Tom Tiddler’s Island (1933) by J. J. Connington

This is my latest review for my reading project themed around weddings and honeymoons featuring in vintage crime fiction.

Here are the titles I have reviewed to date:

My edition of Tom Tiddler’s Island is the newest one, from Murder Room, so it is going into the Something New category. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review spoke positively of this book describing it as an: ‘Adventure yarn by a master mystery craftsman who uses all guaranteed, sure-fire methods – even a secret passage – to provide plenteous thrills.’ Their final verdict was ‘enjoyable’. Curtis Evans wrote the introduction for the reprint, which includes information on the meaning behind the title of this non-series novel by Connington. The title ‘refers to an ancient British children’s game, “Tom Tiddler’s Ground” in which one child tries to hold a height against other children.’ The book received a somewhat less subtle alternative title, Gold Brick Island, I am presuming, for publication in America.

Cover for J. J. Connington's Tom Tiddler's Island. It is the Murder Room edition from 2013.

Evans also provides lots of information about the man behind the Connington penname, Alfred Walter Stewart, who was a scientist. His career was very much seen as an influence on the way Connington created his stories, with the London Daily Mail writing: ‘For those who ask first of all in a detective story for exact and mathematical accuracy in the construction of the plot there is no author equal the distinguished scientist who writes under the name of J. J. Connington’. Curtis Evans goes through Connington’s various mystery novels, highlighting points of interest. One title which stuck out for me was Murder in the Maze (1927), which Curtis reveals was hugely enjoyed by T. S. Eliot and John Dickson Carr. Evans joins their praise writing that ‘in retrospect Murder in the Maze stands as one of the finest English country-house mysteries of the 1920s, cleverly yet fairly clued, imaginatively detailed and often grimly suspenseful.’

Synopsis

‘A young couple, the Trents, arrive on the lonely islet of Ruffa – where a large house has been lent to them for part of their honeymoon – and stumble upon mystery. Gold is being exported from Ruffa in quantity. Where does it come from? From the Armada wreck in the bay? Or from some old Norseman’s hoard like the Traprain Law treasure. Or has the other tenant discovered the secret of making gold? The Trents are set on a surprising course to find out …’

Overall Thoughts

It didn’t take me long to find my first honeymoon life lesson in this story…

Life Lesson No. 1: Do not choose so remote a destination that you find yourself on a small island which has no post office or other shops, a miniscule population and access off the island is frequently impeded by bad sea conditions.

Whilst there is something to be said for getting away from it all, I think you can take the concept too far. It is never a good sign when the place you are staying at has emergency flares… The key reason for avoiding very isolated honeymoon destinations is that if a crisis should occur, be it a bee sting or an invasion of a criminal gang hellbent on getting gold, then the appropriate support services or resources are not going to be readily available.

However, to maintain impartiality Jean Trent does voice some of the disadvantages of honeymooning in a more urban environment:

‘I’ve just loved these last three weeks, every second of them; but I was beginning to get enough of it all. These big hotels, and the crowds of new people, and the everlasting chatter and noise, and the continual shifting from one place to another, and the feeling that nobody there had any roots, somehow, and that we hadn’t any roots either. We were just birds of passage like the rest, and nobody cared tuppence about us except the waiters, and they wanted us to move on so that they could get our tips […] And the “young bride” business. I just revelled in it at first; but after a bit it began to pall. You know what I mean, Colin. The way the strangers at the next table look at you covertly when they think you don’t see them. ‘That’s a young bride on her honeymoon.’ And the middle-aged women looking you up and down, half-envious and half-superior. And the middle-aged men staring at me and envying you…’

That said, it is hard to say that many of the inhabitants on the island have roots, and at least two of them are there under false names or cover stories. I am also wondering how all of these people are supposed to know you are a ‘young bride’ – does one wear a sign? On balance I think I would prefer to deal with the problems of the urban dwelling to the ones of the near desolate Scottish island.

It does not take long for odd things to begin happening on the island, as Colin encounters several on his first night: hearing a coded message on short wave radio, finding an injured fainted man among the lupins, who has disappeared when he returns with a first aid kit and then finding a gold ingot where the man should have been. Naturally he shares none of this with his bride, Jean.

Life Lesson No. 2: If you withhold information from your new wife about night-time exploits, then you cannot back up your theories about known odd events. There is nothing more galling than knowing you’re right about something but not being able to adequately prove it. Moreover, prolonged concealment will probably involve you lying, and this can get complicated further down the line.

Despite the lack of amenities on the island Jean is resolutely bright and enthusiastic about the place from the get-go and I must admit that this level of positiveness got on my wick. If it was film, you would expect her to burst into song any minute. However, her role in the book is pretty minimal, so minimal in fact that she disappears off the page for the majority of the story. I think this is why she is allowed to have raptures about the island at the start – as otherwise her presence would be microscopic. Her job is to simply give Colin a reason to get on the island. Once this has been achieved, she then ensures he gets to interact with another male character on the island. After that her job is done and she is whisked off the page, held hostage by the bad guys and goes to bed at the end of the story before the solution has been revealed. This is a masculine John Buchan-esque thriller and a boy’s adventure – women have little to no place in the plot, other than to give our two central male characters some emotional heart pangs. Hazel Arrow at least is shown to have some sense when she manages to send a coded message to her rescuers via her pet dog. Of all the books I have reviewed for my weddings and honeymoons in vintage crime fiction project, this story has been the least evocative of that theme. This is a honeymoon mystery in name only – it could have been a random holiday or Colin could have just gone on his own. Given what happens Jean might suggest it next time.

Life Lesson No. 3: If you are adamant on honeymooning on a remote Scottish island, then make sure there is someone else there you can make friends with, as at the first sign of intrigue your spouse will ignore you to go solve and oust a criminal gang conspiracy, with his new chum.

Despite being an adventure mystery, it isslow going in terms of plot development as Colin won’t share with anyone what he knows/experienced on his first night for ages. Consequently, his ability to fish for further information is very limited and a lot of the book is taken up with Colin and Cyril Northfleet (another visitor to the island) circling around each other before pooling information on what has been going on.

To provide a little more information on Cyril, he is a consultant chemist who is on the island to study the birds that live there. However, his ornithological skills are somewhat lacking, so naturally we, and Colin, assume he is there for other purposes. But are they good or bad? Connington’s scientific background is quite evident through the character of Cyril and can be particularly seen in sections such as Colin and Cyril’s first exploration of the secret passage. This scene is low on atmospherics and high on recording distances and accurately mapping and surveying the terrain. This methodical approach is headed up by Cyril and whilst dull does provide diagram fans, a map at the end. In the introduction Curtis Evans notes in Connington’s work, contrary to some of his contemporaries, that ‘we see an often disdainful cynicism about the human animal and a marked admiration for detached supermen with superior intellects.’ I think this idea is fulfilled by Cyril, who I would argue is set up by the story to be the real hero of the story, not Colin Trent. Whilst Colin’s experiences and perspective dominate a large part of the text, I would say he becomes more second in command to Cyril. Comparing the two I would say Colin is an imaginative adventurer, who does experience some anxiety during dangers, whilst Cyril is an analytical scientist, and these roles differentiate their approaches and responses to events in the story. Nevertheless, it is Cyril who takes charge when the women are taken hostage and it is he who devises and mostly implements the rescue plan. Atypical to an adventure thriller it is scientific know-how rather than brute force which wins the day. It is just a pity that he is dull as ditch water. Oh, and don’t get me started on the umpteen pages we are subjected to when Cyril takes Colin step by step through the cryptograms he solved. At least Jean was spared that…

Judging this book by the standards of an adventure thriller I can’t say it fulfils the excitement criterion, as even dramatic situations are delivered drearily. There is one scene with peril in the secret passage, but it came across to me as a half-hearted and dull version of an Indiana Jones film.

Connington received a lot of positive comments from both American and British reviewers, at the time, as I showed earlier, but I would suggest reading one of his detective mysteries rather than this thriller, to get a better sense of what he offers as a writer. As for me, I am not sure he is quite my cup of tea.

Rating: 2.5/5

For Better or Worse: Worse, definitely worse! But at least I can say my honeymoon avoided all of these pitfalls!

See also: David Vineyard has also reviewed this title.

I have also reviewed Connington’s The Dangerfield Talisman (1926) and The Sweepstake Murders (1931).

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