The 21 Clues (J.J. Connington)

By J. J. Connington

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1941; US, Little Brown, 1941

Blurb (UK)

Connington - The 21 Clues
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The Constable was content to call it a suicide pact.  All the obvious facts were in favour of this solution.  The bodies of John Barrett and Mrs. Callis were discovered in a lovers’ nook among some bracken.  Beside them was a pistol with Barrett’s finger-prints on it, and torn up letters in the handwriting of Barrett and Mrs. Callis were scattered about on the turf.  Inspector Rufford unearthed some puzzling problems.  Arrangements for the elopement of the couple had apparently been complete.  Why had their plans fallen through?  Why had they turned their backs on the railway station, with tickets to London in their pockets?  Why was a small sum of money missing from the bag in the wrecked car?  It was not until Sir Clinton Driffield returned from his holiday that a satisfactory solution was found, broad enough to include in its scope all the twenty-one clues, as well as the reappearance of the Jubilee double-florin and the fate of the shooter of cats.  Mr. Connington’s readers will expect to find all the clues honestly laid before them as usual, and they will not be disappointed.

Blurb (US)

Connington - The 21 Clues US
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The bodies of a worthy prelate and one of his wealthy lady parishioners are found in a bracken patch somewhat famed as a lover’s rendezvous.  Torn-up love letters are scattered about.  A pistol with the clergyman’s finger-prints lies beside the body…

If Mr. Connington says there are twenty-one clues, you can depend on it that they are offered to you as they turn up and that they will add up to the solution of the case.  Mr. Connington has been aptly termed “the modern master of pure detection”.  Can you fit together the pieces of his latest fascinating mosaic of death?  Can you beat Sir Clinton Driffield to the solution?

My review

Confession: I gave up a quarter of the way through.

Let’s go back about 20 years, to me aet. 16 or so, addicted to detective stories in the same way my schoolmates were to cut-price hashish, the pleasures of the palm, or evangelical proselytism.

I was irked when I read Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder to see him dismiss Connington as a Humdrum, a constructor of mere puzzles.

I was lucky, you see, only to have read Connington’s best books: The Case with Nine Solutions (1928), with lots of juicy murders and clues; Murder in the Maze (1927), fast-paced enough to read in a single sitting at the National Library; the rather dull Nemesis at Raynham Parva (1929), more interesting in conception than … execution; and Jack-in-the-Box (1944), boasting a sinister mystic and a wealth of scientific slayings.

Three of those are, quite simply, FUN. That, after all, is why we read detective fiction; and if they’re not fun, why bother? (The epicurean aesthetic!)

They are, however, the outliers. Many of Connington’s books aren’t fun. They’re praised for methodical detection, solid construction, and immaculate logic. Not for zest, humour, atmosphere, or action!

Many of his 1930s books feature police detection, murders in suburbia, and flat prose. Even the better books from this period – The Castleford Conundrum (1932) and The Ha-ha Case (1934) – are absorbing , rather than exciting.

By 1941, Connington had been in decline for some time. In Whose Dim Shadow (1935), Truth Comes Limping (1938), and For Murder Will Speak (1938) were the work of a tired, ill man. His last two books, The Counsellor (1939) and The Four Defences (1940), were failed attempts to rekindle his inspiration by writing about a new detective – a witty, wealthy radio host.

The 21 Clues returns to Sir Clinton Driffield – although I stopped reading before he appeared. What we do get, though, is a murder in lower-middle suburbia (chapel-going corpses); paragraphs in Cockney; police investigation; and a lot of tedious stuff about the position of bodies, tracks in grass, and fingerprints, all told in soporific, expository prose.

A glance at his watch showed that he had still a short time in hand before he could receive the photographs, and he decided to spend this in making a rough examination of the finger-prints on the Colt automatic. The pistol had been brought in carefully strapped to a board so that the prints had been preserved intact during transit; and, as it chanced, there was a very clear print on the exposed smooth surface of the slide, so clear that powder was unnecessary to bring out the lines. Rufford noted that it was a “whorl” pattern – that is, one which has a central core to its maze. By using a magnifying glass, he counted the number of ridges which intervened between the core and the nearest “delta” – a point where the ridges eddied away into subsidiary patterns – and found fourteen of them. There were two fairly prominent “islands” in the pattern, and eh counted the number of the ridges between each of them and the “core”, noting the relative positions of the three features.

He next took up the prints which he had made from the fingers of the two bodies. The designs on the woman’s finger-tips were all of the “loop” type, so he was able to discard them immediately. The right thumb of the male body showed a “whorl” pattern, however; and a repetition of the counting process proved that here also there were fourteen ridges between the core and the nearest delta. Rufford was able to pick out the two islands, also; and the numbers for them were identical with those which he had found on the pistol-print. The relative positions of the various features were alike in both patterns.

“Not much need to go further for the present,” Rufford assured himself thankfully.

I stuck it out a couple more chapters, and then agreed.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 3rd May 1941):


What looks like a suicide pact soon looks too much like it.  There are more clues than are wanted.  Too many bullets have been fired, too many tracks disturb the bracken, too many proofs are provided of an old passion.  This plainly is the kind of fake for Mr. Connington to peel layer by layer like an onion.  The Counsellor, whom he established in his recent novels as an amateur detective with a promising future, does not appear.  Regular police methods make a thorough job of the investigation, a newspaper reporter helps and the Chief Constable puts the bits together until the whole series of events becomes as clear as though it had been filmed.  Calculating patience is
Mr. Connington’s chief characteristic.  At times he dawdles so calmly over routine detail that he exasperates, but this assurance compels admiration directly you are even dimly aware where his purpose lies.


Sat R of Lit (10th May 1941, 40w):

Methodical and painstaking investigation of ingeniously-planned crime should please those who care more for deduction than action.  Well thought-out.


Books (Will Cuppy, 11th May 1941, 170w):

Without stating in so many words that this is a fiction based upon the notorious Hall–Mills murder case, we venture to hint that the wind is in that direction.  Mr. Connington has veiled, adorned, elaborated and otherwise adapted the story with a goodly bag of tricks, including a most adroit substitution of identification.  He has also provided a fine brand of detection and an answer that exactly fits his version.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 11th May 1941, 180w)

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 11th May 1941):

J.J. Connington makes a come-back to his best form in The Twenty-One Clues, a double provincial murder. Brilliant solution by Sir Clinton Driffield after thorough detailed investigation. The best Connington for several years.


Spectator (John Fairfield, 16th May 1941, 20w)

New Yorker (17th May 1941, 80w)

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 27th May 1941):

Off with the new love and on with the old.  Mr. J. J. Connington in The Twenty-one Clues deserts his broadcasting detective to return to Sir Clinton Driffield, who solves an apparent case of double suicide which both he and the reader soon suspect was really a case of double murder.  The working out of the solution shows all Mr. Connington’s remarkable and careful ingenuity, a quality in which he remains unsurpassed.


Time (9th June 1941, 40w):

Clever, and a satisfying puzzle.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 16th August 1941):

The Twenty-one Clues is old-fashioned detection (and quite adequate, but no more) solved by Sir Clinton Driffield in his prosiest vein.  Instead of probing the bewildering mountain of clues, many readers will take a short cut by glancing at the characters of the persons involved.  Sir Clinton can be trusted only to convict cads.


Booklist (September 1941)

Bookmark (November 1941)

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

A poor repetition of the situation in The Case with Nine Solutions.  The 21 clues are in themselves ingenious and attractive, but the show gives itself away very early.  The doings of Driffield, Wendover, the inevitable “young reporter”, and a few yokel policemen are Connington at his worst and wearisomest.

W.H.T. dissents: By no means bad.  An apparent double suicide gives Insp. Rufford a chance to collect evidence but Sir C.D. has to come back from his holiday to put the 21 clues in order.  The plot is elaborate, but sound—there is even a rumour that it had its origin in the Hall-Mills case, q.v.


8 thoughts on “The 21 Clues (J.J. Connington)

  1. I’m trying so hard to broaden my reading base! I sat in the library yesterday and went through ten Crofts titles, trying to find one that didn’t look boring as hell. I have a few Punshons languishing on my Kindle, and I am hearing such mixed opinions about Lorac that it doesn’t feel worth the time or money to give her a go. I’m not having much luck with the Humdrums, Nick!

    There are three Conningtons in the library, including one you liked and one you found “absorbing.” I suppose I could give Murder in the Maze a try . . . Lately, though, I’m feeling a bit discouraged.


    1. I’ve had a bad run with detective stories myself, so I sympathise!

      The Humdrums are solid, dependable, meat-and-potatoes type detective stories – but a long way from Christie, Carr, or Chesterton. They’re ingenious, but rarely *clever*.

      I also suspect they appeal more to people with a mathematical / scientific turn of mind – people who like calculating railway timetables, or how long it takes seawater to leave a box. There’s one of John Rhode’s where the detectives methodically graph the movements of a piece of cork down a river.

      The Crofts I’d most recommend is The Starvel Tragedy, which is intricate and very twisty. The Cask, his first book, also has plenty of charm. Otherwise, Crofts is, let’s face it, often as boring as hell! The first I tried to read was “The Loss of the Jane Vosper”, which is awful: detailed descriptions of ships’ engines, and lots of faceless characters. Christie does the glamour of travel; Crofts gives you a guided tour of the engine-room. In some ways, with his emphasis on machinery over people, he’s the granddaddy of the techno-thriller – only without the thrills.

      If you really want boring, though, try Jules Verne! The premises look great – voyages to the North Pole, the moon, down the Amazon – but the books are full of verbalised maps, encyclopedia entries, and chapters of math formulae! Give me Tintin any day.

      Which Punshons? I wouldn’t really call him a Humdrum; he has a melancholy, pensive, whimsical strain alien to Crofts, and less interest in the mechanics of detection. He also had a social conscience; he attacked the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews within months of their seizing power. His prose style and plotting can both be convoluted – one critic compared them to a bird’s nest – and sometimes the mysteries lack a master idea. I’d recommend Death Comes to Cambers and Diabolic Candelabra, and I enjoyed several from the late ’30s.

      John Rhode / Miles Burton – the most likeable Humdrum. Wrote far too much, often formulaic, and the murderer is usually obvious. But he’s more fun than Crofts, and often dryly humorous. I really enjoyed Death on the Board and Murder, M.D.

      G.D.H. & M. Cole. Wittier than most Humdrums, but looser on the plotting. Death of a Millionaire, the second book, is like a Crofts novel rewritten by Dickens, with vivid characters, social satire, and flashbacks to Soviet Russia. The Man from the River is one of my favourite 1920s detective stories, like a leisurely summer holiday. And their short story “In a Telephone Cabinet” is brilliant.

      I’ve probably read a dozen or so Loracs; nothing stands out.

      Avoiding Humdrums, have you read Reginald Hill (Dalziel & Pascoe) or Boris Akunin (the Russian crime writer)?


      1. Truly, Brad, I think you’ll like E.C.R. Lorac, and I don’t think she’s a Humdrum at all. And she’ll be cheaper than the Coles 😉 She’s got a nice gentle approach to clever puzzles. You can find a number of editions of some of her interesting novels in paperback from Collins White Circle Canada for a horrible price on ABE and a couple of new editions from our friends at Crime Club more reasonably.


  2. I remember reading this some years back; in retrospect, yes, I think I agree with your assessment of it. I think the thing about “21 clues” might be the 1941 equivalent of a “clickbait” title; “21 things you didn’t know about this murder case!! #11 will surprise you!!” 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s