Having recently discussed with Martin Edwards the efforts writers can go to in order to keep things fresh, I can understand how, after five books in three years featuring Sir Clinton Driffield as sleuth, J.J. Connington would fancy a change. This might be unfair to Driffield, however, for the simple fact that the plot Connington cooked up for The Eye in the Museum (1929) is about the dullest thing anyone would put on paper in that decade. With interview after interview after interview after interview, we’re not Dragging the Marsh (© Brad Friedman) so much as dying inside. No, that’s not clever; this book has left me unable to care.
Okay, Jim, take a deep breath. Let’s do this.
The first two chapters at least establish some promising-if-familiar ideas: young, newly-engaged Joyce Hazlemere is bound by one of those Stupids Wills of Fiction to live with her obstreperous, bibulous aunt Evelyn Fenton, who in turn is gambling away Joyce’s inheretance. If only Aunt Evelyn were to die, Joyce and her beau Leslie Seaforth are moved to reflect — out loud, of course — all their problems would be solved. And then Aunt Evelyn does die, and Joyce and Leslie don’t seem, to the eye of the prevaricating Dr. Platt, to be quite so cut up as they should about the suspicious departure. And when it’s revealed that Aunt Evelyn died from pressure to the neck, and that the erudite Joyce might have been alone in the house with her at the time of death…well, the mind gets to wondering.
I wish to dwell on these opening chapters, because it is downhill all the way once they’re done. The eponymous Eye might at first be suspected as the historically-significant glass variety that belonged to Mr. Struan, creator of the museum where the book opens. In fact, it’s the camera obscura in the museum’s attic, directed on the surrounding neighbourhood, where Joyce and Leslie go to look around the town and introduce us to all the characters who are about to wander in and out of the narrative. This is as nakedly obvious a piece of ‘How the bloody hell else am I supposed to let you know who these people are?’ as I’ve ever encountered, but it’s charmingly written and neatly handles the various characteristics of each person in turn so that when Superintendent Ross hoves into view and starts interviewing everyone we at least have a sense of how thy relate to each other and how their character is borne out in conversation. Chapter 1, then, is a quiet success. So far, so good.
Equally, when we meet each character in the course of the book, they typically get a moment of thumbnail personality that will have to do for the remainder. See lawyer James Corwen whose attitude throughout the inquest into the death “was that of a man invited to the first night of a boring play which he must sit through out of courtesy to his host”. Or this sharp exchange between Dr. Platt and amateur astronomer Joshua Marton on the evening that the former is called to first discover the body of unfortunate Aunt Evelyn:
“Is that you, Platt? You’re out late, surely. Is anyone ill, over there?”
“No,” Platt assured him sarcastically. “Only a burst pipe would bring me out at this hour. Don’t you know I do a bit of plumbing in my spare time?”
No-one will be anything like as interesting on second appearance as they are on their first. Indeed, immediately succeeding this rare bit of spirit Platt reverts to extremely long-winded and overly-cautious means to assure himself that Evelyn is indeed dead — fascinating, given the number of times fictional doctors simply arrive, pronounce death, and bugger off to allow the actual plot to happen, but it did leave me wondering if I’d missed some locum in attendance with him. I should have enjoyed this while it lasted, because the slopes become somewhat desolate and treacherous from here.
Early on, Superintendent Ross is described as having sat through the inquest as if “bored by the whole affair”, and turns out to be as meta a piece of fiction as was ever written. Not knowing his way around the town or its principal players, he embarks on a series of interviews which would give Hawk and Fisher a run for their money in their monotony — this making me think of Hawk and Fisher should have been an early warning, eh? — running approximately thus:
Ross: What do you know about the murder?
Suspect A: Nothing!
Ross: Okay, then. What do you know about Suspect B?
Suspect A: Well, I know [something wildly out of character]
Ross: That’ll be all, thank-you
Ross goes to interview Suspect B
Ross: What do you know about the murder?
Suspect B: Nothing!
Ross: What about [thing Suspect A told him]?
Suspect B: Lawks-a’-mercy! How can you know that?!
Ross: Never you mind. What do you know about Suspect C?
Suspect B Well, I know [something wildly out of character]
Ross: That’ll be all, thank-you
The chapter wherein all the clues are laid out is hilarious for how much Connington seems to want to gloss over the fact that Ross only finds out who the killer was because someone was using the camera obscura and tells him what they saw with four chapters to go. There’s a chase that wants to make up for all the dull interviews, then a literal listing of the — ahem — clues that makes Ronald Knox’s chapter in The Floating Admiral (1931) look like a model of brevity, and then something probably happens in the final chapter but I doubt it was interesting.
As someone who has come to genuinely delight in the routine of the Golden Age, I’m able to see in The Eye in the Museum what renders this style of book so tedious for those of you unfortunate enough not to share my joy in the works of Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, and others. Crofts is a celebration of ingenuity and doggedness combined, and Freeman takes the scientific method to glorious heights of insight, and in both cases you have a wonderful sense of the detective working the case and what they feel as each step is made, be it forwards, sideways, or backwards. Of Superintendent Ross, I can tell you nothing: he seems unable to keep his feelings off his face (until he can) which is most certainly not a deliberate ploy (except when it is), and he never evinces any confidence that he has any clue about what’s going on (until he does, often retrospectively, often in frank contradiction to his behaviour up to that point). The best I can say is that he’s at least able to hare about after someone when they’ve been pointed out to him, but surely promotion (he’s a Superintendent!!) relies on more than being good in a chase…
I’m not sure even Driffield could have saved this — and the Driffield books are far from perfect, but at least they’re interesting failures when they fail — but based on this and The Four Defences (1940), Connington was a long, long, long way from his best when someone other than Sir Clinton was driving things. I should have read between the lines when Curtis Evans’ characteristically comprehensive introduction says of the two Ross novels that “the railway material in The Two Tickets Puzzle is particularly effective and should have appeal today” — careful perusal reveals no mention of The Eye in The Museum for, I realise now, good reason. I’m encouraged that Connington would later reflect in a private correspondence that “I don’t reckon it was one of my best”, but were I to encounter this early on as an example of his work it’d be a long time before I returned, as borne out by the two years that passed between my reading The Four Defences and The Sweepstake Murders (1931). Crikey, had I read Defences and then this, I may never have returned.
Learn from my mistake, and go elsewhere.
J.J. Connington on The Invisible Event
Featuring Sir Clinton Driffield:
Featuring Superintendent Ross:
The Eye in the Museum (1929)
Featuring Mark Brandon:
The Four Defences (1940)