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Locked Room Reviews:
J. J. Connington
A Golden Age puzzle master!
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In Whose Dim Shadow by J J Connington, a pseudonym of British mystery author and chemist Alfred Walter Stewart, is one of the better puzzle plot mysteries of the Golden Age of detective fiction. (Note: this mystery has also been published as The Tau Cross Mystery) So why was Connington so long out of print and out of favour? One argument places the blame on the head of British crime writer and critic, Julian Symons, who placed Stewart, as well as Cecil Street (published as John Rhodes and Miles Burton) and Freeman Wills Crofts, as part of a group of mystery authors he dubbed ‘The Humdrums’, due to the slow methodical pace of detection in their novels, as well as their attention to proper police procedures and scientific forensic evidence collection. The result of this criticism was that many readers opted for the faster moving and more colourful plots of writers such as Christie, Sayers, and John Dickson Carr. While these popular authors have, of course, written some of the finest works in the genre, this decision to abandon The Humdrums should be cause for some regret. The locked room mystery is quite a strange literary format, where the best examples require a great deal of elaborate plot construction, which is exactly what The Humdrums offered. It is therefore hardly surprising that when they finally turned their attention to the locked room mystery, few proved to be better than these craftsmen of intricate plots, who lavished attention on every detail. John Rhode co-authored the incredible Fatal Descent (1939) with John Dickson Carr, Freeman Wills Crofts penned the stunning Inspector French case, Sudden Death (1932), and In Whose Dim Shadow (1939), provides Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield with his shot at a locked room case! True, these novels are no action packed thrillers, but they remain some of the best detective fiction written during an age of great mysteries, and they are only boring to those who prefer questionable psychological nuances, celebrity detectives and improbable insights to the painstaking interpretation of the evidence. The Humdrums badly need to be re-evaluated, and this novel is a great place to start!
Note: A great critical resource on this subject is Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 by Curtis J. Evans See Book
This novel opens following Constable Danbury on his regular suburban beat in one of the middle class suburbs that sprang up in England between the wars. The Constable has just passed the home where his girl resides, when a muffled explosion is heard and a moment later an upstairs tenant of Number 5 The Grove, Mr Geddington, runs out to report that he has heard a shot in the flat below his living room, which has scared his ‘ladies’. Danbury finds the door to the downstairs rooms ajar and carefully enters. The flat is apparently unoccupied and under renovation, but he soon discovers the badly mutilated body of a man who has just been shot. He calls for Constable Towton, his back up, as a crowd begins to gather outside, then returns to take a good look around while he awaits the arrival of the detectives. Inspector Chesilton is actually put in charge of the case, but this fictitious suburb has a very hands on Chief Constable, the formidable Sir Clinton Driffield, who is usually accompanied by his friend, Squire Wendover. Wendover is no dumb Watson. The Squire is a very good observer and serves as a devil’s advocate, providing Driffield with valuable insights, and conveniently also serves as a Justice of the Peace.
The scene of the crime contains some valuable clues, but is more notable for what the detectives can at first not discern, namely the identity of the corpse, who has no papers or other identifying articles – even the labels have been carefully removed from his clothes. In addition, the body is wearing rubber gloves, has a nasty looking blackjack in his pocket, and apparently brought a pair of tennis shoes and changed footwear after his arrival, making it appear as if he was lying in wait for someone inside this half renovated room. There are also obvious signs of a struggle, including spilled paint, which the other party apparently tried to scrape off their shoe, and a handkerchief covered with blood, lying some distance from the body, which later proves to be from a different blood type than the corpse. Yet, there is no sign of forced entry, and the French window is open, which suggests that at least one of the parties had a key. A further search also finds one last clue – a small gold Tau cross which had fallen into one of the pots of paint.
The interviews begin with The Geddington’s, who are entertaining the Karslake’s and a journalist, Barbican, who has bluffed his way in, hoping to get a scoop. The Geddington’s can add little to the story and Barbican is more interested in receiving information than expending it. In the other occupied flat, reside a Mr and Mrs Sternhall, though it soon becomes clear that Mr Sternhall is seldom home, as he is usually travelling on business. Apparently, he is also prone to jealousy, and tends to arrive unannounced, hoping to catch his wife in a compromising situation. However, on this night she has company, her brother-in-law Raymond Dujardin is currently visiting from France. At first, they can only add two observations. Dujardin claims to have heard an altercation below, but several hours earlier, then later saw a man scrambling over the wall at the end of the garden, though it was too dark to get a good look.
However, despite the fact that Dujardin cannot initially identify the corpse, after the body is ‘cleaned up’ he is able to identify it as Mr. Sternhall. Later, when it is further learned that the real owner of the block of flats is actually Mrs Sternhall, the question of the key appears to also be resolved. It now seems certain that Sternhall had set-up a meeting, with the intention of murdering the other party, then had been shot with his own revolver after a brief struggle. A search of the garden finds that the man who went over the wall wore ‘pumps’ – in this case much like slippers – suggesting that he had not walked far, an observation which is supported by his apparent knowledge of the neighbourhood.
Driffield now advertises the finding of the Tau Cross and gets lucky when it traces back to the young Reverend Ambrose Bracknell, despite his girlfriend’s valiant efforts to shield him. His position becomes even more serious when his maid asserts that he has recently burned a pair of tennis shoes. He is taken into custody and held on suspicion, until he finally agrees to tells his tale. He had been taking French lessons from Mrs Sternhall and dropped by to recover a forgotten book, when he had been drawn into the flat under renovation and ended up in a struggle with a man who was clearly Mr Sternhall, but this occurred much early in the evening. The incident had ended when Sternhall realized he had the wrong man, then paid Bracknell to forget the encounter. This testimony helps to explain much of the evidence, but does little to uncover the identity of the person who arrived a couple of hours later, even though the mystery of the Tau Cross is now completely solved.
Sir Clinton and company are apparently stuck, well short of a solution, until Wendover runs across a newspaper report of a missing passenger aboard the ocean liner Martaban. A man by the name of Sternhall had apparently boarded in Liverpool then gone missing during the voyage, though someone had called for his luggage when the ship reached New York. The newspaper report states that the passenger is the well known Mr Sternwell of Charponden, at the other end of Sir Clinton’s county. A brief visit soon clears up much of this complex mystery. Sternhall had been living a double life. He was a businessman, always in need of capital, and when he had encountered a rich heiress who wanted to marry, the offer had been to good to refuse, despite the existence of the other Mrs Sternhall! The whole affair was now finally coming in to focus. Sternhall’s duplicity had been discovered by a blackmailer, and he had initially paid the price, before finally deciding to end this intolerable situation. Unfortunately, it had not worked out as planned.
Now the question is: Who is the blackmailer that killed Sternhall? The evidence gradually builds, and a hefty reward is posted which ends up causing yet another murder, and this one is actually a locked room case! But this time the murderer has made a fatal mistake!
In Whose Dim Shadow (1939) is Chief Constable Clinton Driffield’s tenth outing. The title is drawn from a poem by British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay and actually provides a fairly good clue to the eventual solution.
Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign
The priest who flew the slayer
And shall himself be slain
This is truly a fascinating mystery, with a realistic plot, chock full of actual plodding police procedures, like alibi breaking and analyzing financial records. It is not likely to get your heart pumping with adrenaline, but the slow accumulation of evidence and step by step detection is a true joy to read. The characters are fairly well developed, though this remains inconsistent, with characters like Dujardin, Mrs Sternhall and even Inspector Chesilton more shadow than flesh and blood; while others are carefully developed, only to be abruptly abandoned. For example, in the first part we are introduced to Constable Danbury, told about his ambitions and his sweetheart, and he even gets his first chance to do some detective work – then he suddenly disappears from the story! In a similar manner, we are drawn into the confrontation between Bracknell and his girlfriend, which reportedly goes badly due to his own stupidity – but these scenes are not presented to the reader! I suppose this is actually realistic. In life we meet many people and often only get to read a single chapter of their story, but in the limited world of a novel this is actually quite irritating.
The final locked room murder uses a too common device, but the specific method of murder is actually quite imaginative. The dialogue is also quite well written, especially the sarcastic back and forth between Sir Clinton and Squire Wendover, but Stewart is clearly no word painter. The few descriptive passages are almost all pragmatic, making it quite difficult to envision many of the the scenes. Another problem with this book lies in the narrative structure. Wendover most often supplies the reader’s perspective, but other characters also fill this role, like Danbury and Mr. Mitford, and at other points the perspective is simply omniscient. Questions of class also surface throughout this novel. Driffield and Wendover represent the upper class, and though they show some respect for the working class, there is little doubt who they believe to be qualified to rule! The charm of this book primarily rests in the opportunity to follow each step in the chain of evidence as it is being built and being able, at the same time as the police, to make the appropriate logical deductions. Nothing is hidden from the reader. In fact, the reader often knows more than the police, and unlike your average mystery, Sir Clinton actually has to get enough evidence to convict.
How to rate this classic Golden Age mystery? This novel will not appeal to all, but it will be greatly appreciated by those who like a scientific evidence based puzzle that can actually be solved. I would suspect that most people will figure this one out quite early, though the Bracknell business may briefly confuse if you forget that there are still far too many pages left for it to be time for a valid solution. The locked room is purely a side benefit in this mystery, but it works quite well, and while the process of solving the puzzle is a bit of a plod, there is a great deal of satisfaction in following this complex trail. Once again, this is no five star masterpiece, but it definitely deserves a solid four stars, and is very highly recommended for people who like jigsaw puzzles!
I make this last recommendation quite seriously – as there is a real similarity between the two pastimes. In both cases, you must turn over all those little pieces, then gradually build the frame, and finally patiently fit every little piece into place – and when you finally fit that last piece – that was nearly lost under the table – that is how it feels when you solve a J.J. Connington mystery!
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