#960: Death at Swaythling Court (1926) by J.J. Connington

Death at Swaythling Court

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I’ll be honest, even I’ve lost track of whether I’m reading J.J. Connington chronologically — but I’m going to say that, yes, from this point on the criminous novels by Alfred Walter Stewart that I’ve not reviewed on here will be encountered in publication order.  So, back to the beginning we go, before even Connington’s most prolific sleuth Sir Clinton Driffield ambled onto the scene, with Death at Swaythling Court (1926). In short order, a murdered lepidopterist with an unsavoury past sees suspicion point in many directions, with the crime scene positively awash with clues which can’t seem to be fitted into any pattern.

If that description puts you in mind of Gideon Fell and the Bishop of Mappleham airing duelling theories in The Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr, well, the comparison isn’t entirely inaccurate. Here, following the poisoning of the lisping, unpopular Mr. Hubbard in the village of Fernhurst Parva, it falls to Colonel Sanderstead, the local squire, and his nephew Cyril Norton, the local policeman, to investigate the scene and attempt to discern some sense from the madness. However, after having some of his theories dismissed by the younger man, Sanderstead decides to keep his thinking to himself, to the extent of not notifying young Cyril about certain of his observations, intending to put the young whipper-snapper in his place by untangling the skein first.

What emerges is a very entertaining book, marred only by Connington’s commendable eagerness to ensure he is providing as much information as possible to the reader — c.f. the opening note, in which he promises that you will have “full knowledge of every essential fact” before the solution — which sees some astoundingly lumpy declaration of evidence. He’s at his least competent when trying to stir the eldritch into proceedings, with The Green Devil of Fernhurst, an encounter with a supposedly invisible man, and one character talking about a voice having transmitted itself from an adjacent plane of existence all clunky and cumbersome attempts to misdirect what you’re really being shown. It seems unfair to fault the man for his ambition, but if you removed those points, or dealt with them a little less naively, this would warrant an extra star, no question.

The scheme at its core is impressively complex, and Connington is clearly having a blast at the halfway point when detective novelist Mr. Angermere offers his own solution that’s already very clever in how it overturns the verdict of the inquest (“For my particular purpose…that verdict would be totally useless. It makes things too simple.”). There’s also the Golden Age’s complete animus toward the victim on account of his being a blackmailer which isn’t even played as a moral quandary: “Blackmailers are vermin, and any man who takes the risk of putting them out of the way is a public benefactor of sorts,” Sanderstead reflects at one point, and at another he destroys evidence against the most likely suspect because “it wouldn’t be justice to hang [him] on account of a blackmailing beast like Hubbard”. Anthony Berkeley would tinker with the unlikeable victim in Jumping Jenny (1933), but Connington’s complete absence of moral outrage at this murder is something quite striking.

Connington is not motivated by Berkeley’s love of challenging accepted norms, however, instead imbuing his protagonist with the perspective of “a belated Edwardian who had survived into the Georgian era with all his mild prejudices intact”. This slight anachronism who “had never quite approved of independent thinking by anyone below commissioned rank” is also very human and enjoyable company, as confounded by an excess of clues (“…and hardly a pair of them point in the same direction,” he laments at one point) as he is by the vicar whose incessant quoting and translating of Latin phrases frustrates him as much as it delights us. Some of the clues are superb, too, like the changing characteristics of the type from a typewriter, and the pattern woven from them is a very pleasing example of how the Golden Age would develop some core principles of the detective plot, making the simple first complex and then staggeringly simple again.

A couple of interesting historical points enrich this, too, including the casual aside which made me realise that the term “lynching” has an actual historical personage behind it and the moment a jury is required to rule on whether a suicide victim was of unsound mind as it makes all the difference to where in the churchyard the body can be buried. How both these points had escaped me I don’t know, but such is the pleasure of reading in this genre, as this is the first time either has been made explicit to me.

Connington’s criminous debut is, then, a pleasingly assured puzzle that strives a little too hard at times to conform to the accepted pattern of this emerging genre and overbalances in its eagerness. Weird to think that a novel could be improved by removing some of its more explicit clues, but let’s commend Connington’s adoption of the detective story and his willingness to play the game to the fullest extent. Add to this his interesting lack of qualms where moral elements are concerned, his skill with minor characters, his exceptionally readable prose, and his clear-sighted navigation of an impressively complex debut and it would give me much to be interested in if I didn’t already own almost everything he’d written. Man, maybe I should have been doing these chronologically after all.

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See also

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Considering this is Connington’s first novel, it’s quite an achievement. The murder of the blackmailing butterfly-collector Hubbard is the centre of a well constructed, elaborately clued mystery with an ingenious plot. There’s little successful detection; Colonel Sanderstead (a pukka sahib chap like Wendover) is, as he admits, more successful as a ‘collector of facts’ than as a ‘theorist or detective’, and the criminals confess to him in private at the end. I worked out most of the plot, suspecting one culprit because of his rôle in the story, and another because of some rather obvious clues (the “Invisible Man” is rather clumsily handled).

William F. Deeck @ Mystery*File: This is a splendid example of the English-village novel. The characterization doesn’t go deep, particularly with Colonel Sanderstead, who investigates, but then he isn’t deep. The fair play promised by the author is here, and I’ll brag and say I got about two-thirds of it right. Fine stuff from the Golden Age.

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J.J. Connington on The Invisible Event

Standalones:

Featuring Sir Clinton Driffield:

Featuring Superintendent Ross:

Featuring Mark Brandon:

4 thoughts on “#960: Death at Swaythling Court (1926) by J.J. Connington

  1. Add to this his interesting lack of qualms where moral elements are concerned

    One of the things I enjoy about Connington is his moral ruthlessness and his total lack of sentimentality. And he’s delightfully unapologetic about it. These things are seen in a most spectacular form in his science fiction masterpiece Nordenholt’s Million, the first truly great post-apocalyptic novel.

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  2. I’m glad you raised the question of the morals of blackmail. A collective madness seems to have descended on almost all GAD writers, so they all believe fervently that it is the worst crime ever, worse than murder, wholly deserving of murder. Were they all brainwashed to think that? Was the Detection Club a cult of anti-blackmail?
    It’s there on the crime spectrum, sure, but I can think of worse things.
    Christie’s main blackmailer takes a commendably calm and unregretful view. (The others in her books usually spot their opportunity and are dead shortly afterwards)

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  3. I’m inclined to think that the GAD writers were spot-on when it came to blackmail. You have to remember the incredibly oppressive moral climate of the day. People were being blackmailed for very trivial indiscretions but if those trivial indiscretions became public people’s lives could be ruined by the self-appointed moral guardians of society.

    In some cases they were being blackmailed for indiscretions committed years earlier. Moral policemen are always quite happy to destroy a person’s life over something he or she did decades earlier.

    Blackmail is pretty contemptible. I have no great problems with the idea that blackmailers should be treated the way you’d treat a rabid dog. They’re even worse (if that’s possible) than those self-appointed moral guardians.

    Just my two cents, for what it’s worth.

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