The second novel to feature Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield, Tragedy at Ravensthorpe (1927) joins the likes of The Wintringham Mystery (1927) by Anthony Berkeley in a subgenre I like to think of as Frustrated Japes: someone plans something as a bit of a lark — here the theft of some valuable medallions during a masquerade ball at the eponymous country pile — only for another party to interrupt the undertaking and turn things in an unexpectedly more sinister direction. Thankfully, what results is another zesty, energetic, well-clued mystery from Connington’s pen, albeit one which won’t linger in the memory.
Lingering in my leaky memory is never much of a concern for me when I’m reading a book, however; I’m much more interested in whether I’m enjoying myself, and enjoy this I certainly did. Connington’s prose is not only light but deceptively witty, such as when younger brother Cecil Chacewater, who will go on to mastermind the aforementioned theft to prevent his greedy older sibling Maurice from gutting their deceased father’s collection of curios, laments having not yet tried to publish his writings as a way of otherwise acquiring funds for himself:
A slight gesture of Sir Clinton showed his approval of this outlook on authorship. It seemed to him that Cecil at his age could hardly have much to tell the world that it didn’t know already…
Or take Foxton ‘Foxy’ Polegate, who will help Cecil in his ruse, having his role unceremoniously exposed in light of the prank going awry:
“So you were evidently the second thief at the case to-night?” Sir Clinton concluded.
Foxy flushed at the word “thief” but a glance at the face of the Chief Constable evidently persuaded him that it would be best not to argue on philology at that moment.
Despite Connington not quite being able to settle on a perspective character to tell this story through — a slightly headache-inducing experience for me, I must say, as I’m a fan of knowing my avatar in this sort of thing — the capturing of Driffield (I always picture him in tweeds) comes through more strongly here than on his debut, a noticeably more aggressive and prickly presence than the Great Detective normally represents, divested as he is of any niceties when people keep badgering him for his opinions or conclusions ahead of time.
“Let’s be quite clear on one point before we begin,” he reminded Michael. “I’m a Chief Constable, not a broadcasting station. My business is to collect information, not to throw it abroad before the proper time comes. You understand?”
Rather dashed, Michael admitted the justice of this.
“I’m a public servant, Mr Clifton,” Sir Clinton pointed out, his manner taking the edge off the directness of his remarks, “and I get my information officially. Obviously it wouldn’t be playing the game if I scattered that information around before the public service has had the use of it.”
And yet the man is clearly in his element, quoting both Latin and Gilbert and Sullivan and, in one key scene, clearly able to provide the necessary reassurance that the institute of The Law should when moving into action for the service of the public at large.
It was part of their work to hunt out a solution of the affair. They were no more excited over it than a chess-player looking for the key-move in a problem. The cool, dispassionate way in which the Chief Constable had handled the affair seemed to strike a fresh note and to efface the suggestions of the macabre side of things which had been Michael’s first impression of the matter. The Dance of Death retreated gradually into the background in the face of all the minute questionings about letters, and visits, and parcels — these commonplace things of everyday life.
And Connington can turn it on when he wants to, too, with the chase of the thief through the woodland behind Ravensthorpe taking on an almost absurdist hue due to the various costumes of the pursuers, noting the “tincture of the bizarre” about the scene as “Robin Hood and a hatless Flying Dutchman were stooping to peer below one of the marble seats…Lohengrin and a Milkman discussed something eagerly in whispers…the Prehistoric Man loomed up like a Troglodyte emerging from his cave; while beyond him Mephistopheles leaned upon the railing, scanning the water below. From the inky shadow of the spinney Felix the Cat stole softly out to join the cordon”. It’s lovely stuff, and all the more enjoyable for Connington refusing to furrow his brow over what is clearly only a piece of light entertainment.
I can fault it only really in that, as with his other early books, Connington’s clues are so lumpy that you can’t help but sift them out with significant ease — indeed, one strain of development was so obvious that I immediately dismissed it from consideration, only to wish I’d been less cavalier when the denouement came, especially when Driffield himself took the time to rag me for my catholic approach to suspicion:
“There’s too much of the smart reader of detective stories about that. He suspects about six of the characters without having any real proof at all; and then when the criminal turns up clearly in the last chapter he says: ‘Well, that fellow was on my list of suspects.’”
It’s undeniable that the guilty party could be a little more visible, and I’m not entirely sure that the late revelation of the family curse which “begins with A” really adds anything to the experience, but I had so much fun running around the grounds, looking into fairy houses, tripping over bodies, and dealing with near-magical vanishings in several locations for any of that to bother me. I’m in this genre to enjoy myself, and I’m very much enjoying Connington at present. Long may it continue!
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Sir Clinton’s second case presents him with rather a tangled situation: two (or more) robberies (one a practical joke), two murders and a disappearance. Although the fabulous artistic treasure (here a set of da Vinci medallions) is an old device, the set-up augurs well for admirers of the 1920s domestic detective story. Unfortunately the plot is a mess of ideas ingeniously contrived…but very poorly combined.
J.J. Connington on The Invisible Event
Death at Swaythling Court (1926)
The Dangerfield Talisman (1926)
Featuring Sir Clinton Driffield:
Featuring Superintendent Ross:
Featuring Mark Brandon:
The Four Defences (1940)