Celebrating a prolific detective novelist with three pseudonyms

The creator of academic sleuth Dr Priestley also invented Eric the Skull

Cecil Street, whose pen names included John Rhode
Cecil Street, whose pen names
included John Rhode 

The writer known as John Rhode, who wrote 72 detective novels featuring the academic turned amateur detective, Dr Priestley, was born as Cecil John Charles Street 138 years ago today in Gibraltar.

Street also wrote 61 Desmond Merrion crime novels under the pseudonym Miles Burton and several detective stories under the pen name Cecil Waye.

He served as an artillery officer in the British Army  and during World War I became a propagandist for MI7, rising to the rank of Major.

After the war, Street worked in both London and Dublin as an Information Officer during the Irish War of Independence.

Street produced his first detective novel, The Paddington Mystery, featuring Dr Priestley, under the pseudonym John Rhode in 1925. He then wrote at least one Dr Priestley novel a year, sometimes more.

Writing as Miles Burton, his Desmond Merrion novels began in 1930 and went on until 1960. He also wrote other non-series novels, short stories, radio plays, stage plays and non-fiction.

The Dr Priestley books are classics of scientific detection, with the elderly academic demonstrating how apparently impossible crimes have been carried out.

In The Paddington Mystery, a young man, Harold Merefield, returns to his lodgings in the early hours after visiting a night club to find the dead body of a man lying on his bed. Although an inquest gives a verdict of death by natural causes, Harold finds his reputation is tarnished as a result of all the publicity and he is determined to solve the mystery to prove the death had nothing to do with him.

The great Dorothy L Sayers,  pictured with Eric the Skull
The great Dorothy L Sayers, 
pictured with Eric the Skull
He turns to an old friend of his father’s, Professor Lancelot Priestley, a mathematician, for help. Dr Priestley is an armchair detective, who sometimes helps the police. He solves mysteries through logical reasoning, guided by facts and facts alone, not by flashes of intuition or guesswork. Some of the scenes, where Dr Priestley, does most of the talking because he hates to be interrupted, seem long and unexciting, but as he considers each fact on its merits and chooses to accept it, or discard it, he takes the characters and the readers nearer and nearer to the truth.

Dr Priestley was an immediate success with the public and Street, as John Rhode, quickly produced another six novels about his cases.

By 1930, Street was no longer just a distinguished, retired army Major, he had written 25 books under various pseudonyms and he was still only 45 years old. 

Street was a founding member of the prestigious Detection Club in 1930, where crime writers dined together regularly to discuss their craft. He edited Detection Medley, the first anthology of stories by members of the club and also contributed to the club’s first two round robin detective novels, The Floating Admiral and Ask a Policeman, along with other distinguished writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers.

Perhaps Street’s most important contribution to the club was Eric the Skull, which he wired up with lights so that the eye sockets glowed red during the initiation ceremony for new members. Eric is said to participate in the initiation rituals for new members to this day.

Cecil Street died at the age of 80 in 1964 in Eastbourne.

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