Friday, January 25, 2013

FFB Review: "The Case With Nine Solutions"

In addition to cardiac surgery for Sandi this morning, Friday means Friday's Forgotten Books. Please welcome back Patrick Ohl to the blog. For the complete list of books, authors, and reviewers, please surf over to Patti Abbott's excellent blog........

Most men, they'll tell you a story straight through. It won't be complicated, but it won't be interesting either.
—Ed Bloom, Big Fish (2003)

Alfred Walter Stewart had a long career as a professor in chemistry and a university lecturer in Glasgow and Belfast, but more importantly for the purpose of this review, he also wrote detective novels under the name “J. J. Connington”. He was a well-regarded figure in his day, and John Dickson Carr gave him some praise in his famous essay The Grandest Game in the World. One of Dorothy L. Sayers’ better novels, The Five Red Herrings, is in part an homage to his book The Two Ticket Puzzle.

Unfortunately, academic disinterest and snobbery levelled against the Golden Age of Detective Fiction have seriously harmed Connington’s reputation. If you hear about him at all nowadays, it will be classed alongside the similarly-maligned John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts, Henry Wade, or R. Austin Freeman. (None of these writers were mentioned by P. D. James in Talking About Detective Fiction, and Julian Symons mentions some of these authors only in passing.) He will be called an ingenious technical writer but someone who couldn’t entertain a drunken fish— a Humdrum, in other words. After reading his book The Case With Nine Solutions, I can propose two explanations to explain this nonsense. Either Connington and his fellow Humdrums have been unfairly attacked, or I need to start hanging around drunken fish more often.

The first explanation seems more likely, because unlike, say, Freeman Wills Crofts, Connington succeeds admirably in bringing his characters to life and making them seem like real people with real emotions. Not only that, he manages to throw in social commentary that would confound anti-Golden Age snobs if they bothered to read his books, and he combines it with a brilliantly-clued puzzle and some small asides about chemistry that make me wish he was my lecturer in university.

But I’m really getting ahead of myself here. Let’s tackle the plot first and foremost. Dr. Ringwood is sitting comfortably at home when a colleague, Dr. Trevor Markfield, drops in to visit. The social call is short-lived, however, as the maid of the SIlverdales telephones: a fellow maid is seriously ill and she requires Dr. Ringwood’s help. The fog outside is intense, so Dr. Markfield kindly offers to pilot Ringwood to the correct street, but Ringwood manages to get muddled up and drives up to the wrong house. He enters, suspecting something is amiss, and inside, he finds a young man who has been shot twice in the lung. He spurts out a mysterious cryptic dying message and expires.

There’s no phone in the house, so Dr. Ringwood goes next door, to the correct house this time, and diagnoses a case of scarletina before calling up Sir Clinton Driffield to ask for help. He decides to wait at the house, since he can do nothing for the ill maid, and when the police arrives, Sir Clinton makes some excellent deductions to prove that the murder took place elsewhere. They then head to the Silverdale residence, but nobody answers the doorbell. This is because the maid has been strangled in the interim, and the other girl has only escaped with her life due to her illness…

Thus begins a hunt for a particularly unlikeable killer, who seems to have murdered three people when the corpse of Mrs. Silverdale is discovered. The dead man next door turns out to be her potential lover, Hassendean, and he seems to have been universally disliked: a nasty bit of goods whose only advantage in life was his connections. But is this a case of double murder? An accident? A suicide pact gone wrong? What are the titular nine solutions?

Well, The Case With Nine Solutions is an impressive title, but a more appropriate one might be The Case With Nine Possibilities. This is because the book focuses on the deaths of Mrs. Silverdale and Hassendean, and the nine solutions are the nine possible combinations when you consider that every unnatural death must be the result of accident, suicide, or murder (unless you’re in a John Rhode novel, but that’s a discussion for another day). This is the only thing that comes close to a disappointment in the entire book— everything else weaves itself into a complex web of cryptograms, anonymous messages, footprints in the soil, alibis, deceptions, love affairs, and disguises. The solution turns out to be a simple one, and the final chapter consists of entries in Sir Clinton’s notebook, with some clues so ingenious I never spotted them, and my jaw dropped in surprise and admiration when I read the clue that was the key to Mrs. Silverdale’s death. The solution is not mind-blowingly original – the publisher is not the killer, if that’s what you were betting on— but it’s excellently constructed. The clues slip right under your nose.

Sir Clinton’s deductions are truly admirable— take note in particular of his opening scene, where he deduces just why Hassendean was murdered elsewhere, and the reconstruction of the maid’s murder in Chapter 4 is a particularly impressive passage. (It’s little wonder Carr thought highly of Connington’s work— you can see some influence on Carr’s own work, particularly the impressive reconstructions of Dr. Gideon Fell.)

So the plot is a triumph, and that makes the engaging characters and social commentary interesting extras to an already superb book. Golden Age authors are much maligned for not striving towards literary ends, and Connington indirectly thows his two cents into the argument early on:

All three of them were experts in death, and among them there was no need to waste time in polite lamentations. None of them had ever set eyes on the victim before that night, and there was no object in becoming sentimental over him.

Critics like P. D. James love taking authors to task for their supposed upper-class worship— you’d get the idea that every amateur detective was a Philo Vance or Lord Peter Wimsey clone! But this is an outrageous lie invented by people who have no idea what they’re talking about—take a look at this unflattering portrait of an upper class character, an influential relative of the dead man:

Dr. Ringwood, watching the change in the situation, reflected sardonically to himself that a title had its uses when one came to deal with a snob.
“That old bounder was rude to the Inspector on principle; but when Sir Clinton Driffield asks precisely the same question, he’s quite amenable,” he thought to himself. “What a type!”

If that wasn’t enough, you even get some social commentary in the opening pages, after Dr. Ringwood complains at length about the difficult life of a medical practitioner:

“Still got the notion that human life’s valuable? The war knocked that on the head,” Markfield commented, rubbing his hands together to warm them. “Human life’s the cheapest thing there is. It’s a blessing I went over to the scientific side, instead of going in for physicking. I’d never have acquired a good sympathetic bedside manner.”

And then there are some great side-lectures on chemistry, which are interesting, clearly explained, and not too long. In Chapter 8, for instance, Sir Clinton lectures about the purpose of taking a mixed-melting point. It is an informative and clearly-worded passage, and I just love asides like this from people who knew what they were talking about. Connington wasn’t some fellow who pulled the first complex-sounding term out of a chemistry textbook to artificially inflate his level of intelligence—he was a lecturer in the subject and dealt with this kind of stuff daily. When these explanations are given, they sound like a professor is having a one-on-one with a student who’s having trouble understanding the course material.

Overall, The Case With Nine Solutions is a triumph, and I’d argue a masterpiece in the genre. Connington keeps a firm grasp on all his plot threads and the resolution is most satisfactory. It’s a must-read for fans of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and it’s a good book from an unfairly maligned author. It shows creativity in its set-up and pure ingenuity with its clues, and that’s a quality that can’t be scientifically quantified. An author either has that magic or hasn’t got it— and Connington puts on a grand performance that proves he’s definitely got it. It’s combined with skilful writing that makes this an unadulterated pleasure to read. I highly recommend it.

But where can you find this masterpiece? The good folks at The Murder Room have got you covered. A Kindle edition of the book has been released, and it is a bargain, especially when you consider how much sellers ask for copies of the old hardcover. You can find the Kindle edition here. For a list of the currently available books by Connington (more are apparently due in February if The Book Depository is to be believed) visit The Murder Room’s website.

Patrick Ohl ©2013

The 19-year-old Patrick Ohl spends his spare time writing controversial reviews in order to expel his bitterness at the world. For this reason, he was awarded a multimillion dollar contract to publish his memoirs, entitled I Can’t Stand Postmodernism. Unfortunately, after signing on the dotted line, he woke up and has been unable to return to the dream since to see if the book was a success. However, that doesn’t faze him, and he still intends to make millions of dollars and use his international fame and influence to bring some well-deserved attention to forgotten authors like this one. His reviews can be found on his blog, At the Scene of the Crime.


Todd Mason said...

Best of luck to her with the surgery...goodness. And thanks for hosting this review, Kevin...I'll have the links today, Evan Lewis next week.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Thank you, Todd. I forgot to make the link change notice before I scheduled the review.