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…
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 World: I 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…!