A Bullet for Rhino (1950) by Clifford Witting

Witting is an author I tried for the first time in 2016, with Measure for Murder (1941). I remember enjoying this one and was keen to try more of his work. Yet like so many classic crime authors, his work was somewhat thin on the ground within the second-hand market. However, last week my luck finally changed when I came a listing on Ebay for three of his titles. I snapped it up in nano second, not least because they were all in the appealing yellow Hodder and Stoughton editions.

DI Harry Charlton is invited to an Old Boys’ Day at his school, Mereworth, and is invited to stay with old school chum, Sir James Hollander. Yet things are not quite so rosy in the Hollander household as they could be. James’ daughter Margot has become infatuated with a younger ex-pupil of Mereworth, Mark Longdon. Suffice to say he has something of a shady past and Margot’s parents are very upset with her determination to marry him and the reader soon shares their concerns as they learn through other characters what this shady past consisted of. One of these characters is the titular Rhino, a. k. a. Bernard Garstang. He too has something of a chequered history, especially if all the rumours are to be believed, and he is already aware that there are people in his past who would like to end his life. Heavy drinker, self-centred and armed, Rhino is a force to be reckoned with. He is using the school reunion as an opportunity to visit his estranged wife and his daughter, Diana. He is determined to have Diana come with him on his next posting to Port Douglas; a decision which also affects the Hollander household, as James’ son Gordon is head over heels in love with Diana and is resolute in following her wherever she goes. All of these connections are brought out over the two days coming up to the Old Boys’ Day and come to a head at the event itself. The title of the book somewhat gives away who is going to get killed, yet Rhino’s death does not take place until ¾ of the way through the narrative. A compressed police investigation follows, but all I will say is expect the unexpected!

Overall Thoughts

Whilst Witting deploys familiar mystery genre components e.g. the school milieu, when it comes to structure, he seems to be a bit more experimental. Perhaps not Richard Hull experimental, but certainly more than some classic crime writers. Although bear in mind that I have only read two of his books, so this impression could be completely wrong. So, if you’ve read a few more, feel free to correct me! Nevertheless, this slightly more creative approach to structure means that Witting confounds reader expectations in dropping the book’s murder so near the end. I was quite surprised by the number of pages that go into the pre-death scenes. On balance though I think he probably could have conveyed the necessary pointers from these scenes in a more concise format.

The opening scenes are some of the best in the book, as the reader gets to enjoy being a fly on the wall within the Hollander family. The parent/child dynamic is entertainingly portrayed and there is much humour afforded over men obsessed with model railways, (FYI you mustn’t call them toy trains!) Unfortunately, though, I don’t feel there is a character you can get behind especially. The younger generation is too busy making poor life choices, whilst the older crowd becomes so numerous that we only get a passing glance of them. DI Charlton would seem like the most likely candidate, but after the opening chapters he somewhat fades into the background. Cutting down the character list would probably have helped matters and in a similar way to The Body in the Library (1942), which I reviewed yesterday, there are an awful lot of policemen in this book. Too many policemen, in my opinion, make it hard to get behind one particular sleuth, especially if they’re all policemen and not got an amateur in the mix.

Now on to the compressed police investigation. Initially events suggest something along the lines of an inverted mystery, but then new evidence suggests otherwise. I found this to be an interesting angle and given the array of clues on offer, especially physical ones, this could have been developed to great effect. But alas the limited pages meant this aspect is weakly executed and in order to reach the ending in time, narrative shortcuts are taken. This weakened the puzzle aspect for me. Witting also deals the reader a very sharp red herring, but rather than feeling surprise and chagrin for having been duped, this reader, at any rate, felt some disquietude towards the final solution given. If I had a closer understanding of the protagonists, or had got attached to them, then the moral implications might have been more satisfactory. As it was, it left me feeling cold.

It is a shame to rate this book as I did, as it had many features which I think could have been better developed. But the overall execution thwarts reader satisfaction. Although perhaps the final surprise is perhaps in keeping with Witting, as an author, who also flips things upside down in Measure for Murder. Witting’s style as a mystery author doesn’t seem easy to pin down and as such still fascinates me. So, expect more Witting reviews!

Rating: 3.75/5

Just the Facts’ Ma’am (Gold Card): Means of Murder in the Title

15 comments

  1. I’ve read only a few Witting, four I think, maybe five. The best was Murder in Blue, the worst (easily) Mischief in the Offing which is feeble beyond belief. Catt Out of the Bag & There Was a Crooked Man were ok. Certainly Witting did try and experiment a little in his crime writing and I think would be worth republishing if the best of his books were chosen to begin with.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the review, which made me slightly relieved that I didn’t purchase it recently. I was tempted, but found the price somewhat steep.

    I’ve read “There Was A Crooked Man”, which was largely fairly clued and enjoyable – but I wasn’t especially gripped. It seems like bloggers are divided as to what is the “best” of Clifford Witting: I’ve read a few posts postulating different titles. Some say “Catt Out of the Bag” is his absolute best; others suggest “Measure for Murder”.

    Thanks for the review!

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  3. I’m an avowed Witting fan. Which are the other books in that batch of Witting you snagged on eBay? I think Subject—Murder is one of his best, if not the absolute best of his detective novels. I’ve only read four titles of the eight I own and enjoyed them all, some more than others. After The Case of the Busy Bees (1952) which I was not crazy about he tended to lose his flair for originality. BUSY BEES is like ersatz Edgar Wallace. It’s the least recommended of his books. Since it’s as rare as a platypus in Wisconsin it won’t be too difficult to pass up.
    I have four more Witting mystery novels in my TBR pile and should sneak one into my reading before the year comes to a close. Steven (Puzzle Doctor) managed to find a copy of Dead on Time and he enjoyed it, almost a rave from him. I was happy since I was pushing Witting on him (and anyone else who would listen) as a good example of a fine writer who writes genuine traditional detective novels. I also have a copy of that hard to find book and ought to read that one soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alas Subject-Murder is not one of the ones I got. But at least I avoided Busy Bees it seems. Along with Rhino, I got Catt out of the Bag and Midsummer Murder. Have you read either of these two? You must have a very enviable TBR pile. Hope you do manage to review a Witting soon, as I feel like he’s an author who hasn’t got much of a presence online, in comparison to some others. Lack of a reprint is probably the biggest reason why.

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      • I’ve read Catt Out of Bag. That’s my second favorite. It’s got a Christmas theme so it’s very timely for next month. Mystery of a man who disappears from small village’s street while carol singing door to door.

        I think I was the first person to write extensively about Witting. Prior to my reviews which began in 2013, there was only a brief two paragraph review on one of his last books taken from a fanzine and uploaded to Mystery*File where EVERYONE who wrote mystery fiction is covered at least once. I only discovered him thanks to a sidebar on “10 Overlooked and Underappreciated Mystery Writers” created by Douglas Greene and found in the crime fiction literary criticism anthology THE FINE ART OF MURDER.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I will try my best to read Catt out of the Bag next month, given the thematic appropriateness. Otherwise knowing me I’ll end up arriving at it during the Summer. I’ll definitely need to check out your reviews. I’ve also been given a copy of an interview Witting did, so hopefully I’ll read that in conjunction with my next Witting read.

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