Next, the puzzle and its attendant questions – whodunit, how, and why – drive the plot with few, if any, detours or cul-de-sacs. Additionally but importantly, the crimes on display fully meet the spirit of classic detective fiction: they are usually curious and colorful, and the death of a character (and that character’s personality) is considered and dispassionate enough that the dispatching can be viewed as part of the puzzle and not as a grievous loss to humanity. In short, the Rhode and Burton stories are often extremely pleasing examples of the genre, comfortable and competent and very easy to process and enjoy.
There is another admirable asset on display in Vegetable Duck that kept this reader engaged and turning the pages. As mentioned, the inciting puzzle at the start of the story is specific and central: how was Letty Fransham fatally poisoned during dinner, and who is responsible? But the author quickly provides multiple related mysteries, equally intriguing, that will help answer these questions and that need to be investigated on their own merits. And Street weaves his principal and supporting puzzle threads masterfully throughout the tale. Who provided a mysterious phone message that called husband Charles Fransham away just before dinner was served? What connection might the country shooting death of Mrs. Fransham’s brother years earlier (with fellow hunter Charles a prime suspect) have to the poisoning? And who has been sending crude letters to Charles promising revenge for the brother’s death? Could it mean that it was Charles and not his wife who was the intended victim?
All of these tangential mysteries pop up in the book’s first chapters, with more taking shape as the story continues and another murder is committed. The most celebrated aspect of Vegetable Duck is the clever method employed to saturate a marrow with digitalis, but its brilliance in revelation is dulled somewhat because the enigma is not teased or solved through reader-collected clues. Instead, it’s presented as a show-and-tell demonstration by Dr. Priestley in Chapter 12, and thus takes on the quality of a lecture instead of an intellectual question for the reader to pursue. The many other clues that line Duck’s garden path –from a belated letter in the post that might have rescued Letty Fransham from her deadly dinner to a disguised visitor to that Mundesley Mansions flat days earlier – are relevant and fair-play, and their contributions give the plot a satisfying and propulsive fullness.
What’s more, Street incorporates elements of one of the most perplexing true-crime stories ever told, the 1931 murder of Julia Wallace in her home. According to his testimony, a phone call from a stranger arranging an after-hours business meeting with William Herbert Wallace led him on a fruitless search for an address that didn’t exist. Upon returning home, he recruited a neighbor to help him with a front door that would not open. They found Julia Wallace dead by the hearth, her head battered and lying on her husband’s raincoat. The case seems to turn on the strange summons that got William out of the apartment: if the call was genuine, who would have arranged this? Or was the message – taken down the day before by a fellow member at Wallace’s chess club and given to him – from Wallace himself, setting up an alibi so he could commit murder? That alluringly mysterious phone call clearly intrigued the author; he used the concept here and in his later novel The Telephone Call (1948).
TomCat reminds me that botanical shenanigans can also be found in The Man Who Grew Tomatoes by Gladys Mitchell in his Duck review at Beneath the Stains of Time. Other blogs that have sampled this John Rhode dish include The Grandest Game in the World, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Martin Edwards’ Crime Writing Blog, The Passing Tramp, and Pretty Sinister Books.