Sunday, November 06, 2011

Of a Maze and Men

"Mr. Connington is one of the clearest and cleverest masters of detective fiction now writing."
—Times Literary Supplement 1930

J. J. Connington’s The Case With Nine Solutions is, in my estimation, a masterpiece— unfortunately, Murder in the Maze is something of a step down. There’s much to admire about it in terms of plot construction and writing, but ultimately it doesn’t all quite work out because of the extremely “solve-able” nature of its puzzle.

Brothers Neville and Roger Shandon are not particularly pleasant sorts. Neville is an unscrupulous lawyer who has a fearsome reputation in the courtroom. Roger, on the other hand, is a businessman with many dealings that are not strictly above-board. As we open our story, they are together at Roger’s estate, Whistlefield, with a few more characters to round things off nicely. Neville wants to focus on a high-profile trial and decides he’ll spend the afternoon in the hedge maze. After all, nobody will be likely to wander in, and if he simply stays in the centre of the maze, he’ll be less likely to be disturbed. Roger decides to accompany him but go to the maze’s other centre. Thus, both the brothers get what they wanted: peace and quiet.

And somebody decides to make this state permanent. A young couple, Howard Torrance and Vera Forrest, decide this is the perfect afternoon for some romantic frolicking in the hedge maze (hey, who would be there at this time?) and they wander in and split up, challenging each other to reach one of the centres first. But as they are inside, they hear some shouts and the sound of an air gun going off— Harry then stumbles over a dead body. Aware that the killer could be lurking anywhere in the maze, Vera accidentally blunders to the other centre of the maze, and finds another dead body. Both Roger and Neville are dead, shot with poisoned darts fired from an air gun.

Naturally, it’s not a very romantic way to spend your afternoon, finding dead bodies, and after Vera finds her way out, the police are summoned to the scene, led by Sir Clinton Driffield, who is full to the brim of sarcasm in this outing. However, he does seem to make some serious blunders from time to time throughout this investigation, and it’s no laughing matter since investigating crimes is his job. He can’t afford a wholesale massacre.

But that’s what it seems to come down to, as attack after attack is carried out on the survivors. The plot is rapidly paced but unfortunately, the solution becomes all too transparent after the crime is carried out. You can quickly realize who the killer is, and it doesn’t take long to figure out how it was all done once your suspicions have been drawn to the correct party.

However, despite the weaknesses in plot, Murder in the Maze is worth reading because of its fabulous central idea: what a perfect spot for a murder! The scene where Vera and Howard try finding the exit while avoiding the killer is a brilliantly suspenseful piece of writing, and it reminded me somewhat of the finale in one of John Dickson Carr’s Sir Henry Merrivale novels. (Carr may have been inspired by this book, which he specifically mentions in his essay The Grandest Game in the World.) The final scenes are just as good as the opening, as the killer is surrounded in the maze, and with no way out desperately opens fire on the police...

These scenes are marvellously suspenseful and are definitely worthwhile despite the plot’s general weakness. I would recommend Murder in the Maze, but with reservations: it doesn’t produce that gasp of admiration that The Case with Nine Solutions did. Nevertheless, there’s much of interest: the plot really does move rapidly and some of the chemical experiments Sir Clinton carries out are fascinating. It may be no masterpiece, but it’s not an objectionable way of spending your spare time.

6 comments:

  1. Interestingly, T. S. Eliot thought the murderer was hard to spot. This book got major raves in the day. One thing I found fascinating is how remarkably ruthless Clinton Driffield is. Cozy isn't the word for the man!

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  2. I haven't read a single word written by Connington, but I have this Clinton Driffield mystery in my collection. So expect a follow-up to this review within the next few months. It still sounds like an interesting and fun detective story, in spite of its apparent short comings.

    By the way, "Of [a] Maze and Men"? You’re fortunate to live in an enlightened era, Patrick, because they used to burn people at the stake for awful puns like that. ;)

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  3. TomCat, I simply could not resist. If "Maze" did not sound remarkably like "Mice" (especially when said with an accent), I would have gone for something else.

    But as for the book itself, it's quite enjoyable. There's only about 40-50 pages where I struggled to get through, but the finale was definitely worth it.

    Curt, I gathered that the reception had been warm from Carr's enthusiastic comments; I agree that Driffield is ruthless to say the least! His level of sarcasm is absolutely incredible (and this comes from someone who frequently indulged in it)!

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  4. V-Duck: I wasn't aware that Eliot was a mystery fan. Yet more reason to admire him.

    Or was this simply something he read in his capacity as a reviewer?

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  5. Bob, T. S. Eliot read mysteries voraciously.

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  6. Sounds like it's worth a look. Catherine Aird did a hedge maze mystery called Amendment of Life. It's been a while since I've read it but I seem to recall that it wasn't bad.

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