Author: Connington, J.J., a pseudonym of Prof. A. W. Stewart
Publication Data: 1st edition Gollancz, 1928. This paperback edition 1949, Penguin #738. No ISBNs.
J.J. Connington was in real life a fairly important professor of chemistry and his books frequently contain little bits of chemistry and chemists; this is no exception. It’s from the true Golden Age of detective fiction and qualifies as a Humdrum — one of those exquisitely boring puzzles that contain little characterization but are the fictional equivalent of Sudoku. (For more information about Humdrums in general and Connington specifically, see the excellent work of “The Passing Tramp” blog starting at http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/alfred-walter-stewart-alias-j-j.html).
I have to say that from my point of view, however, this has considerably more interest than the average Humdrum. For one thing, the series detective, Sir Clinton Driffield, has a tart tongue and an interesting manner. And the problems at the heart of the novel are anything but small-H humdrum. A doctor is called out late at night, in the middle of a dense fog, to attend a sick housemaid. He mistakenly ends up at the vacant house next door, where he enters and discovers a dying young man who has been shot in the lungs and who, after gasping out the obligatory dying clue, expires. The doctor finds his way to the house next door, tenanted at the moment only by two housemaids, one of whom has “scarletina”, better known today as scarlet fever. He phones for the police and returns to the empty house to meet them. After they arrive and take charge, he returns to treat the feverish housemaid — and finds her companion strangled. A few chapters later, the dead man’s girlfriend is found in yet another untenanted house, poisoned and shot, and a few chapters after that a sleazy blackmailer is murdered. This is hardly the bloodless puzzle in the snowbound country house so beloved of the Humdrums!
It soon becomes apparent that the focus of the investigation is rightly upon a chemical research institute — again, many of this author’s books contain such institutions and their attendant scientists. The police, headed by Sir Clinton, are prodded towards certain conclusions by hints and evidence provided by an anonymous letter-writer who at one point sends them a kind of cryptogram, a charming conceit that Sir Clinton manages to solve before receiving the key. It is actually difficult to tell that there are a couple of different plot skeins working here, and a couple of different criminal types operating in their own interests. Sir Clinton works out everything that has happened and brings the crime home to the principal perpetrator, in a truly explosive conclusion. (Literally — the criminal commits suicide after confessing, by causing an explosion.)
I was first attracted to this novel by its title, which gave promise of being something like Carter Dickson’s “The Nine Wrong Answers” — whereby a series of logical solutions to the situation are proposed and discarded. Alas, this novel is not that clever (but then, very few authors are as clever as Carr/Dickson in plotting). The title in this case refers to two of the deaths that can only be (1) Accident, (2) Murder, or (3) Suicide. The permutations that will explain both deaths work out to nine possibilities, but truly almost all are discarded immediately. The true solution is quite difficult, although I believe it was scrupulously fair — I have to confess that I didn’t bother to test it, since it seemed reasonable and, contexually, authors of this period and level of education rarely publish seriously flawed novels.
There is one quite subtle and clever clue that is based on the personality of one of the characters, and I believe this alone lifts this novel one notch above the level of the Sudoku-like Humdrums. Without giving anything away, one of the characters is portrayed as slapdash and careless, and this is an important contribution to the events of the foggy evening that starts the murderous ball rolling. And this bit of characterization is not grafted into the plot, but rather is an organic part of it; more organic and naturalistic than dozens of the Humdrums’ modern female cousins, the Cozies, have ever achieved. Don’t get me wrong, this is in no sense a realistic novel, but there is skill and intelligence working here in characterization as well as plotting. I’m surprised to know that Connington is not better known today, and I join The Passing Tramp in hoping that more of his work will come back into print.
Notes for the Collector: My copy of the Penguin edition seems to have cost me $6 a few years ago. Abebooks.com offers a couple of copies of this paperback at $10.50 and $16.34, and the hardcover first edition in jacket starts at $57.19 (the cover of the Gollancz edition is a triumph of Art Deco book design and probably adds a few dollars to the price if it is present). There are also a first US from Little Brown (1929) and a Grosset & Dunlap reprint (1929) that will set you back anywhere from $68 to $200; Amazon gives the usual bizarre range of editions and prices. However, if you’re interested, there is apparently a Gollancz omnibus edition from 1930 which contains four Connington novels including this one; a mere $172.06 seems relatively inexpensive when you think of what these could cost you individually — if you can get them at all. All things considered, I’m happy to have paid a mere $6 for mine, which is in better condition than a mere “Very Good”.