Tag Archives: Sir Clinton Driffield

A Minor Operation

A review of A Minor Operation by J J Connington

I have long been fascinated by the impact of the state of a painter’s eyesight on the type and style of paintings that they produce, an examination of the difference in style and approach in the early and later works of J M W Turner being a classic example. In A Minor Operation, the eleventh in Connington’s Sir Clinton Driffield series and originally published in 1937, cataracts and their impact on an artist’s style provide a major clue that leads to the resolution of an intriguing mystery.

Connington is a master of complex plotting, red herrings, cast-iron alibis, and misdirection while, at the same time, playing fairly with his readers. We may not have a mind as mercurial as that of the Chief Constable, but we do have all the clues presented to us, some perhaps a little opaquer than others, and are able to see how they all hang together and why some initially promising leads lead nowhere. This book is a classic example of Connington at his best.

It begins as a tale of three convicts, Nicholas Adeney, whom we meet in the first chapter, who along with Deerhurst, whose shadow casts a long shadow over the plot, were jailed when their firm collapsed, and petty thief, Sturge, who is more of a bit character, who served time with the other two and resented Deerhurst for putting a spanner in his plan to offer fellow prisoners their liberty earlier than was the King’s pleasure. Deerhurst is married to Nicholas’s sister, Hazel, who wants to divorce and is planning to provoke Deerhurst upon his release to attack her in order to resume her previous relationship with an artist.

After Deerhurst’s release, Hazel’s maid discovers that her mistress is missing and that there is a small pool of blood in the drawing room. Deerstone’s body is eventually found in a secluded patch of road, having been run over, although he had earlier been hit over the head and stabbed in the chest. Sir Clinton Driffield, accompanied by his faithful Dr Watson-like “Squire” Wendover investigates and soon discovers that Hazel had left, having only taken undergarments.

Nicholas Adeney does not help his cause by taking an antagonistic stance. He had access to Hazel’s house and was seen in conversation with Sturge about the latter’s child who has eye trouble, although his alibi for the supposed time of Deerhurst’s demise seems sound. Had Hazel lured Deerhurst to the house with the telegram found in his possession and killed him, with perhaps Adeney helping to move the body, but then why had she left with only undergarments packed in a case?

Driffield finds a number of clues which, initially, seem baffling, including an electric clock which had stopped for precisely 3 hours and 44 minutes, a Braille typewriter, a pile of red lead, and an envelope containing bearer bonds to the tune of £500. Hazel, who was paranoid about fires, turned the electricity supply off when she went to bed. Who turned the power back on and why?

Love letters, the reading of which causes the Squire some serious moral qualms, a careful examination of the paintings in Hazel’s house, and the intervention of two lawyers lead Driffield to suppose that the case is less about marital relationships and more one of the consequences of the collapse of Adeney and Sons, for which both Nicholas and Deerstone were jailed.    

Connington, being a chemistry professor and obsessed with the minutiae of criminal cases, revels in exploring the differences between the typefaces of different models of typewriters of the same make and the impact of using carbon paper and allows Driffield to perform a clever chemical experiment which reveals a surprising result and provides proof positive of the identity of the culprit and their motivation.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and for once did not find Driffield’s bumptiousness overbearing. Old-fashioned Connington may be, but he knew how to construct an intriguing mystery.

The Two Tickets Puzzle

A review of The Two Tickets Puzzle by J J Connington

Connington, the nom de plume of chemistry professor, Alfred Stewart, took the bold step of “retiring” his normal police sleuth, Sir Clinton Driffield, in 1929 and his next two books featured Superintendent Ross, an altogether different character. The Two Tickets Puzzle, originally published in 1930, is the second and last of the short-lived Ross series. Ross is a much drier, more diligent detective, not as spiky or acerbic as Driffield and these stories lack the repartee and humour that Driffield and his Watson, “Squire” Wendover, brought to the stories. Recognising that there was a missing spark, Connington quickly ditched Ross and restored Driffield.

The set up for this story is about as conventional as you can get, a murder in a railway carriage. Preston, a wealthy manufacturer, is a man of habit. He does the same things at the same time, insisting every Friday morning on taking the firm’s wages in cash on the train to his nearby factory, despite warnings that this makes him a sitting target. When his body is discovered under the seat of a first-class compartment, the attaché case with the money is nowhere to be found.

Preston takes the 10:35 train from Horston. It is a stopping service but there are a couple of stretches in the journey that would give a determined criminal enough time to carry out the murder and make their escape at one of the following stations. Superintendents Campden and Ross initially look at the case, but because the murder almost certainly took place in his patch Ross takes over. The autopsy reveals one curious feature, Preston was shot with bullets of different calibres.

The story quickly descends into Wills Croftsian territory with detailed scrutiny of railway timetables, the identification of all the passengers who used the train, the checking of their stories and alibis and the interviewing of the principal suspects. These include Preston’s doctor, rumoured to be having an affair with the industrialist’s wife, and a disgruntled former employee who is found in possession of some of Preston’s bank notes. At the same time the police are bothered by a couple of seemingly trivial cases, the theft of a lawyer’s car and the shooting of a prize ram, the significance of which, Bush-like, become apparent as the story ambles towards its denouement.

There are some redeeming features. Connington plants his clues with fairness and precision, taking the reader along with him, but also cannot resist turning the plot on its head so that the reader’s preconception of who are the good guys and the baddies is challenged. Once the storyline had settled down and most of the irrelevancies had been disposed of, the culprit was fairly easy to spot and, frankly, the motivation was rather thin, only delaying the inevitable until the beneficiary reached their majority.   

Ross engages in some analysis of typescript which helps him cement his suspicions, although Connington handles this aspect much more adroitly in The Sweepstake Murders which he wrote the following year, and the two tickets are train tickets, found in a suit, without which the murderer’s plans could not have been pulled off.

What is a distinctly one-paced police procedural, more one calling at all stations than an express, is livened up towards the end with a thrilling car chase which produces an explosive finale. Connington, through Ross, takes time to explain how Ross got on to the culprit and how all the clues hung together, and it all makes sense, leaving no loose ends. However, there is something cold and calculated about this book, lacking the vital spark that marks out Connington at his best.

The Eye In The Museum

A review of The Eye in the Museum by J J Connington

The bane of the modern criminal’s life is the ubiquitous eye of the CCTV system. The Eye of the Museum, originally published in 1929, features an early version, the camera obscura, which takes pride of place at the top of the Struan Museum, a little visited collection of bizarre objects including a glass eye, which is the pride and joy of the caretaker, Jim Buckland. It throws on to a white table images from the streets and the surrounding areas. Buckland is fastidious in his use of the machine, thinking that it would be an affront to the spirit of Mr Struan if he used it to spy on the town’s residents. However, he is in the habit of switching it on while he is locking up and just happens to see some goings on which confirm Superintendent Ross’ suspicions and leads to an arrest.

The problem with a camera obscura in comparison with CCTV is that it does not leave a permanent image and so Superintendent Ross, the detective leading the investigation, who has made a big thing about collecting evidence yourself if you want it to be reliable, has to rely on the word of Buckland to bring the case to its conclusion. Whether it would be strong enough to lead a jury to convict is doubtful, but it is the final piece in Ross’ jigsaw rather than the lynchpin.

Connington decided in this book to give his faithful duo, Sir Clinton Driffield and “Squire” Wendover a rest. They do not appear, despite what the blurb to some editions may suggest. I missed their repartee, Wendover’s ridiculous snobbery, and Driffield’s rather arrogant low regard of the “Squire’s” intellect and investigative prowess. Ross is an altogether different kettle of fish. He is serious, single-minded, a relentless pursuer of the truth but, for me, is a bit of a cold fish, a character that is hard to warm to and about whom we learn surprisingly little, save that he is a fan of Swiss Family Robinson and brings his culprit down using a technique from the pages of that children’s classic.

The plot treads a well-worn path, featuring a wealthy, cantankerous woman, this time a gambler and an alcoholic to boot, Evelyn Fenton, who under the powers of a restrictive will, which seemed to be all the rage in those days, has the power to direct the life of her niece, Joyce Hazlemere. Joyce wants to marry Leslie Seaforth, but neither have the funds to do so. In the garden of the museum, which they visit in the first chapter, they discuss the prospect of Evelyn’s death. It comes as no surprise that soon afterwards, Evelyn is found dead.

Her doctor, Dr Platt, is sceptical that her heart just gave out and at the subsequent post mortem it is confirmed that she had been poisoned, although her demise had been hastened by the application of slight pressure to her vagus nerve. Joyce is the prime suspect, but Seaforth and his boss and family solicitor, James Corwen, are determined to fight her corner. Ross, initially, finds the two a tad uncooperative but is alert enough to realise that Corwen is drip feeding him information which may prove to be enormously helpful.

There are the usual mysterious visitors to the house around the likely time of Evelyn’s murder, including her estranged husband and her supposed lover, Dr Hyndford. There is a psychological aspect to the story which is hinted at earlier, but which comes to the fore as the story reaches its climax.

Ross finds a trail of IOUs and insurance policies which, with the help of an amateur graphologist, are not what they seem and shed light on the motivation behind the murder. With relatively few suspects to consider and with the method of murder requiring specialist knowledge, it is not difficult to work out who the likely culprit is, especially as there is another murder to eliminate a suspect, a twist that does not serve to confude but to clarify the reader’s thoughts.

Ross gets the culprit at the third attempt after a boat chase and the case for the prosecution, in the form of a detailed exposition of the evidence with sources, forms the penultimate chapter. It was an engaging enough read, the plot was well-thought out and developed, as is Connington’s wont, but Ross is too anodyne a figure to raise it to the heights of the best of the Driffield novels.

This is one for the completists, rather than one for those wishing to dip their toes into Connington’s oeuvre.

The Boathouse Riddle

A review of The Boathouse Riddle by J J Connington

Sir Clinton Driffield, Chief Constable, enjoys a busman’s holiday as he starts his well-earned two-month break at “Squire” Wendover’s gaff in this story, the sixth in Connington’s engaging series, originally published in 1931. Inevitably, murder follows him, clumsily disguised as suicide or a tragic accident. And how galling for “Squire” Wendover to find out that his pride and joy, a new boathouse, has been used for nefarious practices and, despite his pride over the security measures he has taken, seems to have been an open house for all and sundry!  

The “Squire”, Driffield’s best friend and occasional Watson, is a melange of prejudices. He cannot believe that his neighbours, who come from the right echelon of society, could be mixed up in anything shady. He is somewhat affronted by overt exhibitions of Catholicism and the exotic origins of Mrs Keith-Westerton cause a stir. One of the delights of the book is to see the scales slowly fall from his eyes.

In truth, while entertaining enough, by Connington’s, admittedly high, standards the Boathouse Riddle is a tad pedestrian. An intriguing character who emerges as the story develops is Cincinnati Jean, someone with real potential which the author deigns to exploit. A missed opportunity, I feel. Instead of character development, what we have are clues galore. The crime scene, where the Keith-Waterton’s gamekeeper has been found, is a detective’s dream – there are footprints obligingly preserved by the morning dew, enough spent matches to make a model boat with, an expensive handbag, helpfully with the owner’s initials on it, and a trail of pearls.

Driffield is front and centre of the book, monopolising the action and the reader follows him around as if they were a faithful lapdog. He discovers that there is more to the case than meets the eye, potential bigamy and blackmail. There is a second death, the body fished out of the lake after Driffield, with Wendover in tow, dredge the bottom. Perhaps I have been unfortunate, but this is the second book I have read in succession where a dodgy Thymus gland has caused the victim’s demise. The tragedy for the culprit of the one murder is that it need not have happened had they been aware of the medical background behind the death that triggered all the shenanigans. Still, there would not have been much of a story left if they had.

The diligent reader can, thanks to the profusion of clues, piece much of what has been going on together, and probably identify the culprit. It is a complicated plot, but not as complex as those Connington produces at his best. That said, the disparate parts of the puzzle are pulled together with consummate style, leaving a complete solution without any loose ends hanging around untidily.

I am as willing as the next reader to suspend my sense of disbelief when reading detective fiction, but this is a particularly messy and careless crime. When I got to the end, I could not help thinking that it did not take the brains of a Driffield to solve this one. Even the most plodding of local detectives may have made a stab of it. I hope the Chief Constable was eventually able to get down to a spot of fishing and a few rounds of golf.

The Sweepstake Murders

A review of The Sweepstake Murders by J J Connington

In a past life, I was an insurance underwriter and one of the first lessons I learned was that not only was precision of wording paramount but also the contract entered into with the client had to cover all eventualities. Sadly, no one in the party of nine gentlemen who decided to set up a syndicate to buy tickets in the Epsom Derby sweepstake was an underwriter or else they might have considered what happened if one or more of the participants died between the purchase of the tickets and the collection of the prize money, if any was won. Was it a Tontine scheme where the share of the deceased would be shared amongst the remaining participants or did the ticket pass to the deceased’s estate?

Perhaps the remoteness of drawing a ticket for a horse, never mind it finishing in a place, blinded the men to an obvious possibility, especially as they were all, save for the drunken Peter Thursford, in the prime of life. Inevitably, not only did one of their tickets draw a horse but the nag, not amongst the favourites, secured second place, netting the Novem syndicate £241,920 or around £16m in today’s terms. Inevitably, members of the syndicate started dropping like flies.

Curiously, as important as the issue of what happens to a deceased member’s share is to the premise of Connington’s seventh novel in his Sir Clinton Driffield series, originally published in 1931, it is not satisfactorily resolved. When Blackburn, the originator of the scheme, is killed in a flying accident, lawyers acting on behalf of his estate press their claim and the payout is embargoed by the courts. The members of the syndicate are divided as to how they should proceed, but as the story unfolds, the assumption is that it is a Tontine scheme, as Willenhall falls over a cliff edge, Coniston is killed in a car accident after accepting a bet and Peter Thursford is crushed by a car. Were these accidents really acts of murder and, if so, was the murderer one of the syndicate or the mysterious person or persons who had bought shares of individual’s tickets?

“Squire” Wendover is one of the syndicate, an awkward situation for him as news of the syndicate’s success and difficulties as he is a Justice of the Peace and sweepstakes were illegal, but he has the good sense to have been with Sir Clinton Driffield when Willenhall meets his maker and impeccable alibis for the times of the other deaths. He and Driffield do find Willenhall’s body and Driffield is sufficiently intrigued by the mystery to take interest in the case and to protect Wendover’s interests.

This is another of those Golden Age Detective stories where a knowledge of the obscurities of the Scriptures certainly helps. Willenhall was a keen photographer and the place where he met his death has enormous pillars of rock. Driffield makes a passing reference to the Dial of Ahaz, it appears twice in the Bible, in the second book of Kings and Isaiah, before he goes off. Inspector Severn is astute enough to recognise that light, shadow, and photography is at the heart of understanding Willenhall’s demise, but not perceptive enough to draw the pieces together to make a convincing case that demolishes the alibi of one of the suspects.

Driffield only returns late in the book, deus ex machina-like, to bring matters to a conclusion. Had he arrived earlier, the book would have been considerably shorter and, perhaps, one or more of the later deaths would have been prevented. While Driffield and Severn have reason to believe that the culprit was behind the other deaths they cannot prove it satisfactorily. Anyway, you can only hang someone once.

Wendover’s role is also reduced. He is a character in but not the narrator of the tale. He comes over as rather pompous albeit reliable and is a sounding board for Severn who views him as beyond reproach, despite his membership of the syndicate, After all, he does not need the money.

One of the standout insights of the book is the fascination with wireless, with characters going off to listen to a wireless, fiddling the dial to see what programmes they can catch from different parts of the northern hemisphere. A night-time radio session provides one of the members with his alibi.

Despite its flaws, this is an enjoyable story and once more Connington comes up with a fascinating, complex puzzle that is almost impossible for the reader to fathom, even if they are well-versed in the scriptures. He cannot resist the opportunity to parade his scientific knowledge. The culprit, though, despite the red herrings, is fairly obvious.