If ever a classic-era mystery delivered promise after promise in the opening chapter it was Murder in the Maze (1927), the third criminous novel by Alfred Walter Stewart under his J.J. Connington nom de plume. You get near-identical twins, one of who is the lynchpin barrister in an on-going high-profile trial, their wastrel and haphazard younger brother, their mentally-inflicted nephew, their plans to each sit in a different part of their country house’s hedge maze for some peace and quiet, a bunch of house-guests coming and going to odd places, and a suspicious valet. If all this didn’t presage a murder, you’d want your money back.
Murder there is, in possibly one of the most superbly sustained pieces of suspense writing in a novel of such assured detection, with a couple (who fall perhaps half a Martini short of being Bright Young Things) hearing shots fired and the footsteps running around the maze, being unable find each other and obviously unwilling to encounter the perpetrator of the violence:
The murderer was still in the Maze, and on his way out he might come upon her. If he did, she would be too dangerous a witness to leave alive. She need expect no mercy. And what hope of escape would she have? There, shut in among these towering walls, isolated from all help in the intricacies of the Maze, it would be an easy business to silence her finally.
This brings Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield and his perpetual hanger-on ‘Squire’ Wendover into proceedings. I haven’t emerged as the biggest fan of Wendover based on the books I’ve read to date, but he’s a perfectly serviceable reader-insert character here at his very first showing. As someone who can be trusted by Driffield to undertake tasks of critical importance, or as a foil to spout some of the theories that might be running through the reader’s head — and so encourage an examination of the patterns that certain actions would force, which Connington does a great job of reminding you about — Wendover’s fine. It’s also quite pleasing to see the character reflect on his own culpability when it comes to leading a suspect to the hangman — in the later books Wendover loses most of this humanity, so it’ll be interesting to see at what point of his association with Driffield he begins to grate on me.
Overall, this is a very good country house mystery, and does well to explore the trappings of the genre in a way that makes the principles of method, motive, and opportunity clear (“You couldn’t have accused Robinson Crusoe in a poisoned chocolates case; he was outside the postal radius,” is a lovely turn of phrase) to audiences still waking up to this sort of thing. As a result, however, the plot doesn’t always progress as fully as you might think: a lot of events happen, but then you realise you’re four chapters on and little has changed — though, in fairness, Connington is at pains to lay clues more fully than is really needed in the reader’s way, so there’s rigour behind this lack of propulsion. Yes, this time to reflect and generosity of clewing means that you should really solve this well ahead of time (I’ll confess to overlooking one rather key factor, however, so there’s some good hiding going on), and that always makes a book feel distended, so there might be a perception bias in this criticism.
Things are helped by a sly dose of humour, too, such as Vera Forrest’s manner of getting the house’s attention when announcing murder to them, or the doctor called to the crime scene responding the Driffield’s lamentations about how much needs organising there “reflecting on the conflicting calls of a country practice [and being] inclined to think that Sir Clinton seemed to make a fuss about very little.” I enjoyed, too, Wendover feeling that some new developments are due because “nothing has happened” only for Driffield to snap “Since the last time? No, it’s rather a curious point which you may have noticed, Squire. Nothing ever does happen between the last time and the next time. That I should say was an almost invariable rule in life.” And, of course, it wouldn’t be a late 1920s detective novel if it didn’t get a little meta:
“What’s wrong with your outlook on the business, Squire, is that you want to treat a real crime as if it were a bit clipped out of a detective novel. In a ’tec yarn, you get everything nicely sifted for you. The author puts down only things that are relevant to the story. If he didn’t select his materials, his book would be far too long and no one would have the patience to plough through it. The result is that the important clues are thrown up as if they had a spotlight on them, if the reader happens to have any intelligence.”
Driffield is on fine form throughout: doing clever things with photographs and then stupid things with clues, keeping everyone in sight, sharing with Wendover the precise moment at which he, Driffield, now knows who the murderer is, and saying things like “We’ve got an instinctive craving to trace associations between sets of phenomena — and at times we kid ourselves that there is some relationship when really it’s only a case of simultaneity,” without sounding like a pompous arse. I love, too, that late on some misdeeds come to light and you don’t know Driffield yet and so cannot call how he will respond to the disclosures — and the off-hand way he resolves this in the denouement is just apt and lovely, and does far more for the communication of character than any amount of speechifying.
I don’t know how professional that denouement is, but it’s a striking idea put to good use in a setting that’s been neatly-evoked throughout. And I think that’s my experience of Connington summed up pretty neatly: I don’t know that what he does is necessarily at the top end of the genre, but he seems to work in something diverting to his plots that make you consider the book afresh rather than simply plodding unthinkingly down its familiar byways. No mean feat, when you consider how relatively early he started, and how much was still to be done in the genre from here. If I stand up to scrutiny this well when I’m 93 years old, I’ll be delighted.