Sunday, March 4, 2012
Alfred Walter Stewart, alias J. J. Connington
Three of the seventeen Sir Clinton Driffield detective novels by Golden Age British great J. J. Connington (the pseudonym of the distinguished Scottish chemistry professor Alfred Walter Stewart) have been reprinted by Coachwhip Publications, a quality print-on-demand publisher (for my review of Coachwhip's edition of Max Carrados stories by Ernest Bramah, see here). The three reprinted titles (each with a ten-page introduction by me on the author and his books) are Murder in the Maze (1927), The Castleford Conundrum (1932) and The Tau Cross Mystery (In England, In Whose Dim Shadow) (1935).
Fans of the novel typically have noted, among other the things, the novel's bravura murder setting, a deadly double-centered hedge maze (see left). Maze is meticulously clued and investigated and has an excellent narrative pace. It is one of the best 1920s English country house mysteries.
What more could the mystery fiend ask for than the above catalogue? Yet the novel has its original touches, mostly stemming from the bracing ruthlessness of Clinton Driffield, a unique investigator in the field whom you won't soon forget. Country houses may well be cozy in theory, but this tale is no cozy.
Alfred Walter Stewart suffered gladly neither fools nor knaves--and there are fools and knaves aplenty in The Castleford Conundrum, giving rise to some of Connington's best writing, in his most scathing vein. Winifred Castleford certainly is not one of humanity's great prizes, but then neither is most of her family!
Clinton Driffield arrives--with Wendover in tow--later in the novel, when the investigation is flagging, and his investigation is brilliant, a delight to all lovers of classical English detection. In The Castleford Condundrum, the author is writing at the height of his powers, both in terms of plotting and pure writing. E. C. Bentley, author of Trent's Last Case, specifically praised Connington's character-drawing in the novel.
Much suburban housing expansion occurred in 1930s England, with bungalows and mock Tudor dwellings springing up all over once pristine countryside. The Tau Cross Mystery takes place in precisely such a development, one convincingly conveyed by the author.
Critics again praised both Connington's clueing and his character drawing. "These are not the detective's stock figures," wrote one, "but fully realised human beings." Similarly, another reviewer, the American writer Will Cuppy, was dazzled by the novel's "abundance of clews and many other aids to armchair sleuthing."
It would be wonderful to see other Clinton Driffield detective novels appear back in print, such as Tragedy at Ravensthorpe (1927), The Case with Nine Solutions (1928), The Boathouse Riddle (1931), The Sweepstake Murders (1931), The Ha-Ha Case (1934) and A Minor Operation (1937), but future publication depends on how these three editions sell. If there is sufficient interest we may see more. Having devoted a heavily researched and lengthy chapter of my forthcoming book with McFarland to Alfred Walter Stewart and his J. J. Connington mysteries, I believe that the man's fictional work deserves at least a modest revival.