The Four Defences

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.

Never Never Southern Strength Gin

I am often asked which is my favourite gin, a question I find incredibly difficult to answer. My response often depends on mood, what I am looking for from a gin at a particular time and the type of flavour profile that suits the occasion that I am drinking. It is much easier to give the characteristics of gins I do not like. Still as I trawl through the wonders of the ginaissance I travel in hope that I will find the Holy Grail, a gin that knocks my socks off and its virtues are such that it will suit any mood or occasion. I might just have found it in Never Never Distilling Co’s Southern Strength Gin.

I have written about and raved about this distillery based in South Australian distillery when I reviewed their Triple Juniper Gin some while ago and so I will not repeat their backstory. Suffice it to say that the trio behind the distillery, George Georgiadis, Tim Boast, and Sean Baxter, are taking the gin world by storm. They regularly win awards and in 2019 their Southern Strength Gin won the award for best Classic-style Gin in the world. It is not for the faint-hearted with a ferocious ABV of 52%, strong enough to throw its weight around in either a cocktail or with a tonic, although its strength puts it a tad under the Navy Strength classification.

There is something of the MasterChef about their approach to juniper which they rightly consider to be the kingpin of any self-respecting gin. They use the juniper in three ways, initially steeping it in the base spirit for twenty-four hours, then adding further fresh juniper when the spirit is redistilled, and, finally, adding juniper to the vapour basket in the still as well. If you like your juniper forward, front and central, then this will set your juices flowing.

They use eight other botanicals in the mix, including angelica root, coriander seed, lemon, Australian pepper berry, and cinnamon. So heavy is it in flavoursome botanicals that it louches with the addition of a premium tonic, making it a cloudy, misty spirit in which a taste bomb lurks. In the mouth the juniper is ever-present but the other botanicals, particularly the tarty citric elements, give it a very rich and round taste before signing off with spice and warmth in a long and lingering aftertaste.

Wonderful tastes and flavours rebound around the mouth as it is a spirit that does not retire discretely. Definitely a gin to sip and savour, a little old-school in style but with an approach that squeezes the potential of the botanicals to their maximum, a gin to sip and savour and allow the flavours to do their work.

Never Never let their gin do their talking which means that their bottle design with its clear glass does not quite stand out as it might. The Southern Strength Gin uses a blue background to its labelling as opposed to the orange deployed on the Triple Strength. I enjoyed the warnings on the back label, particularly the notice that “no ingredients in this bottle were hand foraged (by us, anyway)” and “to wear sunscreen”. As I was drinking on a cold March evening in the northern hemisphere, I dispensed with the blocker. You have to live dangerously!

One note of caution. I bought my Never Never through Master of Malt. I found their service very good until my package got into the hands of their delivery partners, Evri, when it disappeared into the never never. After a week when, according to the online tracker, the package had not moved and an automated bot cheerfully told me that it was somewhere in the system, I got back to Master of Malt. They were superb and within 24 hours I had a replacement package, delivered this time by DPD. The original package never appeared. What a waste of superb gin.

Until the next time, cheers!

The Case Of The Fighting Soldier

A review of The Case of the Fighting Soldier by Christopher Bush – 230308

One of the few positives to come out of armed conflict is the quality of literature that it generates. Usually the finest literature emerges after a period of reflection once peace has been restored, but Christopher Bush’s wartime trilogy of detective fiction was written and published while the war was in progress and the outcome was far from certain. Individually and as a trio they are impressive pieces of work and rank amongst the finest that Bush wrote and perhaps amongst military crime fiction as a whole. The Fighting Soldier, originally published in 1942 and reissued by Dean Street Press, completes the set.

Once more Ludovic Travers, Bush’s series amateur sleuth, has a change of role, this time transferred to become second in command at a camp established to train officers from the Home Guard. As with his previous two assignments, murder follows him as does his old mucker from the Yard, George “The General” Wharton. The two combine to solve a tricky incident which results in two deaths and once more Travers plays a more subdued and subordinate role confined by the responsibilities of his role, allowing Wharton to steal the show. However, at least in this case Travers makes the breakthrough, having his moment of inspiration while cracking his brains in solving a crossword in one of the illustrated weeklies.

The transformation in Travers’ character is still a shock to anyone who has dutifully followed the series in chronological order, but I am getting used to it as I am with the first party narrative. The book reads like a yarn told in front of a roaring fire to a group of friends who have no particular place to go and all of the time in the world to get there. Travers’ approach is leisurely, allowing the reader to assimilate themselves into the way of life at the camp and its layout – map included – as well as to understand the various characters who are involved in the story. There is a smattering of military technicalities that gives a sense of verisimilitude to the story and allows the reader to become familiar with various pieces of equipment that have an important part to play as the plot moves to its crescendo.

It soon becomes apparent that there is some considerable tension in the camp amongst the officers who loosely break into two groups, the regulars, who have followed Army careers, and the not-so-regulars, some like Travers who have joined from civvy street and others like Mortar who have served as mercenaries in the Spanish Civil War and during the Irish campaign for independence after the First World War. Mortar is particularly aggressive, claiming that he is a “fighting soldier”, one who has seen action rather than pushing paper, and he has a wealth of blood-curdling stories to regale his fellow officers and the trainees with. One proves to be his undoing.

After the camp has suffered a couple of near misses with bombs, Mortar is blown to smithereens in his room – there is little of him left – and then a little later Feeder, who might have some vital information and has just been assigned as Travers’ batman, goes missing, his body later found a mile away from the camp. It initially looks like suicide.

Strings are pulled and Wharton arrives to lead the investigation. The combination of his nose for detail and Travers’ inside knowledge of the camp prove a winning combination in what is a well-thought out and ingenious plot with some nice touches, particularly the way the device was detonated. The motivation is compelling, and the way Wharton brings matters to a head is masterful. It makes for an entertaining finale to an impressive trilogy.

Spinsters In Jeopardy

A review of Spinsters in Jeopardy by Ngaio Marsh – 230307

I still cannot make my mind up about Ngaio Marsh. She wrote some superb murder mysteries and was particularly inventive in the way that her victims met her end, but there are too many mediocre books in her canon. Spinsters in Jeopardy, which also goes by the title of The Bride of Death, originally published in 1953, falls fairly and squarely into the latter category.

It is entertaining enough, but it relies far too much on coincidence for my taste. The Alleyns are travelling en famille, including their precocious six-year-old son, Ricky, whose proficiency in French belies his tender years, for a holiday in France, partly as cover for series detective Roderick’s undercover mission in conjunction with the French police to penetrate a fiendish drug gang led by Mr Oberon who also dabble in spiritual rituals and outlandish sexual practices. They are travelling to see one of Agatha Troy’s distant relatives by the name of Garbel, whom they have never met and whom they mistakenly believe to be a man.

Garbel just happens to be working at the drug factory and is an intimate within Oberon’s circle. On the train journey, both Roderick and Agatha just happen to look out of the train window as it is about to enter a tunnel and see what they believe to be a man about to stab a woman in an adjacent chateau, Chevre d’Argent. On board the train is a spinster, Miss Truebody, who suffers a severe ruptured appendix and needs urgent medical attention. Of course, all the doctors in the vicinity are away at a conference and the only medic in the area is Dr Baradi, an associate of Oberon’s and staying at Chevre d’Argent. Alleyn nobly offers to accompany her, giving him a perfect excuse to penetrate the den of iniquity and even helps by being Baradi’s anaesthetist.

Alleyn’s cover is almost blown because amongst those in Oberon’s circle are the artist Carbury Glande who knows Agatha but, unbelievably, does not know she is married to one of Britain’s foremost policeman and a drug-addled, alcoholic actress who met Alleyn on a transatlantic voyage but surprisingly agrees to keep quiet about his identity. Even Ricky plays his part, nobly being kidnapped, waving from a balcony just at the moment his parents were gazing in that direction, and providing his father and his French counterpart with an excuse to raid the drug factory. And so it goes on.

Oberon and his cronies engage in almost every conceivable form of nefarious activities from murder to childnapping, from drug production, pushing and taking to deviant sexual practices and fraud. Although coy in her narrative, Marsh is more explicit in her descriptions of the sort of sexual hanky panky the cult gets up to, more so than some of her contemporaries.

Frankly, there is little dramatic tension in the plot and no mystery as we know who the culprits are and we are pretty certain that what the Alleyns saw was a murder. Thematically, it is a reworking of Death in Ecstasy which also features a sinister cult but does not reach its heights. The book ambles along and is enthralling enough but cannot rise above the welter of coincidences that make the plot so unbelievable. Perhaps Marsh was having a creative holiday herself when she wrote this.

Big Mac

The adage “muck and money go together”, recorded by John Ray in A collection of English proverbs (1678), might well have served as the Macintosh family motto. Father George, a dye manufacturer, sent round collectors to pay the poorer denizens of Glasgow for their urine, from which he extracted ammonia. This he used in the manufacture of cudbear, a valuable violet-reddish dye obtained from lichens, which his son, Charles, supplied from Europe.

By 1786 when he was twenty, Charles had branched out on his own, opening a factory in Glasgow producing ammonium chloride and Prussian blue dye. A chip off the old block, he would collect soot and urine, from which he extracted salt. His ability to extract alum from waste shale from the area’s coal mines led him to establish Scotland’s first alum works at Hurlet in Renfrewshire in 1797, introducing the manufacture of lead and aluminium acetates to Britain.

It was his collaboration with Charles Tennant, the owner of a chemical works at St Rollox, just outside Glasgow, that made his fortune. Hitherto, bleaching textiles involved boiling them in a weak alkali solution and then exposing them to sunlight for months, a process that was both time-consuming and expensive. In 1799, with the assistance of Macintosh, Tennant created a bleaching powder from the chemical reaction between chlorine and dry slaked lime.

The powder, effective, relatively cheap, and easily transportable, was commercially successful, transforming the textile industry and, by the 1830s, making the St Rollox chemical works the largest in Europe. Bleaching powder was used industrially to bleach cloth and paper well until the 1920s.

Macintosh soon spotted another opportunity from another seemingly unwanted waste material, the tar sludge created from the manufacture of coal gas used to power the new-fangled gas lighting that lit up public thoroughfares and the homes of the well-to-do in the early 19th century. In 1819 he contracted with the Glasgow Gas Company to buy all their waste product. They were only too happy to oblige.

Charles discovered that he could distil the tar to produce a volatile, oily liquid hydrocarbon mixture known as naphtha. While it could be used for flares, Charles continued to experiment to see whether naphtha could be used for even more useful and profitable purposes. His light-bulb moment came when he discovered that it could dissolve India-rubber.

By pressing a solution of India-rubber dissolved in naphtha between two layers of fabric rather like a sandwich, Charles found that the rubber interior formed a barrier that was almost completely water resistant and yet left the fabric flexible enough to be used in a garment. It did not take long for a man with his finely attuned commercial acumen to realise that for those exposed to the vagaries of the British weather a coat that was truly waterproof was manna from heaven.

On June 17, 1823, Charles received a patent (No 4804) for a process “for rendering the texture of hemp, flax, wool, cotton, silk, and also leather, paper and other substances impervious to water and air”. Reports suggest that the first coat made from Charles’ material was sold in Glasgow on October 12, 1823, less than four months after he had received his patent.