A review of The Castleford Conundrum by J J Connington
Published in 1932, this is the eighth in Connington’s impressive series featuring Sir Clinton Driffield. We have met the Castlefords before, they played a bit part in the 1928 novel, Mystery at Lyndham Sands, where the daughter, Hillary, made an impression on Driffield’s Watson, “Squire” Wendover. Here, though, they take centre stage in a tale which, in other hands, would have had a bit of a Victorian, sub-Trollopian, melodramatic feel about it.
Where there is a will, there are relatives, as they say, and the plot revolves around the estate of Winifred Castleford. She is painted as a rather selfish, self-obsessed woman, who is easily manipulated. Philip Castleford is her second husband, and the implication is that the struggling artist, some of whose fingers were callously maimed, married her for her money. Hillary is Philip’s daughter, who is treated with some disdain by her stepmother and Constance Lindfield, who keeps house and is Winifred’s half-sister.
The source of Winifred’s money is from her first husband, and his two brothers, Laurence and Kenneth Glencaple, bitterly resent that it would go out of the family if anything happened to Winifred. They persuade her to change her will in their favour. Kenneth’s young son, Francis, has been bought a small gun by Constance, which he delights in shooting at targets, including a dead cat strung up. To complete the cast list, there is Dick Stevenage, a local man, who seems to be having an affair with each of the principal women in the story.
The Glencaples persuade Winifred to alter her will, effectively cutting out Phillip and Hillary, and leaving the majority of the money to them and Constance. Winifred is then found dead in a deserted summer house and it looks as though she was hit by a bullet that matched those that Francis was firing so liberally around the estate.
Inspector Westerham leads the investigation and it transpires that whilst Winifred destroyed her first will and had made arrangements with her solicitor to write a new one in the favour of her half-sister and the Glencaples. However, she had never got round to signing it, unbeknownst to Constance and the Glencaples. As she had died intestate, the money would go in its entirety to Philip. Circumstantial evidence also points to Philip’s guilt, and fearing the worst, Hillary turns to Wendover for assistance. Driffield arrives on the scene about two-thirds of the way through the story.
In what is a well-structured mystery, Driffield soon gets to grips with the problem. Given Wendover’s emotional attachment to the case, Driffield keeps Wendover out of the loop, much to the “Squire’s” annoyance, and as the investigations progress, it looks increasingly black for Philip. However, the resolution rests on the establishment of blood groups, a surprisingly modern and forensic approach to detection, and in a classic scene in which all the interested parties aka suspects are in one room, Driffield proceeds to unmask the culprit. As is only right and proper in the circumstances, the culprit goes away and shoots themselves.
It is a well written story and although none of the principal characters have much going for them, they are believable and realistic. The fly in the ointment, for me, is the premise of the plot. Would anyone really destroy a will and not sign its replacement and would there not be a copy of the original will held at the solicitor’s office which would remain in place until the new will was signed? That aside, it is a great read, and the pace picks up noticeably once Driffield comes on to the scene. Conington never fails to deliver.