A review of Murder in the Maze by J J Connington
There is something profoundly unsettling about entering a maze. With its high hedges and labyrinth of paths, the object of the exercise is to find your way to the centre and then out again. It may take you five minutes or, if you are unfortunate in your choices, it could take a while. So bewildering can the choice of paths be and so disorientating the experience, particularly if the hedges are of a height that obscures local landmarks and the position of the sun, that you worry how you would summon help if you got lost or met with an accident.
For the crime writer a maze offers the opportunity for both an unusual venue for a crime and to increase the psychological tension for those in the maze at the time of the murder, providing the culprit can work out how to get out after committing their dastardly deed. Unsurprisingly, given its title Connington’s Murder in the Maze exploits both to their maximum in what is a superb and gripping read. Published in 1927 and reissued by The Murder Room, it is chemistry professor Alfred Stewart’s first novel to feature his detective creation, Sir Clinton Driffield, and his sidekick, Wendover.
The opening of the book is beautifully written, so enthralling and taut with psychological tension that the reader devours the pages. The denouement does not disappoint either and it is easy to see why the novel is widely regards as Connington’s finest.
We are introduced to twins, Roger and Neville Shandon. Roger has a history of shady deals while Neville, a KC, is preparing for an important trial. Both are looking for a quiet space to review some papers and go off to the maze which, conveniently, has two centres. Two guests at Whistlefields, Vera Forrest and Howard Torrance, also decide to try out the maze, but go their separate ways. Once in the maze they hear an air rifle, a cry, and the sound of someone running. Both get to their respective centres and find that the twins have both been murdered, shot by poison tipped darts.
Driffield is the local Chief Constable – in those days Chiefs were not afraid to get their hands dirty – and quickly gets to work with the faithful Wendover as his assistant. Wendover’s role is more developed than that of Watson. Of course, he is there to act as a sounding board, to ask the questions that the reader might want answered, but he also makes some important contributions to the resolution of the case.
Driffield soon established that the darts were tipped with a South American poison, curare. There is a pot of it in Roger’s collection of artefacts. Given that the twins were similar in appearance, was one murdered in mistake? Was it a professional hit? If so, how was the assassin able to navigate around the maze with such ease and get their hands on the rare poison? Driffield concludes that it is an inside job.
The third brother, who represents himself as a lazy, rather stupid, indolent sort of fellow, is also assaulted in the maze, although he escapes the fate of his brothers and as the investigations continue, the niece is shot with a dart at a bridge party that in a sting that a seemingly negligent Driffield has set up. Suspects come under the spotlight only to be dismissed and there are enough red herrings to maintain the tension and pace of the narrative.
Eventually Driffield pieces the clues together, as does the attentive reader as Connington is scrupulously fair, and all that is left is to smoke them out. The justice meted out at the end is natural rather than judicial, although I would have thought that the slaying of members of a noted family is not something that could have been swept under the carpet, even then.
I really enjoyed the book, did not want it to end and left thinking that Connington was sadly underrated.