Saturday, August 13, 2016

J. J. Connington’s The Boat-House Riddle

The Boat-House Riddle was the sixth of J. J. Connington’s Sir Clinton Driffield mysteries. It was published in 1931, at a time when Connington was at the peak of his powers as a writer of detective fiction.

Alfred Walter Stewart (1880-1947) was a distinguished Scottish chemist who wrote detective fiction as a sideline. His background as a scientist in reflected in the clear-sightedly rational and unsentimental nature of his detective stories and it’s reflected even more clearly in the personality of his most famous series detective, Sir Clinton Driffield.

It is always a mistake for a fictional detective to decide to take a holiday. No matter where they elect to spend their vacation you can be sure that a murder will soon follow, even if it happens to be a sleepy village that has not seen a case a murder for half a century.

In this case the murdered man is a gamekeeper, employed by Mr and Mrs Keith-Westerton. The Keith-Westertons are neighbours of Sir Clinton’s old friend Squire Wendover, with whom he is staying. The man who reported the murder is Cley, a notorious poacher known to be on bad terms with the keeper. The body was bound at Friar Point’s, just across the like from Wendover’s new boat-house (which happens to be his pride an joy). There are several tracks leading to and from the murder scene but the evidence suggests that the murderer left the scene on foot but arrived by some other means, possibly by boat. To Wendover’s annoyance and embarrassment the evidence further suggests that the murderer may have set forth by boat from Wendover’s boat-house.

This is not an impossible crime story. Several people could quite plausibly have killed the gamekeeper Horncastle. The difficulty lies in the inconvenient fact that none of these people has any kind of motive. 

Attention soon becomes focused on Wendover’s boat-house. There are clues to be found there but their meaning is obscure. Why would anyone steal the motor from a gramophone? Other clues are equally confusing. A Salvation Army man was in the vicinity both before and after the murder and his explanation for his presence is most unsatisfactory. There seem to be pearls everywhere. There’s a mysterious French priest. There’s Squire Wendover’s missing screwdriver. And while Wendover has assured Sir Clinton that no-one could possibly have gained access to the boat-house it soon becomes apparent that practically everyone in the district could, and probably does, possess a copy of the key.

Connington has a reputation for complex but extremely sound plotting and that’s certainly the case here. It’s always a joy to see a master craftsman at work. This novel does break one of the unofficial rules of detective fiction of this period but that does not prevent tis from being a fine fair-play mystery.

Sir Clinton Driffield takes a unsentimental and brutally realistic (and sometimes almost ruthless) approach to crime. He is very much like the protagonist in Connington’s pioneering science fiction novel Nordenholt’s Million. When he sees what has to be done he does it, no matter how unpleasant it might be and no matter how unpopular his actions might be. And he is a natural leader. He is the sort of man who takes command in any situation, not because he enjoys power but because he assumes (usually correctly) that he is the man best qualified to do so. He understands very clearly that sentimentality can cause more suffering than hardheaded realism and clearsightedness. This might not make him an obviously sympathetic detective hero but once you realise where he’s coming from he grows on you, and in fact he’s one of the more interesting of golden age detectives. His approach is actually rather bracing. 

It’s reasonable to assume that Driffield’s unsentimental view of things probably reflects Connington’s own view and Murder in the Maze and The Castleford Conundrum are very definitely lacking in sentimentality.

Connington most certainly cannot be accused of being a mere writer of cozy mysteries.

The Boat-House Riddle is Connington at his best, which means it’s puzzle-plot mystery writing at its best. Highly recommended.


  1. "rational and sentimental nature of his detective stories" should surely be "rational and unsentimental nature of his detective stories "

    1. Yes, you're quite right. I shall fix that at once. Thanks.