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?