#652: The Sweepstake Murders (1931) by J.J. Connington

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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.

Sweepstake Murders, The CWThe 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.

18 thoughts on “#652: The Sweepstake Murders (1931) by J.J. Connington

  1. The characterization of Freeman Wills Crofts as “… a lithe, plot-propelling ninja” was a very nice touch to get your point across.

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    • For all Crofts’ reputation as a dullard, his books certainly do move at a pace — even The Pit-Prop Syndicate has quite a lot going on amidst all the detail of a man sitting in a barrel spying on some dudes. Connington could do well to learn from Crofts’ reams of policemen who go off and find what the plot needs — sure, I enjoy following a hard-working and assiduous copper doing his job thoroughly and well, but at times this gets just a tiny bit protracted without good cause.

      I’m reading Crofts to review next week just to see how the two compare, and I already have a feeling that “Soapy Joe” French is going to come out of things better than plodding old Severn does here…

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      • Yes, yes, I know about your enthusiasm for Crofts and I agree that he is unduly maligned, which made your choice of words even more amusing.

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        • Yes, yes, I know about your enthusiasm for Crofts

          Oh, man, I can hear the sigh you uttered before typing these words, Christophe 😆 I’ll have to work on diversifying my conversation…

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    • For plot purposes, yes, I’d agree with you, but as a document of the time it is — as say above — sort of fascinating. The detail in the betting background, for instance, is very finely sketched (no doubt because Connington knew contemporary readers would understand it…), and the attitudes displayed, perhaps unconsciously, toward these new-fangled trades by which a man can apparently make a living (sniff, sniff) is not something I’d encountered before in this type of novel.

      I’ve always been a fan of lightly-sketched cultural and contemporary milieu, and the book would be a weaker proposition without this. But, since it has it, it’s not. And for how much it reveals about Connington, whether or not I find his views enjoyable, it’s also sort of entrancing.

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  2. I’ve read all but two of his detective stories. I most recommend:

    Murder in the Maze
    Case with 9 Solutions
    No Past is Dead
    Jack-in-the-Box

    Ha-Ha Case, Castleford Conundrum, and maybe A Minor Operation are quite good too. And one critic thought Mystery at Lynden Sands was the best detective story to that point.

    Many of the 30s Conningtons don’t have the zest of his early books. Rather too long and plodding.

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    • Yes, it was your recent rave review of Murder in the Maze that made me down tools and decide to finally commit to this Connington malarkey. I would have continued to scratch at a title here, a title there over the next 15 years otherwise, and never quite gotten round to trying to man seriously.

      I believe I have all those you mention above, so I’ll certainly get to them in due course. Curtis, from his introduction here, doesn’t seem to be a fan of Connington’s later tranche of books, either, but I suppose that’s hardly unheard of with authors; at least those who go off the boil had the skill to get themselves up and boiling in the first place 🙂

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  3. I’ve not got to this one yet but I have just finished The Two Tickets Puzzle. That one doesn’t have Driffield but instead has Superintendent Ross. I guess you could level similar charges at this – that it is a bit longer than it really needs to be, but not to the point where it’s a serious problem. I still read it in three to four days and that’s fairly quick by my standards. Sure it could be pared down a little but I had a very good time watching as the case was painstakingly pieced together.

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    • The extra length on this one only bothered me, I think, because I was trying to get through it in a day in order to get this review written. With the freedom to lounge in it over the best part of a week, maybe I wouldn’t have minded so much — certainly the overlong likes of The Cask and Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight didn’t vex me too greatly, but I wasn’t in such a rush with either of them.

      In future I shall attempt to — ha — be a bit further ahead of myself and so have time to linger over J.J. and his meandering prose. Maybe that will help…

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  4. I’ve only read three of Connington’s novels, Murder in the Maze, The Case with Nine Solutions and Jack-in-the-Box, which all come recommended with minor reservations about Sir Clinton Driffield’s debut (Murder in the Maze). However, Connington made great use of the garden maze as an interactive crime scene and the book is still a cut above most 1920s mystery novels. In Whose Dim Shadow is of interest to both of us, as it’s Connington’s only locked room mystery, but no idea how good it actually is.

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    • In Whose Dim Shadow also has a lovely map at the beginning, which always goes over well. Maybe that’s the place to go next, since I think I’ll approach Connington by interest rather than my usual mode of (broadly) chronologically. Watch this space…!

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    • Oh, the usual: sold a cow for some magic beans, climbed the resulting beanstalk, stole a giant hen, entered it in a hen race, used the winnings to buy an enchanted forest, and tripped over the books while chasing some ne’er-do-wells off my land. That’s how everyone else gets book, right?

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  5. I thought this was brilliant. The scene at the cliffside with the cameras is ingenious and I was fascinated. I doubt you read my review but it’s over at the blog. Very terse in the early days when I was posting things from a handwritten reading journal I kept between 1999 and 2010. Now I’m a rambling old curmudgeon less impressed with plotting and more fascinated with the author’s lives and the “Things I Learned” bits of trivia, history and pop culture that I come across in the books.

    Long before Coachwhip existed I used to find the US editions all the time in my bookselling days and I knew they would sell fast so I just put them online. They’d sell so fast I never had a chance to read any of them! I remember I attempted to read The Brandon Case (Ha-Ha Case in the UK edition) but it bored me so I quit.

    Coincidentally, not knowing that you had written this post, last night I started to read The Dangerfield Talisman which has been on the shelf for years now. The first scene takes place at a party of bridge players. One of the players, a woman, is the dummy hand and starts to muse about how she’s going to pay some outstanding bills. Three pages of this! Ho-hum! Put it back on the shelf. I need an exciting opening. Bridge has never excited me and I still don’t understand the rules no matter how many times I read about it in a mystery novel from the past.

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    • I did read your review, John, I promise — I would have linked to it, but you have what I thought was a bit too much of a spoiler in there and I didn’t want the unwary to wander into it un…warily.

      The scenes at Hell’s Gape are wonderful. I would love to visit it, Connington does a great job of bringing it to life. I don’t even know if it exists, I’d just love to visit it.

      I remember a book, which I believe was Murder in Black and White by Evelyn Elder, starting with a party and going into great depths about who each of nine or ten characters were, how they related to each other, what their friendships and rivalries were — I read that opening about five times trying to fix all the details in my mind…and then all but two of them disappeared for the rest of the novel. Now if there’s too much going on at the start, I just skip it and hope it’s not relevant later — as you say, the attention should be captured early, not trying to make an escape.

      Now I’m a rambling old curmudgeon less impressed with plotting and more fascinated with the author’s lives

      Well, at least you have age as an excuse. I’m a rambling young(ish) bore obsessed with the mechanics of plotting and delighting in subtle moments of great import. I’m the guy at the party excitedly explaining the rules of a complex boardgame no-one else wants to play…or I would be if I got invited to any parties 🙂

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