Showing posts with label J. J. Connington. Show all posts
Showing posts with label J. J. Connington. Show all posts

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Humdrum Summer Surprise

Two days ago I received my copy of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery by fellow blogger and vintage mystery scholar Curt Evans.  It's an in-depth study of three unjustly denigrated Golden Age detective novelists - Cecil Street (who wrote under the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton), Alfred W. Stewart (who wrote as J.J. Connington ) and Freeman Wills Crofts.  It's a true labor of love for Curt who spent the last ten years of his life researching, writing and trying to sell the book to a daring publisher.  Finally it paid off.

The "humdrums" is a derogatory term created by mystery writer and critic Julian Symons in his 1972 study of crime fiction Mortal Consequences (published in the UK as  Bloody Murder). He lumped together several "dull" and "unimaginative" writers of detective novels mostly from the late 1920s - 1930s and derided them for boring characters, flat writing and tepid plots.  As Curt (and many of us vintage mystery bloggers) will tell you -- nothing could be further from the truth.

A close reading of these three men's books will reveal exactly the opposite. Rhode was ingenious in coming up with bizarre murder methods and, when he put his mind to it, concocted ingenious plots with fine examples of logical and scientific detective work. Similarly, Connington was good with tricky plots and in his early books at least displayed an offbeat sense of humor.  Crofts was the genius of the alibi and the timetable and he loved to write detective stories about trains, boats and ships at sea.  In Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery Curt discusses in detail the best books by these writers and proves Symons to be biased and snobbish in his dismissal of them as "dull" writers.

And now you can own a copy!  It's published by McFarland & Company, a publisher of mostly academic non-fiction books, and can be purchased directly at their website.  They offer an oversized paperback edition or an eBook version. Or you can try amazon. Since it comes from an independent academic press the price is a bit steep at $49.95. Unfortunately, the book is not offered at any discount prices online. But for those who are truly interested in learning more about these three writers and their fertile imaginations I say it's worth every penny.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Vegetable Duck - John Rhode

Around the middle of the 1940s Dr. Lancelot Priestley, John Rhode's professor of mathematics and sometime detective, became more of an armchair detective and less of an active participant in the intricately plotted crimes he encounters.  In these later books Priestley usually appears at the halfway point and serves as a consultant to the primary police detective. In the case of Vegetable Duck (1944) -- also published as Too Many Suspects in the US -- Priestley has only three scenes in which he makes subtle suggestions to Inspector Jimmy Waghorn. Priestley does one bit of dazzling detective work involving the mystery of an envelope with an inexplicable damp stain, but otherwise he merely entertains the police and forensic investigators at three different dinner parties and makes deprecatory remarks or frowns at Waghorn when he delivers his mostly wrong findings. But Waghorn is no dullard policeman, he picks up on Priestley's hints and finally gets it all right.

The book is almost an inverted detective novel. Waghorn does what so many real life policemen seem to do – they pick a primary suspect and become so obstinate in wanting that suspect to be guilty that they rearrange the evidence to fit the suspect conveniently overlooking things that "don't fit" rather than examining the true circumstances of the crime by including all of the evidence and using that to determine the proper criminal. On several occasions Priestley points out Waghorn's faulty reasoning and his fixation on one particular suspect who just happens to have a shady past.

There are multiple puzzles in this engrossing detective story. It's one of those rare detective novels in which the story is completely concerned with the solution of those puzzles with little filler action or the kind of local color usually found among the minor characters. The cast of characters is rather large as the story tends to shift locales frequently. Among the most interesting in the colorful supporting cast are Sir Oswald Horsham, the forensic expert; Frederick Massingham, a shifty private detective; Ellen, the garrulous cook and servant in the Fransham home; and P.C. Purbeck, a wily constable in the town where Charles Fransham relocates after his wife's death.

The murder investigation is primarily focused on the death by poisoning of Mrs. Fransham who dies while eating the vegetable duck of the original title. This is a dish of a large squash stuffed with mincemeat and vegetables. At first it is though that she somehow ingested food doctored with a prescription liniment for her arthritis that included two highly toxic ingredients. (I wondered what physician in his right mind would prescribe a medicine that seemed to be made up of nothing but poison, but this is dismissed by nearly everyone in the book. Strange.) The actual poison turns out to be the fairly innocuous digitalis, a heart medication which can be deadly in higher doses and fatal to someone without a heart condition. Savvy murder mystery readers will almost immediately pick up on the herbal origins of digitalis as I did and come to the conclusion that gardening and knowledge of plants will feature in the plot. In fact, one, of the characters is an avid horticulturalist and through him the reader learns all about raising vegetable marrows, specifically the unusual method a gardener employs to achieve super-sized marrows used for displays or to enter in gardening competitions. This method is exploited by the murderer in one of the many fiendish murder methods that are the hallmark of Rhode's books.

Waghorn's primary suspect is Mrs. Fransham's husband, Charles, who was involved in an accidental shooting that most people, including retired Superintendent Hanslet, believe was a disguised murder.  Hanslet provides Waghorn with the background of the shooting death revealing in the storytelling process the usual convoluted will in the plot. Money seems to be the central motive for the wife's death.  As the investigation unravels and becomes further complicated suspicion shifts to a little known son from Fransham's first marriage who had a less than loving relationship with his stepmother.  Waghorn refuses to heed Priestley's warnings of his rash behavior by jumping from suspect to suspect as he pieces the evidence against each man. Only in the final chapter does Waghorn see his folly and begin to pay attention to some apparently meaningless coincidences that turn out to be crucial to the correct solution.

Most of the book is deals with scientific experiments and discussion that reminded me of the best of R. Austin Freeman and J. J. Connington.  A trial and error experiment with test portions of the woman's final meal being injected into laboratory frogs recalled the elaborate camera experiment in The Sweepstakes Murder by Connington and a variety of esoteric scientific examinations by the brilliant Dr. John Thorndyke in Freeman's books.  But there is also an elaborate finale in which several characters are figuratively unmasked that made me think of some of the more outrageous denouements in Christie's work like Murder in Mesopotamia. There's a lot that will appeal to a wide variety of crime fiction readers in Vegetable Duck whether you like puzzles, scientific detection or endings that have an element of the surreal.

This completes the first part of my three part 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. Links to the previously reviewed books are listed below.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King
The Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas
The Moon Murders - Nigel Morland
Killer's Wedge - Ed McBain
Exit Charlie - Alex Atkinson
Murder in Shinbone Alley - Helen Reilly
Vegetable Duck (aka Too Many Suspects)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

FIRST BOOKS: Death at Swaythling Court - J.J. Connington

Bordering on a parody this is an early Connington novel with an unusual light-hearted tone not found in his later books with Sir Clinton Driffield. The characters are here are stock, speak in phonetic dialects, and behave a little less than real. The detective elements are well done and the book is a good example of what the mystery novel was like in the early 1920s.

The story involves the invention of a lethal ray and the attempts of Jimmy Leigh, the inventor, to acquire financing to start a manufacturing business. His mistake is that he chooses as his primary backer William Hubbard, a wealthy, lisping, butterfly collector who also happens to be a despicable blackmailer. As is the case with most blackmailers in crime fiction he meets a violent end. He is discovered apparently stabbed by a paper knife in his suffocatingly hot study.

At the inquest expert testimony reveals that the knife wound was done post mortem and that he died from cyanide poisoning. But why stab him as well? Inspection of the crime scene reveals a broken display case with a stolen butterfly, some papers and documents burned in the fireplace, and a .022 caliber pistol lying on the carpet. While the main characters are looking over the crime scene, Hubbard's pet parrot, disturbed by some earlier altercation that took place in the room, suddenly erupts in a stream of foul language much to the amazement of the three men who discover the body. Other unusual aspects in the story include three characters who own motorcycles (one of them being a butler) and a village idiot obsessed with finding and keeping beautiful things. There is a bit thrown in about a local superstition of the Green Devil whose ghostly appearance signals the approaching death of someone in the village. This never really amounts to anything unfortunately.

This was Connington's first detective novel after his science fiction novel Nordenholt's Millions. An admirable and entertaining job. Solution is actually presented at the half way point by the culprit but is touted as a theory and then dismissed by the Colonel, the local magistrate who is acting as the story's primary detective. It is one of the early rule-breaking detective stories in that the culprits manage to escape punishment for their actions. There are various ethical and moral rationales discussed throughout the book (primarily the evil of blackmail) that the Colonel uses to justify his decision. He's not as Old Testament in his retribution as Beatrice Bradley sometimes behaves, still it is worth noting for a detective novel written in the 1926.

Interestingly, like many writers who introduce supernatural elements into their detective novels only to rationalize them, the science fiction element introduced at the start of the book turns out to be completely phony. Question: what happened to Connington's sense of humor in the later Driffield books? Maybe I've not read enough of his work but this seems almost farcical compared to other novels.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

IN BRIEF: The Sweepstakes Murders - J. J. Connington

J. J. Connington
This is one of Connington's many detective novels featuring his series character Sir Clinton Driffield. It was the first Connington book I ever read about five years ago and it's excellent. After finishing it I was surprised that I agreed with the assessment of Jacques Barzun in his A Catalog of Crime. The Sweepstakes Murders really is exemplary for its type. If you are familiar with the scientific detection novels that were popular in the late 1920s through the early 1930s and like reading about the intricacies of early criminological techniques you are sure to admire this book.

A syndicate of nine men go in on a sweepstakes ticket together. Their group is drawn on a long shot horse who manages to place in the derby race they are betting on. They win over £200,000 but the holder of the ticket dies in an airplane crash and this leads to a legal dispute. One of the members decides it is in the syndicate's best interests to draw up a document which states that only living members of the syndicate can draw from the winnings. Then members of the syndicate start dying in bizarre accidents and a murderer is suspected among the survivors.

An intricate plot device involves a camera and a series of photographs that were taken at a geological formation where one of the murder victims was done in. A clever inspector runs a photography experiment that focuses on the way shadows lie in the photos to prove that the murderer himself took the pictures thereby destroying his alibi and proving the death occurred earlier in the day.

Truly one of the best novels of the Golden Age. I was completely caught up in the story. Although the culprit is easy to identify as the bodies pile up and the suspect pool diminishes, the detection by both Driffield and the inspector (a smart policeman for a change!) is fascinating.

(Sorry no picture of this book. I ended up selling my copy of a US edition as part of shelf purging process several years ago. Couldn't find any unprotected photos of the DJ on the internet.  If you want to view the original UK DJ you can go here.)