A review of The Four Defences by J J Connington – 230310
It is a while since I have read anything by J J Connington, the nom de plume of Alfred Stewart, the distinguished chemistry professor. Originally published in 1940, The Four Defences is one of his later works and is based, loosely, on a famous real life from 1930, the Alfred Rouse case where a burning car tragedy proved to be something darker and more sinister. Connington subjects the mystery to his usual approach, constructing a complex, elaborate plot, and a story which, while it may lack in excitement, hangs together with no loose ends. It also allows Connington to show the reader the depth of his knowledge of the laws of chemistry, albeit in an understated way, and that he was abreast with what I presume to have been cutting-edge approaches to forensic investigation.
Connington’s usual series detective is the rather irritating Commissioner of Police, Sir Clinton Driffield, but he did occasionally put him to one side and write novels featuring other investigators, two in 1929 and 1930 featuring Superintendent Ross and two, including this one, featuring an amateur sleuth who did not wear the blue uniform of the police force, Mark Brand. Brand is a radio presenter who has a show in which he acts as a sort of agony aunt – his nickname is The Counsellor, the title of the first book in which he features – inviting listeners to send in their problems and where he invites them to interact with him by sending in information. His role sheds a fascinating insight into the inventiveness of early radio. It was not just chaps in evening suits lecturing to the masses.
It is through his radio show that Brand is approached, indirectly, by a local Coroner who has what is left of a body in a burnt out car on his hands. He believes that it is an open and shut case and is frustrated that the local police, in the form of Inspector Hartwell, seems to want a meal of it. Intrigued, Brand agrees to have a look. Brand quickly discovers some clues, including a dislodged tooth, the absence of buttons from underwear, a poison bottle, and the residue of white powder on the car seat, which lead him to believe that the dead man was murdered and that his identity was not that which everybody else had assumed.
There is something Wills Croftian to the start of his investigation. Using the medium of his radio show he gets a record of the sightings of the type of car on the night in question – it is a fascinating insight into the low volume of traffic on the roads that this could even be achievable – and from that is able to construct a timetable of the car’s movements, which include a stop at a nightclub and the driver having an argument with his passenger which leads to her leaving the car and getting a lift home.
Mud and paint is analysed, Brand asks Hartwell to follow certain lines of enquiry and uses his radio show to track down other information. We enter a world of cypher messages, disappearing travelling salesmen, life insurance policies, wealthy men with a fear of premature immolation, rented garages, scraped bicycles, fraud, extra-marital affairs, avid fish eaters suddenly going off their favourite food, x-rayed coffins, and the ingenious searching and dredging of a lake. The final death toll is three, although one could be regarded as collateral damage. It is a devious scheme which, but for some silly mistakes, would have been protected the perpetrators behind four formidable lines of defence.
Throughout the process, Brand turns up information. There are no false steps or blind alleys. Instead, slowly but surely Brand and Hartwell build up a compelling picture of what really went on. The reader is left to admire their brilliance and the complexity of the web of intrigue that Connington has woven, but there is no real sense of investigation, no change in pace in the narrative and no development of characters. All we really know about Brand in the end is that he is a smart-arse radio jock who wears loud tweeds.
As if to try the reader’s patience further, Connington devotes the final two chapters to explaining the plot that led to the burning of the car, first from the perspective of the investigative process – the order in which the clues came and the deductions drawn from them – and then as a timeline of events. It is an intriguing plot line but I reflected as I closed the book for the last time, it could have been so much better.