First published: Ernest Benn, 1927 (UK); Little Brown, 1927 (US)
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.
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.
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)