A review of The Case with Nine Solutions by J J Connington
This is the third outing for Connington’s police sleuth, Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield, in a book first published in 1928 and now reissued as part of Orion’s Murder Room series. Connington is one of my discoveries of 2021 and he can be relied upon to construct a first-class, intriguing puzzle and he certainly does not fail with this one. Even though there are only two or three credible suspects, he manages to sustain the tension and mystery until the final pages. The final chapter includes extracts from Driffield’s case notes and shows his thinking and suspicions as more and more clues are revealed. It seems an attempt to demonstrate the Connington had played fair with the attentive reader, but it struck me as an unnecessary touch.
Driffield is a bit of a Marmite character, some readers will take to him, and others will abhor him. He is cynical, sardonic and possesses an acerbic wit but it is hard to argue that he is a rounded, human character in the way that Punshon’s Bobby Owen. Indeed, that could be said of all of his characters in this novel. They are drawn sufficiently well for the reader to understand their part in the tale but no further. A more psychological and, dare I say it, a more literary approach is a later development for this genre.
Also missing is Driffield’s usual amateur sidekick, Squire Wendover, and taking the Watson role is Inspector Flamborough, a worthy if uninspired officer of the law. Driffield takes great delight, as he does with Wendover, of disclosing the clues but not the conclusions he has drawn from them, a trait that must have rankled with his underling.
The title of the book leads the reader to suggest that this is going to be an intricate and complex mystery with many possible solutions. It certainly is intricate and complex but the nine solutions are only possibilities as Driffield encourages the sceptical Flamborough the possible fates that could have befallen Hassendean and Mrs Silverdale, ranging from suicide, accident or murder. This analysis produces nine possibilities, of which three are immediately discounted. It is amusing to see Flamborough become a convert to his superior’s methodology, but clearly there is only one solution.
The book opens with Westerhaven draped in a thick fog. Dr Ringwood is acting as a locum in the town and is entertaining Dr Markfield when he receives a phone call to attend to a sick patient at the home of Dr Silverdale. As a newcomer to the town, he is unsure of the way and Markfield offers to escort him there in a fascinating insight into the perils of motoring at the time when dim headlights failed to penetrate the gloom of the fog. Even so, Ringwood goes to the wrong house and discovers a young man, Hassendean, who had been carrying on with Mrs Silverdale, mortally wounded.
Driffield leads the investigation and receives a communication from a mysterious person called Justice, who has a penchant for cyphers, that directs him to an empty bungalow in town where he finds the body of Mrs Silverdale, ostensibly shot but killed by a fatal dose of hyoscine. Drs Silverdale and Markfield both work in a laboratory where there was easy access to the poison. There are two other murders along the way, one of the Silverdale’s maid and the other of a potential informant.
Driffield twigs that the murders are all related and pieces the clues together to unmask the culprit and their motivation, not without a liberal sprinkling of red herrings along the way. As a chemistry professor in real life, Alfred Stewart aka Connington revels in the chemical aspects of the case but his learning is worn lightly. It all makes for an enjoyable and entertaining puzzle which is neatly resolved.
Connington certainly knew how to write a good murder mystery and this one is amongst the best. I also enjoyed the appearance of Miss Marple, not that one but a middle-aged maid.