I first encountered J.J. Connington’s two-book sleuth Superintendent Ross in his debut, The Eye in the Museum (1929), a novel I disliked so much I’ve banished from memory almost entirely. It was to be hoped, then, that Ross’ valedictorian case The Two Tickets Puzzle (1930) would strike me more favourably — which, given the rate these Golden Age tyros produced mysteries (this is Connington’s ninth crime novel in just four years), didn’t seem too unlikely: quality is bound to vary wildly under intense output. And, sure enough, Ross’ final case is an improvement: clearer, better structured, and far more engaging.
When a train pulls into Kempsford Junction bearing a corpse which has been shot in the head five times with bullets of two different calibres, it’s not long — via a Rudyard Kipling-reading porter, and a farmer wanting to know who shot his prize ram — before Superintendent Ross is brought to the scene. Some swift detection later, the life of our victim Mr. Oswald F. Preston finds itself under the microscope, in the hope that some clue might be found as to why someone would wish him dead. And, of course, plenty of reasons begin to spill out…
It’s difficult to find too much The Two Tickets Puzzle does wrong, just as it’s difficult to highlight too much that makes it notable, and in that regard it might well represent the most mid-level book I’ve ever encountered, and in the best possible way. The expected rounds of suspicion and exculpation roll on exactly as expected: younger wife, sticky-beak maid, doctor about whom many rumours swirl, business dealings that might prove important…all the usual trotted out, displayed, and then packed away again without ever dragging or missing a beat, and without ever really inspiring much in the way of ingenuity or excitement. Connington’s prose goes down easy, the book flies past, and then it’s over and you’re on to something else.
Considered one of the ‘Humdrum’ Golden Age writers, Connington has never seemed more Freeman Wills Crofts to me than he does here. Don’t let anyone tell you that this is all timetables, it’s not: there’s one timetable that’s of practically no importance, and most of the investigation sees Ross and the ever dependable Inspector Mornington, who “never get[s] confused between what’s provable and what’s only surmise”, working in consort almost as hard as Crofts’ Joseph French does alone to chase down leads and interview suspects. And some good detection there is: a discussion of reading glasses being as individual as fingerprints (shades of R. Austin Freeman there, whose Dr. Thorndyke is name-checked late on), a brilliant explanation of those two calibres of bullet, even a clever ruse to get a sample from a suspect’s typewriter. Nothing to amaze — those eponymous tickets seem an odd conceit to use for the title, given that they’re far from the most striking or interesting feature of the case — just good, solid fun.
I like Connington’s characters, too: Dr. Selby-Onslow, who has “deliberately cultivated a sphinxlike appearance, behind the screen of which he could conceal his real emotions”, the avuncular lawyer Iverson whose explanation of the jam in which he has found himself in chapter 12 is legitimately amusing, the class-conscious maid Poole (you almost never learn anyone’s first name) who wishes to be at the centre of the action but is also mindful of her name getting in the papers and affecting her chances of a “good position” elsewhere, Superintendent Campden making his support for capital punishment pretty clear early on — “If [murderers] don’t like hanging, then, damn it, let them stop before they start murdering” — all people with an internal life, with none of Agatha Christie’s talent for showing you what you want to see and then surprising you: they’re all exactly what they appear, because, well, who has time for subtlety?
Some intriguing possibilities are raised throughout the investigation — the suggested solution involving the passing express train is pure Christie, incidentally — and threads that you can tell are going to be related end up colliding far earlier than you might expect. The solution when it comes is…fine, well-realised and relying on a nice piece of misdirection, but hardly something to get too excited about. Then there’s a half-decent car chase (and I say that as someone who hates novels of detection ending with a car/boat/plane/bicycle chase) and Ross sums up neatly and then sidles out of the picture forever. In many ways, this serves as an archetype for the British detective novel in the 1930s: largely unexceptional, but difficult to fault too greatly, well-written, and possible to confuse with any number of the same thing. On this evidence I wouldn’t have minded a third case from Ross, but perhaps Connington recognised that he was sailing into Crofts’ waters and so decided to change course.
The one explicit criticism I can level is that the map at the beginning — showing in the simplest possible terms the environs of the train’s origin station — is useless, and a map showing the general position of the key towns and places relative to each other would have surely made more sense. Beyond that, I can neither praise nor castigate this to any great degree, and it’s lovely to come out of something having just enjoyed it without needing to communicate something special about it. Be aware that Connington does that 1930s thing of assuming everyone has read his earlier books and so tell you who the killer was in The Eye in the Museum, but, honestly, I’d say he’s doing you a favour there. I’d suggest you need only meet Ross here and, if you enjoy his company, there are plenty of very good, dependable characters of his ilk to read about from other pens. Faint praise? Maybe, but praise nonetheless.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: The murderer is obvious from his first appearance, and the red herrings stink to high heaven. Superintendent Ross’s detection is methodical but not enthralling. The significance of the two (first-class return) tickets is revealed at once, and science is only present in the typewritten documents (used to better effect in The Sweepstake Murders). There is a fine car chase at the end, but the reader may still find the motive unconvincing.
D for Doom @ Vintage Pop Fictions: This is in fact a textbook example of the fair-play golden age puzzle-plot mystery and it’s a joy to watch a master of the genre go through his paces.
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)