Tag Archives: Squire Wendover

In Whose Dim Shadow

A review of In Whose Dim Shadow by J J Connington

J J Connington, the nom de plume of Chemistry professor, Alfred Water Stewart, is sadly neglected as a writer of crime fiction but he certainly knew how to write a well-constructed murder mystery which keeps the reader intrigued until the end. The tenth in His Sir Clinton Driffield, published originally in 1935, maintains his impressive standard.

The title is taken from Thomas Macauley’s The Battle of Lake Regillus. In the States, where presumably the works of Macauley were less familiar and tastes are more prosaic, it goes by the title of The Tau Cross Mystery. Whilst the quatrain from Macauley – those trees in whose dim shadow/ the ghastly priest doth reign/ the priest who slew the slayer/ and shall himself be slain – encapsulates much of what happens in the book, the golden tau cross found in a paint pot at the scene of the murder is at best an aureate herring, making it an odd choice for a title.

“Squire” Wendover, Sir Clinton Driffield’s faithful friend, takes more of a central role in this tale. Instead of being a faithful Watson, observing and recording the brilliance and derring-do of his Chief Constable friend, he takes a stab at detecting with predictable results. The major flaw in his character is his inherent snobbery and his susceptibility to a pretty girl, both traits which jar with the modern reader and, perhaps, have accelerated the author’s descent into obscurity.

There are some colourful characters in the tale, not least PC Danbury, a constable who has ingested the Police Handbook and aspires to better himself. He discovers the first body after he was summoned to a block of flats after shots were heard and it is he that discovers that the pot of paint in which the golden cross was found was spilt a couple of hours before the victim, later identified as Sternhall, was murdered.

Then there is the evangelist, Bracknell, and his girlfriend, Miss Huntingdon, and the journalist, Barbican, who in his desperation for a scoop pops up everywhere and takes an unhealthy, if professional, interest in how investigations are proceedings. He is close to the scene when the second body is found, apparently a suicide in a locked room. The body is that of Mitford, a man down on his luck, who is fascinated by Japanese culture. Is his suicide ritual hari-kari, or Harry Keary as Barbican colourfully calls it, or does the remains of an elastic band in the keyhole and some marks on the banister outside suggest that it is a murder? Of course, it is the latter.

As a chemist, Connington sheds some fascinating insights into the technology and emerging methodologies of the time. He provides the reader with a method involving a chemical which allows a forger to write a document without leaving tell-tale fingerprints and Driffield deploys a new technique that the Yard are developing, that of discerning what he calls “different brands of blood”. Blood analysis is so common these days that we do not pause to consider that it must have become a part of the police’s armoury at some time. Driffield’s blood man is able to discern that there were two sources of blood in the pool left at the crime scenes, suggesting that the murderer was injured during the conflict. Helpfully, they had different blood groups.

Inevitably, the tale involves blackmail, a femme fatale and a double life. Driffield unravels the mystery, with Inspector Chesilton doing much of the legwork, connects the two murders and makes his arrest. The moral of the story is not to be too loquacious, otherwise you run the risk of giving away more than you intended to.   

It is a thoroughly enjoyable read with a plain, workmanlike style. There are passages where the pace drops but Connington is providing valuable background information to allow the reader to make sense of what is going on. The culprit is not hard to spot but it is fun having your suspicions confirmed.

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.   

The Castleford Conundrum

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.

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.