The devastation wrought by the First World War in the sheer quantity of life lost saw an upsurge in the popularity of spirit mediums, to the extent that no less an authority on the rational than Arthur Conan Doyle fell under their spell. Given that this rise in open chicanery coincided with the birth of the detective novel, it surprises me that The Psychic Killer took such a long time to appear in GAD, perhaps owing to its intersection with the impossible crime and the associated difficulties of explaining away the tricks on the page — The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson being easily the best example of a very, very small subset.
Now, yes, technically Jehudi Ashmun, the newly-arrived psychic who starts to stir things up in Jack-in-the-Box (1944), isn’t killing people with his psychic powers — his New Force seems to be activated with, of all things, a violin — but since he’s holding séances where voices emanate from thin-topped card tables (his tricks also run to “materialising flowers” and, er, “taking corks out of pickle jars” — the mind boggles) he falls into that category for me. First showcasing the effects of New Force by killing an aquarium full of minnows while standing across the room, and then staging a long-range demonstration which sees a different animal entirely killed in a field outside of town, Ashmun is clearly a fakir (this is a rational genre, after all) but his examples are compelling nonetheless. Especially when people start turning up dead in that field with all the hallmarks of having died in exactly the same way…a way that no-one seems to be able to pinpoint.
Cue Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield, who is kept very busy given the sheer rate of murders and the complexity of the scheme involved. Hell, first there’s the theft of some Roman gold to contend with, but the narrative keeps its lines clear and does not seek to wrangle false confusion from the tale simply being told poorly. Of the five Connington novels I’ve now read, I have to say that this one is easily the most complex and my favourite — it’s crammed with incident, well-structured, keeps throwing up baffling crime after baffling crime, contains a couple of exemplary borderline impossibilities, and showcases Driffield’s human side as well as his investigative acumen very smartly. We’re squarely in the scientific mien that Connington knew so well — references to mydriatic alkaloids, carboxyhaemoglobin bands, the formation of blisters on a burned corpse, etc. abound, and the use of scientific principles to explain certain matters is as necessary as it is slightly deflating — but this is much more than simply a dry treatise on How to Kill with Science.
Indeed, that this was published in 1944 but is set two years earlier gives an added frisson of “Steady on, old man!” to the assertions thrown around so cavalierly throughout the text. An air raid is described by Driffield as “intensely boring…unless a bomb falls close at hand” and the reflections of a police sergeant that…
To him, it seemed just like all our wars: a lot of bad news at the start — as usual; then just one dam’ thing after another; and everybody saying it looked pretty bad — as usual; and then one day we’d wake up and find that we’d won, hands down — also as usual.
…feel especially daring given that the gyre of war was still churning at the time of publication. Where Connington’s contemporaries in the genre seem to have been at pains to highlight the danger and fear of this era in their writing, he seems rather bored of it all. Of course, the strictures of the time were no doubt wearing on the patience of the ordinary man — hmmm, if only there was a modern parallel we could draw… — with references to a Far East disaster impacting the availability of rubber, coffee, tin, petrol, tungsten, and more, and the usual gripes at “current taxation”, I just don’t think I’ve ever seen a book from this era be so explicitly exhausted by it all. It’s really rather fascinating.
Alas, the presence of Driffield unfortunately drags ‘Squire’ Wendover into proceedings, and I don’t think I’ve ever disliked a character as much as I dislike Wendover. Whether he’s berating a policeman for having the gall to consider that a friend of Wendover’s is implicated in the crimes — “outside of the Squire’s code”, apparently, and this after fourteen previous cases of being surprised by eventual culprits while under Driffield’s tutelage — the pomposity to express disapproval at people who have to work for their money growing accustomed to the demands of their profession:
“These medicals are very callous,” he said, with faint displeasure … “I suppose it’s their training that makes them so, or else death loses the unexpectedness it always has for a layman like myself. It’s just business with them.”
…or the idiocy to declare that a man can’t have been found dead because “He was alright when we saw him an hour ago”, Wendover is seemingly there only to get on my nerves. One fringe benefit of this is that I quite enjoy his frustration at Driffield’s refusal to explain his thoughts, and so I’m quite happy to wait until the end of the book for various elliptical references to be explained, but I’d happily wait without Wendover on the scene. In fact, I’d prefer it.
One element of the book that warrants deeper consideration than I can really give it here is the attitudes taken towards race. As someone who has written about the importance of not bowdlerising unpleasant attitudes out of fiction, I applaud the decision taken by Orion to publish this with all its warts on show, and to an extent this justifies my perspective because some of what’s here is just horrible. Yes, you could argue an air of facetiousness when the mixed-race Ashmun declares that “You white men are so far-seeing when compared to poor ignorant Africans”, or that he’s playing up to his audience when he starts talking about the cannibals in Liberia…but you’d like to be more certain of that, given the provenance of the author who has made this character say these things. We don’t need to pillory Connington for this slightly cloth-eared rendering — I’ve not yet seen him venture a perspective on race, and so the manner he addresses it through Ashmun and the white men who surround him might simply be a way to make characters sympathetic or deplorable depending on their stripes — but a little more caution should have been advised, because some of what’s here made even my era-adapted eyes wince a little. I maintain, however, that being forced to confront it as uncomfortable is infinitely more valuable than simply excising it.
But there’s much more to this book, so let’s end on some happier points. It amuses me that Connington makes himself a character in his own universe by referencing a short story of his that Driffield has read, and Driffield berating others for making guesses and then frankly admitting that he’s guessing at the contents of a map he saw for a fraction of a second (and is of the greatest importance to the plot) is far more amusing than it is vexingly hypocritical (yes, I’d definitely hold this exact same thing against Wendover). And while others will dislike the sudden lurch in tone of the final chapters, I thought they thrummed with genuine menace, and brought home the real personal danger in the midst of the impersonal background of war that Connington finds so enervating. Also, there’s a mistake in the deciphering of the code in chapter 4, which I leave to the reader as an exercise for their own verification.
Ultimately, this book has justified to me buying 18 Connington novels at the start of lockdown — I even bought another one when I’d finished this, because I now think I’ll want to read everything he wrote. I don’t see him ever having my heart like Freeman Wills Crofts does, but Connington improves on John Rhode’s love of obscure scientific principles by marrying them to actual plots where more than just a clever way to stop someone’s heart happens. The added social milieu that creeps in is a real bonus for me, too, and so as entertainments these are pretty hard to beat. Onwards!
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Connington’s masterpiece. There is a wholesale holocaust of which Van Dine would have been proud, but is handled in a superior manner: the murders are all committed by a novel and ingenious application of scientific principles, and the plot is sufficiently complicated to make the murderer not too easy to spot.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Despite this weird, pulpy revelation of the murderer, the plot was excellent and particularly the science behind the murders and borderline impossible events. I especially liked the explanation for the murder of the local drunk, who died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, which turned out to have an ingenious explanation that was tied to one of the bombing raids. Connington should have saved that method for another book instead of burying it in a series of murders.
J.J. Connington on The Invisible Event
Death at Swaythling Court (1926)
Featuring Sir Clinton Driffield:
Featuring Superintendent Ross:
Featuring Mark Brandon:
The Four Defences (1940)