Murder in the Maze (J.J. Connington)

  • By J.J. Connington
  • First published: UK: Ernest Benn, 1927; US: Little Brown, 1927

Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Observer, 3 April 1927

Murder in the Maze is one of the most enjoyable British detective stories of the 1920s. Even in its day, it was hailed as an immediate classic; T.S. Eliot no less, as Curt Evans points out, called it “a really first-rate detective story” that put Connington “in the front rank of detective story writers”. Connington has been dismissed as a Humdrum, but his early books are excellent: they move swiftly, with an admirable mixture of complex plotting, deft clueing, and above average characterization, told in light, witty prose.

Here, we find a splendid set-up: identical twins Roger and Neville Shandon are shot (with arrow poison, of course) in the twin centres of a garden maze. Was one mistaken for the other? If so, which was the intended victim? Or were they both targets? Or are there even two murderers? Burglary and further tragedy follow.

Maze introduces Sir Clinton Driffield, Chief Constable of a here unnamed county (Downshire in later books); a slight man of about 35, sun-tanned, moustached, elegant but with a cultivated ordinariness. (I picture David Niven as Driffield.) He has a nice line in persiflage and cryptic comments (“By the way,” he added casually, “I suppose you know who the murderer is by this time?”), and spars nicely off ‘Squire’ Wendover. Like many of the superhuman sleuths, he also has his own idea of justice; Reggie Fortune, Philo Vance, and Mrs. Bradley would approve his solution, but the ordinary mortal might consider his conduct excessive in an upholder of the law.

“John Jervis Connington,” I wrote in 1999, “is obviously an Intuitionist” (borrowing Mike Grost’s classification). I wouldn’t go so far today; from The Two Tickets Puzzle (1930) on, his books are clearly in the Austin Freeman / Freeman Crofts line, but Connington involves himself with the people in the case and how they behave, rather than focusing exclusively on material clues and routine. For its time, the clueing is as adroit as Mason or Christie; there are physical clues, but the psychology of the murderer, what ze knew (but shouldn’t have done if ze were innocent), and slips of the tongue are also vital. So too are the detective’s reactions (e.g. the incident of the spider web). Carr, a Connington admirer, took note.


UK (Ernest Benn, 1927)

Two simultaneous murders occurring at the two centres of a maze in the garden of a country house; the report of an attempted murder; a fourth attack fraught with the greatest consequences; a burglary – these are the elements out of which “J. J. Connington” has built up a detective story which the publishers take leave to consider is worthy to rank with the half-dozen great masterpieces of this delightful form of literature. The reader will find all the clarity of reasoning and logical development which were so notable a feature of “Death at Swaythling Court” and “The Dangerfield Talisman,” but, added to these qualities, a continuous excitement of the most intense order.

Contemporary reviews

Aberdeen Press and Journal (29th March 1927): Few writers of detective yarns can bring such an assured and literary style to his theme as J. J. Connington, and that does not mean that he does not supply the “goods” at the same time. Murder in the Maze, his latest effort, has two simultaneous murders, two attempted ones and a burglary into the bargain, and the most labyrinthine maze to be mastered before the secret is out.

Daily News (Rose Macaulay, 31st March 1927): TWO GOOD MURDERS

A young man and woman staying in a country house enter the maze in its grounds, by different entrances, competing as to which can reach the centre first. It is a maze of unusual intricacy, its paths walled by thick twelve-foot hedges. Before long the girl is startled by two shots and a cry; and a few minutes later the young man shouts “Murder! See that no one gets away from the maze!”

A thrilling chapter, an alarming, situation, and an admirable and original opening to a detective novel. The rest of the book cannot, of course, be kept up to this horrifying pitch, since it deals with the unravelling of the mystery; but Mr. Connington has successfully sustained an atmosphere of rather sinister alarm and suspicion, punctuated with fresh crimes which seem to indicate that the murderer is still at hand. His detection is taken in hand by the Chief Constable of the county, a. clever, reticent, and even misleading gentleman. who prefers to keep all his cards in his own hand. His methods, his clues, and his traps can be watched with interest even when not wholly understood, and he brings off his coup at the end with formidable efficiency.

Mr. Connington has had a very happy idea for his murder, and has not let the rest of his story fall below it. A very refreshing change from the usual library murder. I never quite know why libraries and studies should be so often selected for these unhappy occurrences. If I had a library I should certainly not sit alone in it after dark, if at all.

The Sketch (6th April 1927): Or, the Maze of Murders. That would have been the sub-title, of course, if J. J. Connington were not the detective-story writer after the heart of the million, the man who wastes no time – not even on the title-page – in getting down to business. There is more than one murder in the Maze at Whistlefield. The first chapter gives you a choice of unpleasant persons to be removed, and of other persons who might conceivably take kindly to the job of removing them. Murder in the Maze provides suspense, speculation, and shocks from the start. It is ingenious without being bewildering. It is all possible; though this is not going so far as to say it is all probable, which is a good thing for the peace of the inhabitants of rural England. Whistlefield, house and grounds, is too well equipped for assassinations to be a country residence of the desirable sort. Granting its convenient accessories, the Maze and the pot of poison and the rest, it is hard to see how Mr. Connington’s breathless plot could be improved upon. Death at Swaythling Court was good; but this is better. It is, in fact, the best detective story we have come across this year.

New Statesman (9th April 1927, 100w): Murder in the Maze is not only particularly well written, but is an unusually ‘clue-perfect’ detective story.

Spectator (B.E.T., 9th April 1927, 50w): The author has produced a book that should be universally popular, for he writes well and humorously, lays excellent false trails, and never neglects his characterisation.

Nation and Ath (Marjorie Strachey, 16th April 1927, 150w)

Times Literary Supplement (21st April 1927): In spite of the singularity of the crime in the title both the Shandon twins are found dead in the maze with poisoned air-gun darts in their bodies. One of them had just received a threatening letter from a man whom he had sent to prison in South Africa and had also told a hot-tempered nephew, who was an expert with air-guns, that he was an idler and could no longer rely on his bounty but must fend for himself, while the other was known to be the sole pillar and prop of the prosecution of an unscrupulous and wealthy rogue who could reasonably expect to avoid penal servitude if the formidable K. C. could be eliminated from the case. The writer of the threatening letter is found just outside the maze, the vindictive air-gunman has only his own evidence that he has been shooting rabbits and some of the documents relied upon by the prosecution are found to have been stolen from the body of the K. C. Mr. Connington fortunately produces an exceedingly competent Chief Constable who personally takes charge of the case and shows a great deal of imagination, shrewdness, and knowledge of psychology in handling it.

The Woman’s Leader (8th July 1927): Canon Whitechurch’s detective story has a romantic title, and a charming picture of trees and water on the wrapper. The central figure is a pleasant, broad-minded clergyman, such as the author can describe so well. A certain atmosphere of agreeable leizure [sic] pervades the account of the murder of Felix Nayland and of his friends’ efforts to find the criminal. One cannot help suspecting that the author told this story to himself in bed, according to the practice which many of us indulge in. That is perhaps why the solution is not quite so convincing as the mystery. One almost always goes to sleep before one has arrived at a really good solution!

Murder in the Maze is a much more exciting and horrible tale [than Canon Whitechurch’s Crime at Diana’s Pool], though it, too, is set in pleasant country surroundings. It is a good idea to make a person lost in a maze like that at Hampton Court hear a murder going on behind the high green walls, quite close at hand but out of sight, and in a place that cannot be found. The feelings of this wanderer, when she was trying to get to the spot to help, and when that failed, to get out into the open without meeting the murderer, are rather indicated than described. Mr. Connington, unlike the writers of the two stories considered above, exercises the greatest economy in description. He does not even tell us what tree was planted and clipped into labyrinthine green passages to make the maze. Nor does he give us much description of his characters. There are, however, plenty of clues conveyed in conversations and in statements of fact. The experienced reader has a fair chance of guessing the criminal. Altogether a most thrilling tale.

NY Times (24th July 1927, 210w): The story is an ingenious one, but it is marred at times by soliloquies on the part of some of the leading characters. The author might have found some subtler means of revealing what is told in those soliloquies.

Boston Transcript (J.F.S., 6th August 1927, 340w): “Death at Swaythling Court” and “The Dangerfield Talisman” have recently placed J. J. Connington among the choice few whose narrative possesses distinctive flavour, and whose minor characters can be trusted upon to talk and act like human beings. He is, in short, a SOMETHING and particularly literary craftsman as well as a SOMETHING of clever stories. The tale grips the interest at the start, proceeds at comfortable speed, and works up to a distinctly unusual and thrilling climax. The puzzle is a first-rate one, and the story the best of the Connington stories.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 28th August 1927, 110w)

Morning Post: Mr. Connington is well in the running for first favourite amongst our new writers of detective stories. Even with his recent success, The Dangerfield Talisman, this Maze easily holds its own.

The Outlook (H. C. Harwood): Once or twice before Mr. Connington has contrived ingenious detective stories. With Murder in the Maze he demands and deserves comparison with the Masters of this subtle art. He has always been intelligent; he now becomes exciting. Undeniably, this is the real right stuff. Maze – write that name down, and buy, borrow, or – anyhow get hold of it.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): An early Driffield tale, again witnessing C.’s love of the fraternal angle. The villain among the three brothers is easily spotted, but the story is straightforward and full of good points.

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