I don’t normally read two books by the same author within at least a few months of each other, but I so enjoyed J.J. Connington’s criminous debut Death at Swaythling Court (1926) back in September that I was honestly champing at the bit to get back to more of his work. The Dangerfield Talisman, then, (1926) is Connington’s follow-up to Swaythling, with a completely new setting, cast, and conundrum. And Connington himself appears to have been equally keen to get to this one, possibly writing it in a mere seven weeks…and, if that was the case, it’s difficult not to wish that he’d spent a little longer over it.
This is classically Golden Age in setup — nine guests and four family members are spending a week or two at Friocksheim, ancestral home of the Dangerfield clan whose wealth is significantly supplemented by the Dangerfield Talisman, a bejewelled armlet displayed in one of the house’s many rooms. The lack of precaution around securing the Talisman — it has not been insured, its display case doesn’t even lock — might seem foolish to many, but patriarch Rollo Dangerfield is sanguine about any risk: every time the Talisman has been stolen, it has reappeared in its original place in Friocksheim within seven days. And so, of course, it goes missing. So who’s to blame?
Clearly wishing to ring the changes from his previous effort, Connington has written here a rare mystery novel without a murder, trusting the theft of the Talisman and the investigation which tumbles out thereafter to be enough. And, to my mind at least, it isn’t. Some good ideas shine through — the test by which someone under suspicion is proved innocent, say — but this is hamstrung by a problem whose solution is dull in the extreme and so the untangling of that mystery isn’t especially interesting, either. There are no clues, no opportunity for the reader to play along, like you could at Swaythling Court, and nothing in the way of startling revelations to justify the theft as the sole focus of the first 80% of this book. It is, for want of a better word, dull.
We’re not helped by the cast of 13 largely interchangeable characters, the only ones who compel themselves to memory being the severe widow Mrs. Caistor Scorton (“When [her husband] died she had got [his] money. And her enemies said that [her] hard face had been bequeathed also, in a codicil to his will.”) and the rhino-hided social hand grenade Freddie Stickney, whose early attempts to solve the murder find him falling foul of the better nature of his fellow-suspects. We’re quite a way into things before anything approaching a sleuth emerges, and even then we only know he’s intelligent because someone else tells him he is and all but pushes him into investigating, the whole thing conducted under what might as well be Gentlemen’s Rules:
“[N]ot even the best of causes is going to make me put on false whiskers or reach-me-downs. Worming one’s way into people’s confidence is also barred. Likewise overhearing conversations. Anything in the way of measuring footprints or hanging around pubs, will be cheerfully carried out; but nothing of an ungenteel nature will be handled by this firm.”
And yet, as before, Connington writes in a breezy, very enjoyable style, and does good work once you’re past the opening few pages of keeping the various characters disparate if not distinctive. Plus, some good motives for the theft emerge, and the puzzle of the Talisman does tie back into the plot well…it’s just disappointing to see such great potential fizzle out to such an uninspired mish-mash of eventualities…especially when Connington casually drops in what would have been a brilliant motive for murder in the closing stage of this — damn, I want to read that book!
There’s also — as in the likes of Policeman’s Evidence (1938) by Rupert Penny and The Moai Island Puzzle (1989, tr. 2016) by Alice Arisugawa — a treasure hunt of sorts, which again the reader simply has to watch happen and which, again, hardly compels itself. These sorts of threads in books are always interesting because of how much they rely on a character making a leap that no reader is going to be able to, and as such play out in a way that this reader finds difficult to engage with. Some dubious logical connections will be made, someone will happen to see what everyone else has been overlooking for centuries…it’s all going to turn out fine and there’s no way you’re getting there first…so I don’t really get the appeal. It’s like mazes: fun in practice, but less enjoyable to simply read about someone else doing with no opportunity to influence the situation.
Where Death at Swaythling Court might consider itself unlucky to have warranted only three stars from me last month, The Dangerfield Talisman can consider itself a little fortunate to get the same rating now. The simple enjoyment of Connington’s prose goes a long way to making this as good as it is, and anyone looking for a rigorous, immersive, clue-heavy mystery that represents the onward step we might expect from his debut will definitely come away disappointed. Those seeking a charming, undemanding time could do much worse, and as my eleventh novel by Connington it leaves my interest in him undimmed, but I’m relieved that he doesn’t appear to have written too much of this sort of thing. Spending longer writing it might not have been such a good idea after all — at least this way he was able to scratch the itch and move on quickly, and you’ll be able to do the same.
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: The narrative dutifully follows each of the mystery’s strands to their natural conclusion, but as a consequence there is no proper dramatic end point. The reveal for each puzzling question lacks oomph and in the case of one solution, whilst being clever, it is made far less interesting to read by its very dry and unexciting disclosure…
Martin Edwards: We are provided at the outset with a chess problem that provides an enigmatic clue to the riddles surrounding the Dangerfield family, and the problem is ultimately solved in classic Golden Age fashion. The story is rather low-key, but offers agreeable entertainment in the game-playing tradition of its time.
J.J. Connington on The Invisible Event
Featuring Sir Clinton Driffield:
Featuring Superintendent Ross:
Featuring Mark Brandon:
The Four Defences (1940)