Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Death at Swaythling Court: Review

I am a little late to the Tuesday Night Blogger's party, but I do have a post to offer up for our New Year's theme. January is hosted by Kate over at Cross Examining Crime and as she says:

It is the start of a new year and with January being the first month, we at the Tuesday Night Bloggers (a group of eccentric eclectic crime fiction bloggers) decided to have firsts as this month’s theme. Such a theme is wide open to interpretation so over this month posts may be touching on first books by authors and first appearances of our favourite sleuths, as well as a host of other crime fiction firsts.

If you haven't already done so, you'll want to head over to Kate's and see what other "firsts" have been offered up in this first week of January.

My selection for this first week's session of the TNB hits the "firsts" category on a number of levels. It is my first book finished in 2017. It is my first Golden Age novel of the year. And Death at Swaythling Court (1926) is the first detective novel by J. J. Connington after he began his writing career with a science fiction novel. The novel features some interesting elements for a detective story. First of all we have Jimmy Leigh, an inventor who has developed a Lethal Ray device (straight out of that science fiction world from which Connington had come). He's looking for a backer for his project and approaches William Hubbard as a likely candidate.

Hubbard is a piece of work. He's a collector of beautiful and rare butterfly specimens, but butterflies aren't the only things he likes catch in his net. He's also a thoroughly despicable blackmailer--always on the lookout for a juicy bit of news that will allow him to add another payment to his collection. He hasn't been Leigh's neighborhood long, but he's already gotten his hooks into several in the village and has his sights set on Leigh and his sister (who is trying to settle evidence for a divorce proceeding against her brute of a husband). 

But before Hubbard can either agree to back the Lethal Ray or indulge himself in blackmail at Leigh's expense, he is found dead in his stifling hot study--the apparent victim of a stabbing. Colonel Sanderstead, the local Justice of the Peace, the village constable, and Sanderstead's nephew Cyril Norton go calling on Hubbard to serve a warrant for his arrest for blackmail (the charge to be sworn by the nephew). But Hubbard won't be answering any more summons. The surprise of the inquest is when the doctor testifies that the letter opener didn't kill Hubbard...a good solid dose of cyanide did the job before he could be stabbed. The jury brings in a verdict of suicide.

Sanderstead is an amateur detective at heart and, dissatisfied with the verdict,decides to keep his hand in--noting such clues as a small revolver left in the hallway, the broken butterfly case--with a specimen missing, the candle melted onto the top of the desk, the sharp letter opener in the fireplace ashes, the evidence of a regular bonfire of papers being burnt, and the victim's pet parrot who seems prone to spouting obscenities whenever his cage is uncovered. Other curious aspects involve motor vehicles--there are three motorcyclists in the case, including the victim's butler, and a mysterious car (with a tire which had lost a steel stud). 

Connington's first venture into the detective genre gives the reader an entertaining story filled with humor and a solid murder plot. The Colonel is a grand old fellow--determined to detect on his own and show his nephew that he can put two and two together. He often jumps to conclusions, but he does get to the bottom of several parts of the mystery. He doesn't however quite see the whole picture and the story winds up being "solved" through a confession of sorts. Throughout the story much is made of the evil nature of blackmail and how Hubbard had it coming and so it's no surprise that the suicide verdict is ultimately left to stand and the murder is brushed solemnly under the carpet. This left me slightly dissatisfied, even though I do sympathize with the blackmail victims and the "avenging angel" who released them from their misery. It reminded me a bit of the Holmes story where Charles August Milverton gets his just desserts and Holmes has his sympathies with the criminal and will not investigate the murder when Lestrade asks him for help. Overall, a fun start to the New Year. ★★★★

Winner of the Most Overused Word Award for "Rum." As in:

"We seem to have blundered into the first chapter of a dime novel. Very rum, as you say, uncle. Damned rum, if you ask me. I don't half like it." (~Cyril Norton)

 Norton and his uncle, Colonoel Sanderstead use that word to describe the dastardly doings at Swaythling Court at least six times in as many pages and a few times more later in the story.

Thanks to John at Pretty Sinister Books for this lovely edition (sans dust jacket). It was part of a prize package for a Mystery Challenge he set for his blog readers back in 2012. If you would like to see his take on the novel, please click the link to his blog.

Reporter's Challenge: Set in England
Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt Card: Revolver

1 comment:

Clothes In Books said...

An intriguing First! I read a different one by him, and enjoyed it for its traditional features without being knocked out by it.