You may have missed the subtle hint I put up recently about buying some J.J. Connington books, but, with 18 to choose from, where to start? Well, if there’s a GAD touchstone I enjoy almost as much as a “no footprints” murder it’s a tontine, so The Sweepstake Murders (1931), which sees nine associates win £241,920 (or £16 million in today’s money) to be divided among them is a great place to reattempt Mt. Connington. Because £241,920 spilt nine ways is less each than when it’s split eight ways, which would be less than splitting it seven ways, which would be less than splitting it six ways…you can see how someone starts to think, can’t you?
And so it happens that, after the first of their number dies in an aeroplane accident, the remaining eight members of the Novem Syndicate who have a sweepstake ticket drawn for the Derby — around the edges of all this is a fascinating picture of a pre-high-street-betting-shops days — find themselves falling into ravines whilst out walking, or losing control of their cars while driving at high speed, and the remaining shares of that money get only larger and larger with each misdeed. Connington here shares a style of approach with his fellow Humdrum John Rhode/Miles Burton in that this idea alone is deemed sufficient to fill out his novel, there will be no B-plot and no C-story, thankyouverymuch, and so we simply wait for the next death to shorten the odds and for Inspector Severn to slowly reason it out.
And ‘slowly’ might just be the key word here, since Connington is not afflicted with Rhode’s desire to crack out as many books in as short a time as possible, and is very happy for 200 words to stand where 130 would do. While never exactly dull, the book as a whole is a good 20% longer than it needs to be, with the revelations that Connington has for the final stages being suitably intelligent — though built, it must be said, on a veritable bedrock of frank surmise and very little surprise — but altogether more exciting if they’d come 60 pages earlier. It’s not as shamefully padded as other books from this era and I have no wish to derogate Connington’s largely very cordial and detail-rich telling of an interesting story, but if this sort of plodding, drawn out approach is emblematic of his telling you can understand why he faded from popularity and memory. Say what you like about schoolmate Freeman Wills Crofts, that gentleman rarely let three pages go by without some development of note, and comes off as a lithe, plot-propelling ninja when placed against some of Connington’s more verbose endeavours.
Case in point: late on, the provenance of some letters from a suspect’s typewriter is seen as a bad note against said suspect, and Severn is quick to confront that person with said evidence. However, a chapter or two previously Severn himself effected entry to this person’s house and had the run of the place in their absence, showing how easy it would be for someone else to have broken in and used the typewriter. And it’s only after confronting the suspect with the letters, which have been in his possession for some time, that Severn then takes the time to investigate the signatures on them and finds “the hesitations of the pen, the wavering edges of the lines, even a faint retouching at one place where the first tracing had been unsatisfactory” which show they’re obvious forgeries. Cool, but imagine how more intelligent he’d seem if he’d done that before confronting said suspect. And how many pages of needless dull denials we’d’ve been saved into the bargain. Joseph French would be appalled to see a fellow professional pull such a boner.
What commends the book, though, is its portrait of a culture in transition. Witness how the men in the syndicate all make their money not in “the old staple trades: coal, iron, shipbuilding, and so forth” but in “flimsy articles, or next door to that”: office gadgets, fancy brands of enamel, cinemas, and condiments. Or see ‘Squire’ Wendover’s disgust at the confectioner Checkley using the inquest to “advertise his wares in connection with a case which was bound to receive wide publicity”, or the notion of how a businessman comports himself in these new industries being underlined by the lush Old Thursford who at almost every social function “had grown more and more disagreeable as the alcohol dissolved his thin coating of late-acquired manners”. Nothing is to be relied upon, not even honour, and so of course there will be grubbing and arguments over mere money.
The milieu in which this all takes place is good, too, from excited amateur radio hobbyists and the finer points of amateur photography, to lovely casual asides such as sweepstakes working to the common pattern of “you [buy] a ticket and someone else [gets] the money” and Severn’s reluctance at having to turn down quality cigarettes offered to him when making an official call on someone. It’s a shame that no-one really commends themself on the character front beyond Wendover, since all the men seem to have a horror of The Wimmin having an embarrassing fit of the vapours or expressing an opinion, and The Wimmin are to be equally admired and castigated for having things like personalities and being able to concentrate on driving a car when told of a death fifteen minutes previously:
Viola confined her attention to her driving; and Wendover was again favourably impressed. Most girls would have found difficulty in refraining in futile inquiries. On the other hand, most girls would have found time to say at least a word of sympathy or pity for the victim. What one gained on the swings, one evidently lost on the roundabouts, in Viola’s case. There was a streak of hardness alongside her coolness.
It’s a shame, then, that Wendover is the one personality to emerge, because Wendover is himself something of a prick. I don’t know enough about Connington’s personal views, but Wendover does feel rather like an Author Mouthpiece for a man who simply wants everything Back How It Was and probably got to enjoy being in a position of quite supreme comfort from which to judge his less worthy fellow men Yes, Golden Age detective fiction is shot through with knowing winks at apparent pomposity, but there’s also a lot of just plain old pomposity in there, too, and Wendover falls far more heavily into this latter camp:
If a man had enough knowledge of the world to read through a single copy of [The Times newspaper] and understand all that he read, then — by Wendover’s standards — that man belonged to the educated class. If he failed to pass this test, even though her were crammed to the back teeth with classics or science, he was no better than a barbarian living amid a civilisation which he could not appreciate.
Curtis Evans’ excellent introduction makes a point of the popularity of series sleuth Sir Clinton Driffield, but even he emerges here as much of a cipher as he did from my reading of The Case with Nine Solutions (1928) in those heady pre-blog days. Perhaps further reading will reveal hidden depths to the man, eh? For now, I’ll content myself with the couple of bizarro moments that are going to stand out for me here — making a warning lantern by soaking a handkerchief in a dead man’s blood and draping it over the headlight of a motorcycle being chief among them — and the amusing moment when two casual sentences about halfway through provide the entire plot of a Big Name Thriller Author’s book from the early 2000s. It also contains one of the oddest explanatory diagrams I’ve ever encountered, the precise purpose of which is going to baffle me for a while yet…perhaps a tighter edit would compel these points less in the memory, but who’s to say?
Not a book to make me rue my rather hasty 18 book investment in Alfred Stewart’s work, then, but also not one to get me singing from the rooftops just yet. Still, it took me a couple of novels to warm up to Crofts, so if anyone can recommend where to go next with my fellow J.J., I’d appreciate it.