When recently retired Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield heads to the village of Raynham Parva to spend some time with his widowed sister and her two children, he is met by surprises on all sides. On the drive down he encounters what appears to be the shattering of an Eternal Triangle, then he discovers that his beloved niece Elsie has embarked on a nostrum of a mariage to Vincente Francia, an Argentinian gentleman no-one had ever heard of before. Driffield barely has time to tut disapprovingly before one member of that Triangle turns up dead in suspicious circumstances and, despite his questionable official status, he is called in to consult.
Last March I invested in 18 novels by J.J. Connington on the basis of Curtis Evans deeming him important enough to write about alongside Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode/Miles Burton/Cecil Waye in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2012). Over the course of the seven Conningtons I’ve now read, I have come to the realisation that you have to allow for some rather, er, uninformed perspectives if you want to get the most out of his plots. You could sum it up with ‘These damn forriners’, really, since they’re all clearly un-English, hiding something, part of something untoward, or probably some kind of deviant or another. Indeed, given how much of this book revolves around Francia and his (possible) misdeeds and general air of chicanery and untrustworthiness, the Argentine is barely a presence in the book: entire scenes feature him and revolve around his actions, but I’m not sure he’s reported as saying anything after the opening few chapters.
If you can get past that (and the blatant classism, which is another permanent feature of Connington’s work) there’s certainly something here to enjoy. The book is far too long, with a huge amount of time given to tennis parties and social encounters of no particular importance, but it contains some solid, admirable detection and a few ideas that are really quite striking — shave 50 pages off and, with the above caveat in mind, it might be a masterpiece. Driffield is a conscientious policeman who understand the need for thorough work and holds others to the same standard: witness his dressing down of Constable Peel, who is keen to level a murder charge without any meaningful examination of the evidence, or the give-and-take he has throughout with Sergeant Ledbury concerning logical deductions, dangerous conjectures, and the careful amassing of evidence. These parts of the plot contribute a lot to the overall scheme, and if kept on purely procedural grounds it would be a delight.
Alas, the plot here is really more three novellas stacked atop each other and joined by lots of tennis and hypocrisy towards Francia and the other forriners who have descended on Raynham Parva. Even before there’s any evidence of any misdeeds, Francia’s very Otherness is held against him: “He’s foreign — not our sort” Elsie’s mother Anne declares, with Driffield agreeing that “I’d have been better pleased if Elsie kept to her own people and left foreigners alone”. And when the man tries to ingratiate himself by making a joke, say, Driffield bristles at it seeming “rather pointless” (when the youthful, comely Estelle Scotswood cavils Driffield in the same good-natured way about his taciturnity regarding his recent government-mandated holiday, howver, that’s all in good fun). Estelle may mock Driffield for grumbling about the new generation and their new ways, but Connington is clearly convinced of his own rightness in this.
It’s an easy read on a line-by-line basis, though, with some highlights in the characterisation of Driffield’s nephew Johnnie and the poor, dejected suitor Rex Brandon (no, not that one…) whom everyone viewed as Elsie’s beau presumptive and who, Driffield reflects, “had always been ready to fall in with her wishes; and perhaps he had made himself cheap while hoping to become indispensable”. There’s also this lovely moment late on where Estelle’s father suddenly views himself cast in the role of Watson the Driffield’s Holmes:
[B]ut Watson never seemed to have felt as he himself felt at this moment. Watson could encounter all the accessories of violent death without turning a hair. In fact, he he hardly noticed them, so far as one could gather from his accounts. Mr. Scotswood, on the other hand, was acutely conscious of the spreading pool of blood on the floor, the contorted body on the hearthrug, and the cold detatchment with which Sir Clinton was going about his work.
The phrase “all my eye and Betty Martin” crops up again — not as good as “Hairy Aaron!”, but it has a pleasingly light touch as an era-appropriate exclamation — and you have to love the final page assertion of Driffield’s that, if all the detail isn’t exactly explicitly provided, “any small omissions can be filled in by people of normal intelligence”. I also now have a tea stain on my couch on account of the description herein of one gentleman’s magnanimous nature as him “want[ing]…to see a girl making the best of herself and getting a good screw”. Er.
The vintage of this is such that additional historical touches litter the text to the delight of my gluosity for such crumbs: someone drawing a “multum-in-parvo knife” from their pocket, Francia’s untested status seeing him labelled a “cough drop” and the sisters who are to accompany Elsie and Francia on their honeymoon in Buenos Ayres betokened “two young Peris” by Estelle. I also get the impression that Connington might have learned the word ‘yonder’ around the time of writing, because seemingly everyone uses it (mine is a physical book and I wasn’t going to scour it, but if the word crops up less than 15 times from various mouths I’ll be amazed). And while the denouement drags on a little, there’s certainly one element that makes it feel as if Connington trying to add to the purpose and scope of the detective novel: it’s not new now, of course, but it feels like a fresh idea for the time and Connington deserves credit for its use.
In the end, the somewhat insular nature of Connington’s world-view gives this a slightly bitter flavour — given what Driffield discovers, and the links with the government the book is keen to hint at heavily, he could do more than just look out for the three people he does, but his motives for involvement never look any higher — and makes the unbending rectitude our protagonist seeks in others a little…callow, I feel. Perhaps this is simply a case of Connington expanding his scope onto ground he is less secure on, however (for an author blessed with such clarity of expression, his writing in chapter 7 becomes quite infuriatingly vague, and its import took a while to really establish itself in the narrative), and, having read a few of his later books, it would seem he learned something from this experience. I don’t dissuade you from reading it, and it would be lovely to discuss it with someone who has, but the reader is warned.
Martin Edwards: There are several touches which remind us that Connington was a scientist, and a man with a highly practical turn of mind. The book is a reminder, too, that writers of that period were intensely interested in the concept of justice, and how to achieve it – especially if the orthodox legal routes were not available. I can’t claim this book is a masterpiece, but it remains perfectly readable, and its historical interest is significant. And I think Connington’s willingness to experiment with the detective novel form is a sign of his quality.