Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Murder in the Maze

Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947) was an eminent British chemist who had, under the name J. J. Connington, achieved considerable success as a writer with his 1923 science fiction novel Nordenholt's Million before turning to detective fiction. 

Murder in the Maze, published in 1927, was the first of his Sir Clinton Driffield mysteries.

Sir Clinton Driffield is the Chief Constable. As such he would normally leave the actual investigations of crime to his subordinate officers but Sir Clinton Driffield prefers a much more hands-on approach. In fact in this novel he conducts the entire investigation himself.

Driffield is a somewhat acerbic sort of man. He also deliberately cultivates an extreme ordinariness in his appearance. Anything he can do that might lead a criminal to underestimate him is a plus in his book. In this case this quality will be particularly important, since at a crucial stage it is absolutely imperative that the criminal should make the mistake of assuming that Driffield has been guilty of a rather foolish act of negligence.

Driffield is also a policeman who is not averse to taking risks, even quite serious risks.

As the title suggests a maze will play a vital part in this story. The maze is located at Whistlefields, the country house of Roger Shandon. The maze is an unusual one, having two centres rather than one. It is also rather more elaborate that the mazes to be found at other country houses. The maze will be the scene of not one but two murders, carried out more or less simultaneously at the two centres. The victims are twin brothers which leads to the suspicion that one of the two may have been killed in error, a case of mistaken identity. Sir Clinton Driffield is however keeping an open mind on that point.

This is essentially a classic country house murder with a strictly limited cast of possible suspects. There is one difference however, one circumstance which might indicate that the murder was not an inside job.

Connington often gives the impression in his fiction that he has a rather jaundiced view of humanity. This reaches an extreme in The Castleford Conundrum, a detective novel which contains not a single genuinely sympathetic character. This tendency is not quite so marked in Murder in the Maze but this novel certainly has its share of disreputable and morally dubious characters. It has to be said that Connington was rather good at creating such unsympathetic characters, and at making them interesting in spite of themselves. 

While Connington was renowned principally for his skill in plotting he does not neglect psychology. The ideal detective tale is one in which only the actual murderer could have physically committed the crime, and at the same time the murderer proves to be the one person who could psychologically have been the guilty party. Murder in the Maze fulfills both of these conditions.

The maze itself is a kind of gimmick, or at least could have been a gimmick in the hands of a lesser writer. Connington however makes us feel that this is a crime that really could not have been committed anywhere else. The setting is an absolutely indispensable part of the murder, or in this case murders.

Murder in the Maze is a work by one of the best crime writers of his era, at the top of his form. Highly recommended.

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