Tag Archives: Alfred Stewart

Mystery At Lynden Sands

A review of Mystery at Lynden Sands by J J Connington

This, the fourth in Connington’s Sir Clinton Driffield series and originally published in 1928, sees the Chief Constable on holiday with his faithful sidekick, “Squire” Wendover. It does not turn out to be the relaxing break of golf, sun, and fine dining that he had anticipated, as he is drawn into assisting in the investigation of a murder and what develops into one of Connington’s fiendishly complex and engaging mysteries. You might say it was a busman’s holiday. Although the phrase was current at the time the book was published https://windowthroughtime.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/what-is-the-origin-of-131/) the lengthy gloss deployed when it is introduced suggests that it was not on the tip of most of the contemporary readers’ tongues.

Surprisingly, both because Driffield is a Chief Constable and because their relationship in The Case with Nine Solutions was a bit tetchy, Inspector Armadale invites him to assist. One of the delights of the book is the interplay between Driffield, Armadale, and Wendover, with the latter two vying with each other to come up with the most appropriate theory that accommodates the clues that emerge. Driffield often chooses to keep his own counsel, dropping hints here and there and offering friendly advice whilst striving to keep the peace between his colleagues, a tactic that often infuriates the others.

Inevitably, for a book of this genre and time, Wendover takes a shine to one of the principal suspects and this colours his views on the case and prejudices his relationship with Armadale who takes a diametrically opposite stance. These underlying tensions add an additional layer of complexity to what is a tangled web to unravel.    

What turns out to be a highly entertaining and clever book, starts off rather turgidly with a detailed and complicated resume of the Fordingbridge family and its line of succession. The owner, Derek, Paul and Jay’s nephew, is presumed dead, missing after the First World War. Paul has been looking after the estate’s affairs, badly as it turns out, and Jay who dabbles in the occult (cue the anticipated groans and shaking of heads from the ownership) is not only convinced that he is alive but that she has seen and spoken to him at Lynden Sands, although his face is horribly disfigured, and he has lost two fingers. His reappearance on the scene would put a significant spoke in Paul’s plans.  

The action begins with the discovery of the body of the Fordingbridge’s faithful servant, Peter Hay, a close adherent of Derek’s. Who would kill such an innocent man and why? Some relatively valueless silver is found in Wray’s house, but no one can believe such a loyal servant would have been salting away the family’s silver. One curiosity that immediately strikes the modern reader is the conclusion that as he had opened the door to his killer wearing a jacket, he was not only expecting his visitor but also the visitor was from a superior class.

Investigations at Foxhills, the family seat, reveal that Derek’s diary has been stolen. More murders follow and it becomes evident that the clue to the carnage lies in the question of Derek’s rights to inherit the estate. Is Paul engaged in a killing spree to protect his reputation and cover his defalcations? Is the man with the disfigured face who appears at Lynden Sands really Derek? Or is there a gang of imposters trying to pass someone off as Derek and eliminating anyone and everyone who might put a spoke in their plans by recognising the imposter for what he really is?

Along the way, we have blackmail, unintentional bigamy, a lesson in the way sand preserves and diminishes footprints, a poisoning involving amyl nitrate which smells like pear drops – Connington, Alfred Stewart, a distinguished chemistry professor in real life, cannot resist the opportunity to impart his knowledge – a damsel in distress, death by quicksand, a gang who will stop at nothing, an intriguing French woman, and a culprit whose resistance is broken by becoming trapped in a cave with the tide coming in. It has almost everything you could wish for.

I would not go so far as concurring with H C Harwood that it “may just fall short of being the detective story of the century”, the turgid first chapter sees to that, but it is an impressive piece of work for all that.

The Case With Nine Solutions

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.

Murder In The Maze

A review of Murder in the Maze by J J Connington

There is something profoundly unsettling about entering a maze. With its high hedges and labyrinth of paths, the object of the exercise is to find your way to the centre and then out again. It may take you five minutes or, if you are unfortunate in your choices, it could take a while. So bewildering can the choice of paths be and so disorientating the experience, particularly if the hedges are of a height that obscures local landmarks and the position of the sun, that you worry how you would summon help if you got lost or met with an accident.

For the crime writer a maze offers the opportunity for both an unusual venue for a crime and to increase the psychological tension for those in the maze at the time of the murder, providing the culprit can work out how to get out after committing their dastardly deed. Unsurprisingly, given its title Connington’s Murder in the Maze exploits both to their maximum in what is a superb and gripping read. Published in 1927 and reissued by The Murder Room, it is chemistry professor Alfred Stewart’s first novel to feature his detective creation, Sir Clinton Driffield, and his sidekick, Wendover.

The opening of the book is beautifully written, so enthralling and taut with psychological tension that the reader devours the pages. The denouement does not disappoint either and it is easy to see why the novel is widely regards as Connington’s finest.

We are introduced to twins, Roger and Neville Shandon. Roger has a history of shady deals while Neville, a KC, is preparing for an important trial. Both are looking for a quiet space to review some papers and go off to the maze which, conveniently, has two centres. Two guests at Whistlefields, Vera Forrest and Howard Torrance, also decide to try out the maze, but go their separate ways. Once in the maze they hear an air rifle, a cry, and the sound of someone running. Both get to their respective centres and find that the twins have both been murdered, shot by poison tipped darts.

Driffield is the local Chief Constable – in those days Chiefs were not afraid to get their hands dirty – and quickly gets to work with the faithful Wendover as his assistant. Wendover’s role is more developed than that of Watson. Of course, he is there to act as a sounding board, to ask the questions that the reader might want answered, but he also makes some important contributions to the resolution of the case.

Driffield soon established that the darts were tipped with a South American poison, curare. There is a pot of it in Roger’s collection of artefacts. Given that the twins were similar in appearance, was one murdered in mistake? Was it a professional hit? If so, how was the assassin able to navigate around the maze with such ease and get their hands on the rare poison? Driffield concludes that it is an inside job.

The third brother, who represents himself as a lazy, rather stupid, indolent sort of fellow, is also assaulted in the maze, although he escapes the fate of his brothers and as the investigations continue, the niece is shot with a dart at a bridge party that in a sting that a seemingly negligent Driffield has set up. Suspects come under the spotlight only to be dismissed and there are enough red herrings to maintain the tension and pace of the narrative.                  

Eventually Driffield pieces the clues together, as does the attentive reader as Connington is scrupulously fair, and all that is left is to smoke them out. The justice meted out at the end is natural rather than judicial, although I would have thought that the slaying of members of a noted family is not something that could have been swept under the carpet, even then.

I really enjoyed the book, did not want it to end and left thinking that Connington was sadly underrated.