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.