#414: The Four Defences (1940) by J.J. Connington

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I had only read one previous novel by J.J. Connington — The Case with Nine Solutions (1928) — about which I remember one clever piece of misdirection and little else.  I’ve had The Four Defences (1940) for ages, but his fellow-Humdrummer Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts captured my heart and swept me off my feet, so amends were here to be made.  Thus, we have the remains of an unidentified body in a burned-out car, an obstreperous coroner insisting on felo de se, and a mystery on our hands.  Cue an amateur detective — with the delightfully pleonastic name of Mark Brand, whose job seems to be giving relationship advice on the radio — to break the case…

Hairy Aaron, it’s dull.  You’d think a fire-destroyed car containing a body with scope for plenty of physical evidence and clue-hunting would be the sort of situation a writer creates in order to show of their brinkmanship and creativity.  Alas, it feels like half of every chapter is spent simply repeating information from the chapter before, the narrative a sort of rolling stone covered in moss that is described again and again with varying degrees of interest, with ever-more moss gathered and some of that described while also some of the pre-existing moss is talked about in case you forgot it was there.

The main problem I have beyond this repetition, however, is just how non-existent the detection is.  On account of his radio show, Brand is able to canvas for help, and all we ever see are the results of this, never the process.  Frequently he turns up at the door of Inspector Hartwell with his trail already ended and the thing he was searching for already found — in stark contrast to Crofts, who was  devil for showing you the sheer amount of legwork and ingenuity that went into such revelations, and who made his Inspector French greet failure as inevitable and merely to be faced with equanimity before an alternative path is taken.  Here, Connington appears to employ a Croftian example early on with Brand having run down various sightings of cars matching the one destroyed in the fire, then piecing together a possible timetable of the sightings that are likely to be of the same car, and while this felt like a soft introduction to Brand to prepare you for his rigorous ways, it’s actually just how everything works from that point on.  Hartwell needs information.  Brand turns up with it, having got it, somehow.  Brand shows it to Hartwell and makes some cryptic remark that implies he’s holding something back (“You’ve missed one or two points, Inspector.”).  Rinse and repeat.  Fin.

For all this, you never get any sense of Brand as a character beyond the fact that he wears loud tweed suits and…well, okay, that’s it.  There’s not a single character who gets to demonstrate some personality trait without you being told that’s how they are in advance in the entire book: the inquest — gah, dear sweet heaven how I detest inquest chapters that add nothing to the plot — is full of “he seemed a ponderous man” and “she looked empty-headed” before the witnesses say anything, and then they vaguely behave in the manner of the adjectives applied to them.  Curtis Evans nails it perfectly in his book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2012) when he holds the book to account for its “practically non-existent atmosphere and the thinnest of cardboard characters”.  Even the setting seemed entirely indistinct to my mind; something about the writing felt very American to me, and the constant references to paying off witnesses with “quids” and chauffeurs driving people to London wold suddenly drop out of nowhere and remind me that we were in Good Old Blighty, only for me to immediately forget again when anything else happened.

And yet, away from the plot, there are some points of contemporary interest that far outweight what you’re supposed to be interested in: the hoarding of petrol for one’s car was a matter that would attract the attention of the police, though “[n]obody carries petrol [in their car] nowadays, with all these pumps by the roadside”.  As a document of social history it has its merits, but for every good line we get hideous clunkers like “If this was a tec novel and I was reading it, I’d get suspicious at once”, and the egregious smugness of Brand regaling his sister with a pointless piece of tell-don’t-show by beginning “There’s only one length for a story and that’s the right length”.  Mark, Alfred Walter Stewart would wholeheartedly disagree with you…

As to the plot, well, the plot of a detective novel (though, as I say, I don’t think this qualifies as one) is always a matter of personal interpretation.  Unfortunately for Stewart here, the early, entirely incongruous mention of a particular detail pretty much immediately set me on a path from which nothing convinced me to waver.  Drag as many people with an unmotivated interest in dentistry across the trail as you like, the scheme at the heart of this was already pretty old by 1940 and you’re not appropriately misdirected away from it for my taste (unless boring the reader so much that they skip ahead and miss pertinent details was part of the plan).  And the final summation — all the detritus having been cleared away — is relayed with the enthusiasm of a man describing his job as a low-grade cat food taster to someone he doesn’t like very much and knows he’ll never see again.  I shut this one with a sigh that was decidedly more long-suffering than it was pleasurable, and I’m not in any rush to return.

The only sensible response is to run sobbing into the arms of Freeman Wills Crofts and promise never to betray his trust and just hope he’ll have me back…

~

See also

Mike Grost @ GADetection wiki: The Four Defences is notable for the complexity of the plot. Every chapter unveils much new detail about the crimes. There is no padding: Connington has produced a Golden Age detective novel whose length is justified by the richness of the plot.

Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the WorldI expected a damn dry slog through arid wastes of police procedure, “painstaking” (and giving!) detection, without a pause at a refreshing oasis of excitement, humor, or characterization.  Instead, this may well be Connington’s most zestful book since the 1920s.

These two are some of the most widely-read of all GAD enthusiasts and their perspective on the books in the genre are always worthy of serious attention, but we shall agree to disagree on this title…!

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Six Were to Die from last week since both have a number in their title.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Set in a small village.

38 thoughts on “#414: The Four Defences (1940) by J.J. Connington

  1. Well, I thought it livelier than a lot of ’30s Conningtons. (“Good God!”, I hear you say.) I gave up on The 21 Clues, so know how you feel.

    The back half of my review is pointing out that the solution was disappointing, and the plot transparent.

    “With three possible corpses to play with, surely Connington could have done something more ingenious!”

    My favourite is Jack-in-the-Box, which has lots of pseudo-scientific apparently supernatural murders.

    • I’m afraid you hear me say nothing on the subject of 1930s Connington, as I’ve only read this and Nine Solutions.

      Thanks for the recommendation of Jack-in-the-Box; I’m incapable of giving up on anyone and so shall make a note of that one and check it out once the memory of this one had faded suitably. I’ve also heard good things about The Sweepstake Murders, but now you’ve got me wondering if that came from his Turgid Thirties…!

      Either way, I shall be back to Connington. Things worked out pretty well for me and Philip MacDonald after a lousy start, and it stands to reason that everyone wrote at least one absolute duffer of a book. My natural optimism always asserts itself whenever I struggle through something as I did this, so I’m already convinced that Connington must be better than this late-career standard. We shall see!

      • Well, Jack in the Box is his second last book!

        I found Sweepstake a bit turgid, truth to tell; it’s a Croftsian police story. You like Crofts, though, so that might be a good thing for you!

        The ones I most liked were 9 Solutions (which you’ve read) and JITB. Murder in the Maze is fun – curare-armed assassins stalking the garden of an English country house! I read a 1940s Penguin, for added period charm.

        My first MacDonald was Adrian Messenger – and I haven’t found anything quite at that level!

        One star! How many books are that bad?

        • Yeah, Connington’s books sound like a lot of fun, which is part of my disappointment here. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for something by him in future and report back, but it will be a little while — plenty of other books and authors I’ll happily prioritise.

          As for one-star books, I’ve read maybe 75 books this year and would rate about 4 of them at that level, so approximately 5% is your answer in my case. And, hey, at least i finish one-star books: anything I abandon doesn’t even get consideration of a rating…! Plus, I have given zero stars on here before, so it could be worse 🙂

  2. Oh dear, I was hoping for a stellar rating and review… At one level I like Connington better than Crofts – as the latter tends to write in the vein of a procedural. But unfortunately I don’t think I have a Connington title to recommend: ‘Eye of the Museum’ veers towards thriller at the end; ‘Tragedy at Ravensthorpe’ has at least one clever idea/twist, but remains somewhat middling otherwise.

    Thanks for the warning!

    • Well, Mike enjoyed it a lot more than I did, and Nick represents the middle ground, so there is the gamut of perspectives for you to choose from. I’m not sure I could recommend either of these Connington titles, but that doesn’t mean there’s not good stuff out there. Let’s hope so, anyway, because I intend to spend at least another two books finding out.

      Not just yet, though. For obvious reasons.

    • Yes, Ravensthorpe has a great idea (the medical condition) poorly used. It could have been a really nasty crime – a death that is both suicide and murder.
      Imagine what Chesterton (or the Knox of “Solved by Inspection”) would have done with it!

      • Ah, the medical condition was an interesting aspect to the book, and I agree that not much was made of it. The idea I quite liked involved the statues in the forest – but that might be due to my inexperience with the genre. 😅

  3. I have only read Murder in the Maze so far and I think my delay in returning to Connington reflects my own lack of enthusiasm. No doubt I will eventually get around to reading others but I will give this one a wide bearth for a while. Sorry that this one let you down.

    • Well, there’s the consolation that whatever I read after this was always going to be magnificent in comparison 🙂

      Thankfully, if I want my Humdrum fix, there’s plenty of Crofts, Rhode, Freeman, and as-yet-undiscovered (by me) others to dive into . The GAD reprint boom has brought back a lot of guff, but it’ equally given us some wonderful books that we can escape into.

      • Freeman? Humdrum? Hum.

        Michael Grost puts him with the scientific pioneer authors, which is probably where I’d put him as well, though I think I can see your point as well. Then again, I’ve only read four of his books and a couple of short stories so what do I know.

        • Yeah, I am somewhat stretching the definition of ‘Humdrum’ a little there (though, in all honesty, I’m not entirely sure precisely what the definition is). See if Crofts and Rhode are Humdrums, and I don’t really see them as such an easy comparison, it’s the glory in detail and proceedure that makes them comparable — so Freeman’s medico-detection fits on the same basis that a very fine level of attention is paid to minute specifics and processes as a way of resolving the central issue under consideration.

          However, literally everyone else who has ever written about this — and especially Mike Grost, that man has read everything — has a better perspective on it. I was just blurring some boundaries to make a point.

          • Rhode and Connington – both Humdrums – were influenced by Freeman, as was Crofts himself (e.g. Starvel Tragedy). And a lot of the later Freeman books are very humdrum: measuring and weighing things in meticulous (even tedious) detail.

  4. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for books with names like this – The Nine Wrong Answers, The Case with Nine Solutions, The 21 Clues… There’s always so much promise in a title like that. Nice to know this one doesn’t pan out.

    • I’m the same for anything with ‘Invisible’ in the title — weird how these things catch our imaginations, eh?

      I’m interested to find something great by Connington, because the two so far really lack any distinction at all. I’m interested to see if the absence of rigour here, that constant short-cutting, is emblematic of his writing or if he actually approaches something like legit structure in detection on a more regular basis. Jack-in-the-Box, which Nick likens to Crofts, might be a good place to start in that regard…

      • No, Jack-in-the-Box is more like Carr! Sinister mystic, apparently supernatural murders, and a cursed treasure.

        Sweepstake is Croftsian. Most of Connington’s from the 1930s are, starting with the two non-Driffields, The Eye in the Museum and The Two Tickets Puzzle (very boring railway murder). When Driffield returns in The Boathouse Riddle, the main investigator is often a policeman, and the detection is a grind.

        • Yeah, sorry, it’s been a busy week and I’m contradicting stuff that’s very easy to check up on — JitB = Carr, Sweepstake = Crofts. Got it.

          I shall start with those two next, and bear your comments in mind if I decide to go any further than that. Thanks for clearing up my mistake; I’m on holiday now for the summer, so I expect lucidity to slowly return to my dealings from hereon out…

    • I do like a number in the title – that’s why I ordered The Case with Nine Solutions and The Twenty-One Clues alongside this one and Murder in the Maze – only to find in the introduction which covers all of his work that neither Four or Twenty-One are meant to be that good.

      • Challenge the received wisdom, John! Find something in them to love! I spent years being told Freeman Wills Crofts was an unreadable dullard and he’s possibly my favourite GAD author at present, so I hold no sway with these “Everyone Says X is Terrible” opinions.

        That, or, well, they really are terrible books. Dunno. Guess you’ll have to read them to find out 😀

    • You’d be most welcome to my copy, but it’s on Kindle so I don’t even technically own it. As a fan, you’ll probably find much more to enjoy than I did, so I’ll be interested in your thoughts when you get to it.

      Thanks for the recommendation — it’s all going in the memory banks (well, the TBB list) and I shall report back in, like, a year or so.

      • I’ll keep an eye out for it. I’ve developed a collecting habit of getting one nice original-ish copy of the GA authors that I like, and it sounds like this might be attainable. Oh, hang on, was it 1940? Forget that then… I’ll just get the Kindle copy at some point

  5. I thought this was rather dry indeed, but had a lot of interesting investigative detail. I discuss it in Masters, but no need to quote me as you do others. You really ought to look at some Thirties Connington. I can’t understand how you love Crofts so much and yet dislike these other authors. The Ponson Case, five stars?

    • Oh, I’m not giving up after a mere two books — there’s The Sweepstake Murders and Jack-in-the-Box at least still to try. I’m thoroughly incapable of writing anyone off after one book, it’s a real character flaw of mine…

  6. “Curtis Evans nails it perfectly in his book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2012) when he holds the book to account for its “practically non-existent atmosphere and the thinnest of cardboard characters”.”

    Oops, never mind the other comment! Yeah, that was my assessment. It struck me as a remarkably colorless book, but I still enjoyed it some nevertheless for the plot, as did a lot of critics at the time. Your comment that it’s not a novel may seem harsh but I get where you are coming from. But it’s not typical of Connington’s writing in that regard. Connington had severely declining health and I think may have been too listless to write a full dress detective novel. You ought to try The Ha-Ha Case or A Minor Operation or The Sweepstake Murders or The Castleford Conundrum, for example, before totally writing him off.

    • Thank-you, I’ll be sure to add these to the list — as I say above, I’m not writing him off without at least another couple of gos…they just might be a little while coming!

      I did have a quick look to see where this fell in Connington’s career and discovered it was a fairly late one, so a certain decline is perhaps not unexpected. Hell, even f that’s not the case, it’s also entirely possible someone writes a stinker in the middle of a run of gems — he was a prolific man, they were bound to vary in quality.

      Just had a look on Amazon, and The Ha-Ha Case has disappeared from their roster. I was pretty sure this was part of the Murder Room set, so I wonder if those books are going to slowly start fading away now, however long after the closure of that endeavour. I do hope not, I’m bsrely getting through the books I own without also having to scramble and snatch up a bunch of ebooks, too….

  7. Pingback: Vintage Reading Challenge – July 2018 – Countdown John's Christie Journal

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