The Sweepstake Murders

A review of The Sweepstake Murders by J J Connington

In a past life, I was an insurance underwriter and one of the first lessons I learned was that not only was precision of wording paramount but also the contract entered into with the client had to cover all eventualities. Sadly, no one in the party of nine gentlemen who decided to set up a syndicate to buy tickets in the Epsom Derby sweepstake was an underwriter or else they might have considered what happened if one or more of the participants died between the purchase of the tickets and the collection of the prize money, if any was won. Was it a Tontine scheme where the share of the deceased would be shared amongst the remaining participants or did the ticket pass to the deceased’s estate?

Perhaps the remoteness of drawing a ticket for a horse, never mind it finishing in a place, blinded the men to an obvious possibility, especially as they were all, save for the drunken Peter Thursford, in the prime of life. Inevitably, not only did one of their tickets draw a horse but the nag, not amongst the favourites, secured second place, netting the Novem syndicate £241,920 or around £16m in today’s terms. Inevitably, members of the syndicate started dropping like flies.

Curiously, as important as the issue of what happens to a deceased member’s share is to the premise of Connington’s seventh novel in his Sir Clinton Driffield series, originally published in 1931, it is not satisfactorily resolved. When Blackburn, the originator of the scheme, is killed in a flying accident, lawyers acting on behalf of his estate press their claim and the payout is embargoed by the courts. The members of the syndicate are divided as to how they should proceed, but as the story unfolds, the assumption is that it is a Tontine scheme, as Willenhall falls over a cliff edge, Coniston is killed in a car accident after accepting a bet and Peter Thursford is crushed by a car. Were these accidents really acts of murder and, if so, was the murderer one of the syndicate or the mysterious person or persons who had bought shares of individual’s tickets?

“Squire” Wendover is one of the syndicate, an awkward situation for him as news of the syndicate’s success and difficulties as he is a Justice of the Peace and sweepstakes were illegal, but he has the good sense to have been with Sir Clinton Driffield when Willenhall meets his maker and impeccable alibis for the times of the other deaths. He and Driffield do find Willenhall’s body and Driffield is sufficiently intrigued by the mystery to take interest in the case and to protect Wendover’s interests.

This is another of those Golden Age Detective stories where a knowledge of the obscurities of the Scriptures certainly helps. Willenhall was a keen photographer and the place where he met his death has enormous pillars of rock. Driffield makes a passing reference to the Dial of Ahaz, it appears twice in the Bible, in the second book of Kings and Isaiah, before he goes off. Inspector Severn is astute enough to recognise that light, shadow, and photography is at the heart of understanding Willenhall’s demise, but not perceptive enough to draw the pieces together to make a convincing case that demolishes the alibi of one of the suspects.

Driffield only returns late in the book, deus ex machina-like, to bring matters to a conclusion. Had he arrived earlier, the book would have been considerably shorter and, perhaps, one or more of the later deaths would have been prevented. While Driffield and Severn have reason to believe that the culprit was behind the other deaths they cannot prove it satisfactorily. Anyway, you can only hang someone once.

Wendover’s role is also reduced. He is a character in but not the narrator of the tale. He comes over as rather pompous albeit reliable and is a sounding board for Severn who views him as beyond reproach, despite his membership of the syndicate, After all, he does not need the money.

One of the standout insights of the book is the fascination with wireless, with characters going off to listen to a wireless, fiddling the dial to see what programmes they can catch from different parts of the northern hemisphere. A night-time radio session provides one of the members with his alibi.

Despite its flaws, this is an enjoyable story and once more Connington comes up with a fascinating, complex puzzle that is almost impossible for the reader to fathom, even if they are well-versed in the scriptures. He cannot resist the opportunity to parade his scientific knowledge. The culprit, though, despite the red herrings, is fairly obvious.   

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