Friday, 17 August 2012

Forgotten Book - The Castleford Conundrum

When a crime writer chances upon a terrific idea for a mystery story, it’s a great feeling. It may be a fresh idea about character, say, or relationships. During the Golden Age of detective fiction, it was often a novel method of murder. But whatever the idea may be, however marvellous it may seem, one needs to keep it under control. For an idea that gets out of hand can create fundamental problems, for instance with credibility.

This is my reservation about an interesting, but in my opinion significantly flawed, novel by J. J. Connington, The Castleford Conundrum, which is my choice for today’s Forgotten Book. I’m pretty sure that Connington came up with a particular plot twist, neatly derived from legal precedents, and wove his story around it. Fair enough – in fact, more than 20 years later, another notable writer, Cyril Hare would make use of a very similar idea. But here, at least, I think Connington tested the suspension of disbelief to breaking point.

In many ways, though, this is a typical whodunit of the traditional type. As in so many books written in the Thirties (this one was first published in 1932), the murder victim is a disagreeable and rich individual, who unwisely allows it to be known that she is planning to change her will. Since almost all members of her family are equally unappealing, there is no shortage of suspects when she is found dead. But it is only when Sir Clinton Driffield makes a belated appearance that events start motoring to a conclusion.

Pleasingly, this book has benefited from a recent reprint by Coachwhip Publications, and it includes a welcome and characteristically informative introduction by Curtis Evans. I am a Connington fan, although I’m afraid I don’t rate this book as highly as Curt. The long trudge towards a foreseeable outcome (once you have figured out that central plot gimmick, which I did quite early on) is rather dreary. The book is an example of Connington’s admirable willingness to ring the changes in his plotting, and the book retains a historical interest, at the very least.  But I was left wondering this – why on earth did the killer go to so much bother?  


Anonymous said...

Martin - I'm sorry to hear that this one was a disappointment in a lot of ways. But it is so good to know that some of these classics are seeing new light. I am pleased to know that they haven't altogether disappeared.

The Passing Tramp said...

I suppose your question could be asked of a lot of GA books. In Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase, would not your average murderer just have stabbed the murder victim in a dark alley instead of having gone through all that rigmarole?

Is the plot of Murder on the Orient Express really something that people ever would have conceived of doing? But the complexity of plot's the interest in the GA mystery.

Since I have been mentioned, let me add that I go into considerably more detail on this and other Connington books in my "Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (with which you may be familiar).

Castleford is one of my eight, nine, ten favorites by the author (some of which I know we agree on!), but was one of only three reprinted by Coachwhip. I would have liked to see more than three titles reprinted, certainly, but that was the limit placed by those controlling the rights.

Part of the reason Castleford was chosen was the rarity of the book. I think you liked the other two titles, Tau Cross Mystery and Murder in the Maze. I believe you reviewed these last year, before Coachwhip reprinted them.

I have nothing to do with Coachwhip personally, but I do try to aid the reprinting of old detective novels and Chad Arment over there is going a great job, I think.

If the books sell acceptably, there may be more reprints. If not, not. I think fans of the GA mystery should enjoy Castleford and the other Connington titles. And there are additional opinions worth noting....

E. C. Bentley said of Castleford, "Mr. Connington has never written better, or drawn characters more full of life." The Sunday Times states that "the clues would have rejoiced Mr. Holmes' heart."

Much more recently, Patrick Ohl on the book at his blog, At the Scene of the Crime:

The Passing Tramp said...

Oh, yes, Les Blatt reviewed this one too!

GeraniumCat said...

I've been finding your Forgotten Book posts very helpful in my somewhat dilatory attempt to read my way through the 20th century (it didn't start out as British detective novels at all, but then I decided that I couldn't resist including as many as possible, though the choice is pretty idiosyncratic and misses out some of the really obvious names). I've got a J.J. Connington tentatively on my list.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Margot. You are spot on, the increasing availability of some at least of these books is a real delight.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Curt, as I've said, there are pleasing features about this book - and certainly the enormously welcome reprint that includes your informative intro. But you are right in saying that the Maze and Tau Cross books impressed me a lot more than this one. As you say, other notable reviewers have liked this one more than I did. I suppose I felt that, having had such a great plot idea, Connington could have made more of it.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Geranium Cat, good to hear from you again. Some of the more obscure writers are at least as interesting, I think, as the famous ones. Connington's intelligence makes almost all his books well worth examining, even if the results are a bit variable.