In Whose Dim Shadow

A review of In Whose Dim Shadow by J J Connington

J J Connington, the nom de plume of Chemistry professor, Alfred Water Stewart, is sadly neglected as a writer of crime fiction but he certainly knew how to write a well-constructed murder mystery which keeps the reader intrigued until the end. The tenth in His Sir Clinton Driffield, published originally in 1935, maintains his impressive standard.

The title is taken from Thomas Macauley’s The Battle of Lake Regillus. In the States, where presumably the works of Macauley were less familiar and tastes are more prosaic, it goes by the title of The Tau Cross Mystery. Whilst the quatrain from Macauley – those trees in whose dim shadow/ the ghastly priest doth reign/ the priest who slew the slayer/ and shall himself be slain – encapsulates much of what happens in the book, the golden tau cross found in a paint pot at the scene of the murder is at best an aureate herring, making it an odd choice for a title.

“Squire” Wendover, Sir Clinton Driffield’s faithful friend, takes more of a central role in this tale. Instead of being a faithful Watson, observing and recording the brilliance and derring-do of his Chief Constable friend, he takes a stab at detecting with predictable results. The major flaw in his character is his inherent snobbery and his susceptibility to a pretty girl, both traits which jar with the modern reader and, perhaps, have accelerated the author’s descent into obscurity.

There are some colourful characters in the tale, not least PC Danbury, a constable who has ingested the Police Handbook and aspires to better himself. He discovers the first body after he was summoned to a block of flats after shots were heard and it is he that discovers that the pot of paint in which the golden cross was found was spilt a couple of hours before the victim, later identified as Sternhall, was murdered.

Then there is the evangelist, Bracknell, and his girlfriend, Miss Huntingdon, and the journalist, Barbican, who in his desperation for a scoop pops up everywhere and takes an unhealthy, if professional, interest in how investigations are proceedings. He is close to the scene when the second body is found, apparently a suicide in a locked room. The body is that of Mitford, a man down on his luck, who is fascinated by Japanese culture. Is his suicide ritual hari-kari, or Harry Keary as Barbican colourfully calls it, or does the remains of an elastic band in the keyhole and some marks on the banister outside suggest that it is a murder? Of course, it is the latter.

As a chemist, Connington sheds some fascinating insights into the technology and emerging methodologies of the time. He provides the reader with a method involving a chemical which allows a forger to write a document without leaving tell-tale fingerprints and Driffield deploys a new technique that the Yard are developing, that of discerning what he calls “different brands of blood”. Blood analysis is so common these days that we do not pause to consider that it must have become a part of the police’s armoury at some time. Driffield’s blood man is able to discern that there were two sources of blood in the pool left at the crime scenes, suggesting that the murderer was injured during the conflict. Helpfully, they had different blood groups.

Inevitably, the tale involves blackmail, a femme fatale and a double life. Driffield unravels the mystery, with Inspector Chesilton doing much of the legwork, connects the two murders and makes his arrest. The moral of the story is not to be too loquacious, otherwise you run the risk of giving away more than you intended to.   

It is a thoroughly enjoyable read with a plain, workmanlike style. There are passages where the pace drops but Connington is providing valuable background information to allow the reader to make sense of what is going on. The culprit is not hard to spot but it is fun having your suspicions confirmed.

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