Hard to believe, I know, but I had a life before this blog, and in that life I read The Case with Nine Solutions (1928) by J.J. Connington and was mildly disappointed that those ‘solutions’ were merely permutations on the interpretations put on two deaths and not a Poisoned Chocolates Case-esque reinterpretation of available information to give a nonet of distinct answers to explain away events. Beyond that, I remembered very little about it and so, now more versed in Connington’s writing, I return — making this the fifth Connington novel I’ve read in the last 12 months, which is probably enough to convince me that I’m now a fan.
Called out into a pea-souper fog to attend to a patient, locum GP Dr. Ringwood gets slightly lost and ends up at 28 Lauderdale Avenue, instead of number 26, where he discovers a man shot in the stomach who is able only to gasp out of few brief words — by no means a Dying Message clue — before expiring. Heading to the house he had originally intended to reach, he is let in by the maid and calls the police before heading back to watch over the scene of the crime. An hour or so later, returning to number 26, this time in the company of Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield, it is discovered that the maid there has been strangled to death…and before too long another two dead bodies will be added to the roster. What could possibly explain this orgy of violence in an otherwise sleepy town?
The little I did recall here was correct — the atmospheric opening crawl through the fog, one development of surprising sexual frankness that crops up very late on, and a scientific principle of which I was entirely ignorant before reading this book — but, those aside, I remembered next to nothing. Upon rereading this, I realise that this might well be because the book as a whole isn’t especially memorable: after the opening cavalcade of death it consists chiefly of Driffield and Inspector Flamborough having a series of very intelligent conversations that seek to fit the deaths into some pattern…and that’s really it. A few interviews in nondescript rooms and an occasional anonymous letter goading Driffield towards an obvious, and therefore dismissible, solution do not a distinguished narrative make.
Read in context, however, it’s clear now that The Case with Nine Solutions is a conscious step on Connington’s part to improve the plot complexity which had eluded him in his earlier, perhaps more memorable, novels. It’s true that even while reading this I forgot Flamborough had arrested the chief suspect with five chapters remaining, but it’s also true that the various suggestive revelations made throughout are intelligently applied to the nine possible pairs of explanation for the latter two deaths in a way that invites the reader into an increasingly complex game. At his first appearance Driffield imposes himself on the narrative as a very perceptive man who is capable of intelligent reasoning — the gunshots deduction is worthy of Holmes — and the book succeeds in playing up to that in the (admittedly, slightly airless) conversations that litter the remainder of the text.
I remember coming away from this first time with a muted impression of Driffield — so pale a shade when placed next to the likes of Gideon Fell or Hercule Poirot — and was surprised to find in this a passage where Connington admits that this is his sleuth’s intent at all times: to remain unknowable, and hopefully fade into the background. There are, though, some pleasing flashes of a particularly brutal sense of humour…
“[H]ad he any outside engagement that you knew about?”
“He told me he was going out to dinner with that hussy next door.”
Sir Clinton’s smile further disarmed old Hassendean. “I’m afraid you’ll need to be more definite. There are so many hussies nowadays.”
…and the discussions around the of actions of poisons and mixed melting-points speak of a keen active knowledge behind all the theorising, making him come across as a far more practical policeman than might otherwise be the case. Sure, it’s a bit of a shame that the humdrummery here is restricted to a single paragraph about the size of the police organisation at the beginning of chapter VI, but you can’t have everything.
What elevates this beyond merely a diverting read, though, is the inclusion as the final chapter of Driffield’s notebook, in which his speculations at certain points of the narrative are made clear, showing just how tidily Connington has provided the reader with clues if the reader is able to interpret them correctly. It’s almost a shame this wasn’t broken up into sections and included sooner, since at times Driffield seems frustratingly all-knowing, but, in light of the revelations which precede it, the conclusions our detective reaches really are very telling, and this post-awareness is a fascinating concept that it would have been delightful to see become a trope of the genre (I’ve only encountered it before in, I believe, The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) by Gladys Mitchell — a book I’m very, very keen to otherwise forget entirely).
I could fault the book on the basis, too, that the limited and unmemorable cast means the guilty party stands out a mile, but it represents such a leap forward in other elements of Connington’s writing that I’m going to allow him his slight flaws. Too much here is too interesting — a Holmes-like reference to “that Laxfield affair last year” raising the possibility of an unrecorded case, a lady’s maid called Marple, some unusual turns of phrase (“By the time I got there he’d dree’d his weird…”), one instance that sent me scurrying for my dictionary (“aposiopesis”, if you’re interested), a remarkably cavalier perspective on the cheapness of human life in the wake of the Great War — for this to be considered a flavourless pot when stirred. Awareness of his earlier work will help you appreciate this more, but it comes recommended nonetheless.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: In a complex plot, the author has a firm grasp on all the threads: the choice of red herrings, clues, motives and suspects is excellent; and every page teems with good ideas, including some highly ingenious scientific dodges. Only the final solution (Excerpts from Sir Clinton’s Notebook) seems a bit long — methinks the author doth protest too much.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The Case with Nine Solution has a truly brilliant plot unhampered by the narrow “circle of inquiry,” which comprises of only two or three viable suspects, but, even if you spot the murderer, you’re still left with explaining what exactly transpired. An apparently incomprehensible sequence of events that turned out to have an ultimately simple explanation effortlessly reconstructed by Sir Clinton. And this is topped by the final chapter, “Excerpts from Sir Clinton’s Notebook,” which shows you all the clues you might have missed.
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)
12 thoughts on “#1067: The Case with Nine Solutions (1928) by J.J. Connington”
Not read this (may have tried Connington in the early 80s but can’t remember) and by jingo that cover is not very appealing so don’tknow if that is about to change much … It’s great that a second reading can be so profitable though, really like it when that happens! I must admit, given the criticisms you make, am fairly surprised it scored so highly though 😁
That final chapter makes up for a fair amount of sinning. I’m fairly obsessed at the moment with knowing when and how the detective knows the truth, and so this came along at the exact right time.
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This has led to quite the moment in Clothes in Books Towers. I have only just realized that JJ Connington and JC Masterman are NOT THE SAME PERSON. I have to process this before getting back to the book in question – which I believe, like you, I read a good many years ago.
And neither of them are J.J. Maric.
Or are they…?
So many writers did publish under a variety of names, maybe it would tidy things up to assign a few together.
Well, at least half of them are John Creasey already…
This is not only a leap forward in Connington’s writing, but another step towards the 1930s and the Golden Age coming into full bloom. The overall quality was still somewhat uneven in the late twenties, but more, and more, ingenuity was shown to plotting and storytelling. The Case with Nine Solutions is a good example of some of those changes. So glad you enjoyed it.
Christopher Bush’s The Case of the Tudor Queen appears to have been modeled on The Case with Nine Solutions and could be an excuse to finally return to Bush (while this one is still fresh in your mind). I prefer you started with The Case of the Missing Minutes, but have been recommending that one for years without much success.
Missing Minutes is likely to be the next \bush I read…it’s just a question of when — with so many other authors I’ve actually enjoyed, and so many more not yet met, it’s difficult to get too excited about a return to Bush. But I will, I will, I will.
Him and Roger Ormerod.
This was my first Connington and he hooked me right away. I love Driffield’s rather brutal streak. Connington liked those kinds of heroes. His science fiction masterpiece NORDENHOLT’S MILLION being a case in point.
I’m glad I returned to Connington — this and The Four Defences (which I very much did not enjoy) were my first two exposures to his work, a combination which left me a little….cold. But there’s much to enjoy in his work; even if I wouldn’t rate him as among the genre’s finest, I would still consider myself a fan of what he does, and am looking forward to digging in further.
I read this some time ago and I now recall little beyond that strong opening too. I do know I liked the book well enough at the time though.
I get the impression that this will have been the experience of a lot of people. I’m glad I read it again — I nearly skipped this in my Connington reading, because my memories were positive but nebulous — because it makes a lot more sense in the context of his other work.