possible perpetrator and devotes his energies to considering the evidence only from the angle which supports the case he is building against him. It is only when Inspector Hanslet contacts Dr Lancelot Priestley, described as 'that eccentric scientist' but actually a retired Professor of Mathematics, that someone in the story manages to get something of the solution within his sights. Priestley identifies the motive within a day, but he also recognises that he too is a prospective victim.

I enjoyed this story because of the way it was told, with its several asides on the foibles and follies of man. And while The Murders in Praed Street may not be a Victorian novel, I thought the tongue-in-cheek passage quoted here captured something of its nature.

First published January 1928. Published in Penguin Books June 1937. This edition (the fourth impression) is yet another gift from Moira of Clothes in Books and was published in March 1938.


  1. I love your blog :) I really like your background. I've nominated you for a Liebster Blog Award. I hope you have the time to join in!

  2. Another great sounding book, :)

  3. Great review! I think you really aptly describe the appeal of John Rhode's books. By the way, I think this was the first fictional use of the particular plot gambit involved here.



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