First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1940; US, Little Brown, 1940
I knew two things about this book before I started: 1) it was the pure puzzle at its most crosswordy and complicated; 2) it was one of Connington’s most ingenious books. Neither is true.
I expected a damn dry slog through arid wastes of police procedure, “painstaking” (and giving!) detection, without a pause at a refreshing oasis of excitement, humor, or characterization. Instead, this may well be Connington’s most zestful book since the 1920s.
The detective is Mark Brand, “The Counsellor”, a wealthy young man who runs a radio show as a hobby. (He first appeared in The Counsellor, a weak work.) He’s brighter, wittier, more extroverted than Sir Clinton Driffield, Connington’s usual Chief Constable sleuth, and his exuberant language is a relief after the dreary last few Conningtons. Throughout, the style is lively – including a comparison of one character to a King Charles spaniel. This is the Connington we’ve missed.
The story is based on the Rouse case: the “Blazing Car” murder of 1930, when Alfred Rouse tried to fabricate his own death. There’s one body, and two men are missing. Just how many murders have been committed – and whose corpse is in the car?
Connington knows how the clever reader’s mind works. Halfway through, he lists the theories of which you (O clever reader) will have thought. You’ll suspect one character as soon as you learn his profession (and possibly remember a certain Dorothy L. Sayers story). But you may wonder when you learn…! Isn’t that too obviously suspicious to be true?
The real solution, though, is disappointing, because it doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s clever enough – but not as clever as it could have been.
One of the murders is unpremeditated, and not part of an elaborate scheme. SPOILER The victim (Campion) happened to see too much on the night of the crime, so X killed him and threw his body in the lake. I was expecting something subtler. What about putting Campion’s corpse in the car, to make it look like Hawkstone eliminated a jealous husband who threatened him? Or putting Campion (or Hawkstone) in Earlswood’s coffin? With three possible corpses to play with, surely Connington could have done something more ingenious!
They liked J. J. Connington’s “new line in detectives” and now Mark Brand (The Counsellor), having emerged with flying colours from the Treverton case, tackles Case 2. A highly ingenious and complex business, but the author’s hand is definitely “in,” and down to the very last piece, the jigsaw drops deftly in place under his light, sure touch.
An unidentified body is found in a blazing car. A man in the locality is missing. But the corpse in the car is not that of the missing man, though someone has made an uncommonly thorough job of faking it to seem so. Just because his unknown opponent had gone to such lengths to prevent investigation going further, The Counsellor’s “satiable curiosity” was up.
Mr. Connington’s wireless detective, The Counsellor, matches wits with a murderer who has planned a veritable Maginot Line of defences to screen his guilt.
FIRST: The corpse in the burning car—unrecognisable in itself—would be identified and a verdict of suicide reached.
SECOND: If there should be a suspicion of murder, the murderer would not be identified.
THIRD: If actually brought to trial he could prove that his crime was not that with which he was charged.
FOURTH: Should his guilt be later discovered, the murderer could still beat the law—which says that one cannot be twice put in jeopardy for the same crime!
How the Counsellor knifes straight through to the fourth line of defence, by cunning use of evidence, forms an enthralling mystery that fits together as neatly as the pieces of a picture puzzle. See if you can beat him to the solution!
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 30th June 1940):
The Four Defences is the second of Mr. Connington’s investigations by “The Counsellor”, a heart-throb expert, at a somewhat imprecisely described radio station. The case turns out to be a most intricate murder for insurance racket, the murderer having four lines of defence to fall back on one after the other. Its defects are a certain looseness and diffusion of interest in the narration, but it contains a wealth of thorough, expert, scientific investigation, like a sort of concentrated essence of Dr. Thorndyke. This should delight all connoisseurs.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 6th July 1940):
A NEW WEAPON
A blazing car has a body inside it; who that body had been can be decided on page 39 and confirmed on page 50 of The Four Defences. Why read more? But there is still the title to explain. Once that task begins there is plenty of ingenuity. This is in the cold-blooded category which sets drama in the past and excites a crossword puzzle kind of interest. Nothing in the Rouse case would prepare you for these complications upon complications. Some person or persons unknown had committed what ought to have proved the perfect murder. But as attack and defence are always overtaking each other, no less than in war and cricket, a new weapon comes into the hand of the detective. The radio “Counsellor” has, besides his microphone, his pounds for information received and his puzzle corner. With all these at his command, and less regard for expenditure than the local police who are curiously unconcerned about Scotland Yard, the “Counsellor” deals meaningfully with most of the clues and somehow hypnotises the criminal into sending him the rest. Would it be ungenerous to say that he is lucky? He is so out-of-date in his knowledge of “men’s wear” that nothing but the blind faith of an indulgent author permits a theory he forms on this subject to prove well-founded. There is also a feat of weight-lifting, lightly dismissed in seven words on the last page, which strains the reader’s inward eye. Such queries are unavoidable. What they prove is that Mr. Connington has the power of penetrating into the puzzle-corner of the brain. He leaves it dazedly wondering whether in the records of actual crime there can be any dark deed to equal this in its planned convolutions.
Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 13th August 1940):
The detective story is but a truncated thing, one feels, if it relies only upon the interest of a complicated and difficult problem presented for solution to the reader who then is shown how he, too, could have reasoned out the puzzle by logical deduction from the given facts. Nevertheless, tribute is due to the extraordinary ingenuity the authors of such tales often display. Among them Mr. J. J. Connington ranks high. In The Four Defences, which, as he makes plain, was suggested by the Rouse case, it is hard to tell whether the careful scheming of the murderer, providing him with “four defences” against conviction, or the ingenuity displayed by the “Counsellor”, Mr. Connington’s broadcaster detective, in breaking through those four defences shows the greater cleverness, or again which is the more likely to baffle the reader. A pity that Mr. Connington shows little skill in characterisation, so that his personages have no more individuality than chess pieces, and that he has but small care for the niceties of style. But it is difficult to believe that a more carefully constructed or more puzzling problem has often been offered for the amateur detective to try his skill on.
Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 31st August 1940, 80w):
A good mystery and a good mental exercise combined.
Sat R of Lit (31st August 1940, 40w):
Fairly bulging with plot, shrewd villainy, keen deducing and bright conversational byplay—all making up for paucity of movement.
Books (Will Cuppy, 1st September 1940, 150w):
Mr. Connington displays his customary ingenuity in ringing the changes on standard themes, and you’ll like the story all the more if you care for Mark, the Counsellor, a persistently gay type.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 5th October 1940):
Murder at Lilac Cottage and The Twenty-one Clues are by two old friends of ours, and confirm their industry and reliable workmanship without adding to their lustre. In the bad old days many of our old friends, to make their little secrets as watertight as possible, used to keep back even the bodily introduction of their criminals until nearly the last page. Fortunately, the umpires have managed to rule that unfair practice right out. Now we are always allowed at least a peep at the villains’ faces from the start, while the authors content their miserly instincts by keeping back all the evidence against them as long as possible. But they hardly reckon with their readers’ perspicacity. Who are the persons in Murder at Lilac Cottage and The Four Defences whose presence near the scene of the crime and on the first fifty pages seems totally unnecessary? Mr. Rhode and Mr. Connington must learn to cover up better, if they hope to bewilder us at the finish. At the leisurely production of evidence and the laborious putting of two and two together both these gentlemen are masters. Nothing could be more sound, more convincing or more slow than their respective plots. Mr. Rhode’s deals with a mystery man in the country, who is struck on the head by an iron bar on entering his garage one evening. Mr. Connington’s is the Rouse case all over again, an unidentifiable body in a burning car, with a few extra refinements. The four defences are the four successive red herrings with which the murderer hopes to defeat the arm of the law. But the arm of the law in The Four Defences is reinforced by Mr. Connington’s imposing Councillor, so what chance has the villain got? Anyway, we knew who he was the instant he appeared by his very unobtrusive manner.