Despite being aware of this 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 go.
Like other novels of the era, Cards on the Table (1936)being the most well-known example, Connington’s book begins with a game of bridge. It is through this game and the surrounding conversation that we are introduced to Rollo Dangerfield’s house guests, who are staying with him at his country home, Friocksheim. We have the mildly love-sick Douglas Fairmile, eyeing his beloved Cynthia Pennard, talking to the ne’er-do-well Morchard. Partnering Douglas is the young Eileen Cressage, a woman who is desperately trying to figure out how to raise enough money to pay off her mounting bills. Playing against those two are Conway Westenhanger, a man who has done well for himself through various inventions, and Mrs Caistor Scorton, a widow. We are told that when her husband died: ‘she had got the money; and her enemies said that the hard face had been bequeathed also, in a codicil to his will.’ Not taking part is the fair, but tough-minded Mrs Brent, who has a fancy yacht moored nearby, and an American collector who is determined to buy the eponymous Dangerfield Talisman; a very valuable artefact worth £50,000, that also has an ancient legend attached to it. The evening naturally concludes with a telling of this legend, as well as a tour to see the talisman itself, housed in the mysterious and curious Corinthians Room, which has a life-sized chess board as a floor and accompanying pieces. It is here that we learn of the death of Rollo’s grandfather and how he left behind a piece of paper with a chess problem on, some words in Latin and two bible references. You can see this document below:
Can it be linked to hidden treasure?
Meanwhile Rollo informs the group of his lax security, excepting electric alarms on the outdoor windows and doors. The talisman can apparently look after itself and is always able to make its own way home again. They never called in the police when it has been stolen in the past. Another day passes and naturally Eileen loses heavily during bridge and cannot pay her debts. Morchard offers to help her out, but what will she have to give him in return? As the chapter closes the impending storm finally breaks, but what will have transpired by morning?
The talisman of course disappears, as does Mrs Brent, and Eileen’s silence on her nocturnal wanderings leave her vulnerable to social opprobrium; the troublemaker and sponger, Freddie Stickney making things as uncomfortable as possible.
Despite the book’s writing style being more on the dry side, I think you become accustomed to it in first third, and as the narrative unveils its three-stranded mystery, there is a growing anticipation of what will happen next. This is no mean feat given that the novel lacks a police presence and a murder, the latter often being regarded as a must-have for any mystery story. Unfortunately, this anticipation withers somewhat as the plot progresses. The narrative dutifully follows each of the mystery’s strands to their natural conclusion, but as a consequence there is no proper dramatic end point. The reveal for each puzzling question lacks oomph and in the case of one solution, whilst being clever, it is made far less interesting to read by its very dry and unexciting disclosure, (and alas it is the final question to be answered). It may be a short book, but these passages made it feel much longer.
The negation of murder in the plot places this story within an older style of mystery writing, as during the Fin-de-siècle and early Edwardian period, theft and other crimes were often the focus of the mysteries instead. The Holmes story are a case in point. I also felt Connington’s tale contained sensation fiction tones, especially within the subplot concerning Eileen. Freddie Stickney is an unlikeable guest, who is quick to notice traces of guilt and make negative inferences from the facts he learns about others. He loves to make other people squirm and dig up scandals. So when the talisman is found to be gone, his desire to detect the culprit is not based on altruistic motives. I would say Freddie is the false detective of the piece, with his eavesdropping designed to embarrass and hurt others. Soon after the theft is noticed he is keen to collect everyone into the billiard room. This is a classic crime trope, but here it is being used more unusually. Freddie wants everyone to give their alibis, not to find out the truth, but to make certain people look bad. Eileen comes to the forefront at this moment and in a sensation fiction like way, her silence leaves her appearing as either a loose woman or a thief. Naturally we all want to know why she keeps quiet, and Conway takes on the true detective’s role, partially to clear her name.
Further in keeping with the Victorian mould of detective fiction, Conway and Douglas voice some discomfiture over some aspects of the sleuthing role, vetoing certain ones:
‘But not even the best of causes is going to make me put on false whispers or reach-me-downs. Worming one’s way into people’s confidence is also barred. Likewise overhearing conversations. Anything in the way of measuring foot-prints or hanging round pubs will be cheerfully carried out; but nothing of an ungenteel nature will be handled by his firm.’
This also emphasises the contrast between these two and Freddie.
With surnames like Stickney, which reflects his leech-like capacities, as well as the country house milieu, one is put in mind of the work of P. G. Wodehouse. Yet Connington’s story avoids the light-heartedness associated with Wodehouse’s tales, and instead we get a more highly uncomfortable party setup.
I would this is a book which has a number of interesting features, but when it comes to reader enjoyment and satisfaction, it has some issues. The opening is quite taxing in the number of guests we have to keep a track of, as there are more than my synopsis includes. The progression of book, in which each question is solved after the other, dampens the pace and despite it being stated how tense everyone is, I don’t think the reader particularly feels it.
So this might not have been the perfect read, but I think Connington’s writing shows sufficient creativity that I would give his work another try.
If you would like to find out more about this author then I recommend taking a look at Curtis Evans’ blog The Passing Tramp.