Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)
Reviewing The Sweepstake Murders (1931), is my first experience of J. J. Connington’s work, whose real name was Alfred Stewart and whose main profession was science, which is palpable in the exactness and logical approach of the story. It can also be noted in his depiction of characters with the narrative voice at times, providing a detached and clinical commentary on them.
After an evening of bridge, a group of men decide to set up a syndicate for the derby sweepstake. This group includes a reoccurring character called Wendover, who features in many of Connington’s other novels, acting as Watson to his serial sleuth. The rest of the group consists of Blackburn, who came up with the idea in the first place; Willenhall, a guest who is holidaying in the area; the avaricious Checkley; Peter and Harry Thursford, uncle and nephew, with the former being a highly unlikeable character, even when he is not drunk; Falgate, whose business is in definite need of a financial boost; Tommie Redhill and Coniston. The agreement is if any of their tickets win then the prize money is shared between them all. I liked how Connington revealed important traits of character in this situation by having the characters say what they would do with their share of the money, a scene which I think has some bearing on the end of the novel.
Wendover, a character whose thoughts and perceptions feature a lot in the novel (with the narrative deploying a number of well-timed moments of free indirect discourse), doubts whether they will win anything, the odds being so high. Yet, this is exactly what happens, with the Blackburn holding the ticket, for the horse which came second in the derby, entailing a share of £25,000-30,000 for each member of the syndicate. However, things start to go badly wrong for the group. The begging letters may be one thing, but legal complications ensue when Blackburn dies in an aeroplane crash and his lawyers want to claim his share for his heirs, a complication which leads to a delay in the handing out of the prize money, as many of the other syndicate members wish to divide Blackburn’s share amongst themselves. Events take an even worse turn when the threatening letters begin and members of the syndicate begin to have seemingly accidental deaths; falling off cliffs and car crashes – being a member of this particular syndicate rapidly becomes an unlucky position to hold. For the syndicate members and the police (embodied by Inspector Severn and Sir Clinton Driffield, Chief Constable) a far more sinister interpretation is held of these so called accidents.
Are these deaths actually murder? If so is the killer one of the group or is it an unknown outsider killer? The latter is a possibility as two of the original syndicate members sold percentages of their prize money to an unknown person. Tension racks up within the group, with even one member dropping out of the syndicate completely, the strain of wondering if they are going to be next becoming too unbearable. To an extent this is a novel which studies or records the multitude of reactions humans can have towards winning a lot of money. Although, I do say only to an extent, as I would not categorise this story as a psychological one, a trait the book would need to have more strongly to more fully look at the phenomena. The solution to the case is an elaborate but cleverly constructed one and I was surprised by the choice of killer, mainly because Connington is good at dispersing red herrings within his narrative which put other characters falsely into the frame for murderer. Inspector Severn did remind me a little of the Freeman Wills Croft’s Inspector French in his thoroughness of his investigation, especially in his examination of the photographic evidence, evidence which may have led one reviewer for The Spectator in 1932 to say that ‘Mr Connington’s usual interesting method of narrative is in this book somewhat obscured by a confusion of details of evidence’ (16th January 1932: p. 26). I’m not sure I would have used the word ‘confusion,’ but I do think this particular piece of evidence was quite technical, which did have the effect of slowing the pace down in the final third of the novel. Interestingly despite all of Severn’s thoroughness it is Sir Clifford, who identifies the guilty party, though annoyingly he does so by swooping in at the end, after examining Severn’s reports. Personally I would have liked Sir Clifford to be more involved in the case.
Having said this I think there are a lot of good qualities in Connington’s novel, such as him choosing an excellent situation to set a crime in and also his different approach to viewing and creating characters. Wendover is a good example of this strength as through him we often see this more observatory nature. For instance this is seen in Wendover’s attitude towards Viola Langdale, which is ambiguous and contradictory to say the least. To begin with, he suggests he is adverse to her due to there being something underhand about her manner:
‘Her conversational frankness suggested that she was throwing her mind open to inspection; but it was the calculated frankness of the conjurer displaying his trick cabinet for examination by his audience.’
Yet for the numerous faults he points out, Wendover frequently gives possible reasons for them such as a lack of money forcing her to break off her many engagements and throughout the novel it sometimes seems as though Wendover uses the events of the case as a means of studying Viola’s character. In addition, Wendover also looks at his own reactions to events as they crop up in the case, analysing why he would feel sympathy for someone, he has usually criticised or why he would feel so derogatory towards someone for leaving the syndicate. The latter event in particular, makes Wendover a more complex character, a character that is not perhaps wholly likeable.
Overall I think Connington is certainly an author I would like to try again and I would be interested to hear any recommendations for other Connington novels.
Darn it, Kate! I was hoping you would say he was unreadable and I wouldn’t have to consider yet ANOTHER forgotten author! The TBR pile on my Kindle is getting so “high” that my iPad is actually starting to feel heavier!
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Haha sorry to make your TBR pile higher but I think Connington does deserve a place. Don’t know if this is the pinnacle of his work, as Curtis Evans does mention a number of earlier books, in the coach whip introduction to this book, which sound really good, such as a killer taking people out in a maze. However I still think this book is worth a read and has a well constructed mystery.
Why don’t you ever include the publisher of these reprint editions in your posts? I have yet to see any publisher info listed in your posts of newly reissued vintage books. I guessed this is from Coachwhip Publications based on the drab cover design. But it took me three internet searches to verify my guess. It would be helpful if you added a brief line at the top or bottom of your posts crediting the publishers so others can buy a copy if they so choose.
Because many of us who read your blog don’t live in the UK the publisher is crucial for us so that we can buy from the correct website. You may not know this but some reprints are not available for sale in the US due to copyright restrictions for the reprint editions. Similarly, some US reprints cannot be sold in the UK. The Alan Melville books reprinted by the British Library Crime Classics are a perfect example of books I cannot buy in the US because they are not allowed. I had to buy them from a UK based website and have them shipped to my home. Thank heaven for Bookdepository where there are absolutely no shipping charges.
Thank you for your suggestion. I’ll bear it in mind for future review copy posts.
Connington is great. THE TWO TICKETS PUZZLE is particularly good although MURDER IN THE MAZE and THE CASTLEFORD CONUNDRUM are very much worth reading as well.
His early science fiction novel NORDENHOLT’S MILLION is interesting if you like that sort of thing. It’s actually his best-known book.
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Thanks for the recommendations. I read a little about Murder in the Maze in the introduction to this book and it sounded good.
I was looking forward to hearing your take on JJ Connington – so thanks for the review. 🙂 I believe ‘Sweepstake Murders’ is Martin Edwards’s favourite title by Connington.
I have ‘Castleford Conundrum’ and the renown ‘Case with Nine Solutions’ on my Kindle, awaiting reading; the one I’ve read is ‘Tragedy at Ravensthorpe’. I quite enjoyed ‘Ravensthorpe’, which contained at least one particularly clever twist/ explanation; the mystery, on the whole, however, was above average. Given the commendations of Patrick and Puzzle Doctor in their reviews of ‘Castleford’ and ‘Nine Solutions’, I would have expected slightly more from my first foray into Connington. I’m glad to hear that ‘Sweepstake’ has a good puzzle, and will probably get it on my Kindle later this year. 🙂
On Clinton Driffield – I feel slightly ambivalent towards him, as he strikes me to be somewhat detached and superior. Inspector French, in contrast, seems to me to be an endearing underdog who emerges triumph through sheer grit and comprehensiveness…
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I read The Case with Nine Solutions a cople of years ago when Orion released a lot of Connington’s stuff digitally. It was clever, but part of it relies on a now-outdated principle (erm, hmmm, trying not to spoil anything) which made iti difficult to keep up with the particular element (oh, dammit, I give up).
The scene-setting was fabulous, however, even if everything did appear to occur in a series of unconnected locations, and the final reveal was – to me, anyway – a complete surprise. Despite all this, I’ve never returned to Connington, possibly because I’d like to know he’s written something awesome that I’ll get to eventually and all anyone seems to do is offer very tempered praise.
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The Case of the 9 Solutions is the most well-known Connington book I think. According to the introduction to my copy, Connington’s earlier books are stronger than his later ones, so I think I might try some of them- If I find an ‘awesome’ one I’ll let you know! With Connington’s focus on the puzzle I thought he might be your sort of author.
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I know, right? Me too! Might be tempted into another one when I’ve cleared suitable space from my TBR. Perhaps The Two Tickets Puzzle, that sounds like fun…
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I definitely think I need to read further books in order to gauge my final opinion on Clinton. He wasn’t really involved in this book much so it was hard to make a judgement on him. Inspector Severn in this book is rather like Inspector French, as they work so determinedly.
[…] author’s work, I have tried very little of it. I have read the odd short story, and one novel, The Sweepstakes Murders (1931), back in 2016. So I keen to give today’s read a […]
[…] I have also reviewed Connington’s The Dangerfield Talisman (1926) and The Sweepstake Murders (1931). […]