First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1942; US, Little & Brown, 1942
After our foray into decadence with Lynn Brock, we return to the sober, straightforward detective story – where the victim is eaten by an African big cat, somewhere in the Home Counties.
White cocks are beheaded (apparently in a Voodoo ritual), and red diamonds are cursed. There’s a complicated family tree, full of bastards and actors, and it all ends in the biggest surprise solution I’ve read in donkey’s.
No Past is Dead, in fact, is one of Connington’s very best.
Moneylender Ambrose Brenthurst is found dead in the road, a cheetah chewing on his cadaver, as a jaunty young journalist with an alarming affection for alliteration (no relation) would put it.
Sir Clinton Driffield is in charge from the start, as in the good old days; no weary trudges with the police.
He’s faced with several people roaming a lady’s garden in the small hours, one of whom confessed to firing pot-shots at the victim. (It’s rather like a John Dickson Carr story, with a witness in a pagoda overhearing horrible things in the night.)
The solution is worthy of Agatha Christie: both the alibi, and the misdirection on which it’s based. (The play with names is a device she used several times.) Connington proudly calls it “a little chef d’œuvre with a double action in it” – and the critics agreed.
The usually curmudgeonly Ralph Partridge (New Statesman) called it “one of the most wonderful alibis I have ever seen built up… Generally cast-iron alibis make dull reading, but this one is exceptional, and I recommend the book for that alone.” More recently, in his introduction to the The Murder Room reprint, Curtis Evans praised the “intricate alibi gambit”.
The situation, by the way, was based on an 1890 murder in France. The notary Lépine was found shot dead and stabbed in the garden of the widow Achet. She killed him, she said, because he threatened her life if she didn’t yield to him. The police thought the motive was financial; Mme Achet owed him 17,000 francs. So she was sentenced to 12 years’ hard labour. Connington’s plot, let it be said, is very different.
It was not altogether surprising that Ambrose Brenthurst was found brutally murdered outside Fountain Court the night he had presided over the dinner meeting of the “Hernshaw Thirteen Club.”
And many were the potential murderers – some of them guests at the dinner. Diana Teramond, the beautiful Creole actress, lived at Fountain Court, and was the owner of the pet cheetah which was found gnawing on Brenthurst’s body. In debt to Brenthurst, she had asked him to her home that evening. Percy Fairfoot, in love with Diana, lied about his activities on that night. Cora Fairfoot, Percy’s mother, admitted that she was hiding nearby at the time of the murder in fear of the cheetah, but there was blood on her hands. The gardener said that he heard voices and shots – but he was obviously withholding information.
A second murder – that of the gardener’s daughter – precipitates the crisis in which Sir Clinton Driffield penetrates a maze of conflicting evidence to spot the murderer. Again, Mr. Connington’s quick-witted sleuth arrives at his solution with only the use of the evidence that is fairly presented to the reader.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 23rd May 1942):
There is something of the watchmaker in Mr. Connington. Anyone who wants to recapture the old delight of taking a clock to bits might succeed by trying to reduce the plot of No Past is Dead to diagrams. At first there is nothing more than a cheetah making a meal in the road of a blackmailing moneylender. When bullets are found in the body the business becomes only slightly more complicated. There is no problem worth worrying about were it not for a slight disturbance of the gravel path. When that piece of unwanted evidence is considered more odds and ends are revealed. Like the boy with the clock the reader will keep finding more cog-wheels than he expected until he wonders whether all of them are really necessary. Anyone who knows Mr. Connington will know beforehand how confidently he can fit piece to piece until a hopeless mess of details is a mechanism that ticks.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 13th June 1942):
No Past is Dead has rather a tame plot, but is justified by one of the most wonderful alibis I have ever seen built up. Indeed, Mr. Connington must have defeated the ends of justice, had he not betrayed his criminal by a second murder. Generally elaborate cast-iron alibis make dull reading, but this one is exceptional and I recommend the book for that alone.
Books (Will Cuppy, 21st June 1942, 180w)
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 21st June 1942, 220w):
Driffield proceeds slowly and carefully, taking nothing for granted until it is proved beyond all reasonable doubt. For this reason the story of his investigation is not for those who demand intuitive deduction or rapid-fire action. Those, on the other hand, who prefer really competent detective work and a logical solution will find it eminently satisfactory.
Sat R of Lit (27th June 1942, 40w):
Some exciting scenes and detecting is well done but the family stuff is very long drawn out. Bit tedious.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):
A cluttered and disappointing tale—in W.H.T.’s opinion perhaps the most unsatisfactory of C.’s output, though all those published after 1938 leave much to be desired. Sir Clinton is reasonably consecutive and analytical and works dodges about blood groups and surreptitiously obtained fingerprints, but Wendover appears only at beginning and end and is more of a stick than ever. The murderer is unconvincing, and the red herrings are too numerous and dull.