Tom Tiddler’s Island (J.J. Connington)

  • By J.J. Connington
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1933; US: Little Brown, 1933, as Gold Brick Island

Rating: 2 out of 5.

After twenty-three and a half years, I’ve finally read all J.J. Connington’s detective stories. (Except Almighty Gold and the dictatorial fantasy Nordenholt’s Million.) Connington (pseudonym of research chemist Alfred Walter Stewart, 1880–1947) was well regarded in the 1920s; at his peak, he was an ingenious, sardonic writer.

The best, I think, are Murder in the Maze, the first appearance of Sir Clinton Driffield, in which a family is slaughtered with curare, the first two victims are killed at the same moment in the two hearts of the maze; The Case with Nine Solutions, whose labyrinthine plot opens with a triple murder; The Ha-ha Case, a carefully clued murder at a shooting party; No Past is Dead, with its cunning alibi and deception worthy of Agatha Christie; and Jack-in-the-Box, a wartime story with a plethora of scientific murder methods.

This ‘Tiddler’ is small fry among Connington’s books: Sir Clinton does not appear. Instead, a newly married husband, Colin Trent, plays Watson on the island of ‘Ruffa’ (a nod to Conan Doyle’s ‘Uffa’, as Barzun & Taylor suggested), in a thriller full of secret passages, yachts, underground mazes, radio cryptograms, and gangs of gunmen.

A scientist has apparently realised the alchemical dream of turning lead into a gold – a chemical process that would destroy the value of gold, wreck international finance, and spark a war to control Mexico’s silver. And crooks want that secret…

Tom Tiddler belongs to that sub-genre of British detective fiction – by Crofts out of Childers – in which plucky amateurs run up against gangsters; they work out the gangsters’ scheme (usually smuggling or counterfeiting) and foil the crooks. The Pit-Prop Syndicate is the first; John Rhode wrote several in his early career; and even Gladys Mitchell wrote a few.

But Tom Tiddler is not exciting, by any means; it’s the work of Stewart the chemist, rather than Connington the mystery-monger. The middle section consists of the chemist Northcott lecturing Colin on cryptograms, then on the gold standard. The cryptogram part is impenetrable; mathematicians and other masochists might enjoy it, but I skimmed the bloody thing. (The early English Golden Age writers had a mania for cryptograms; Connington has another in Truth Comes Limping.)

The final quarter explodes into almost Tarantinoesque violence. The baddies are shot, blown up, and break their necks falling from walls or into chasms. There’s one clever touch: the “golden nemesis” (fulminating gold) is used to destroy gold-hungry men. But the big revelation of Leven’s secret (ROT13: “nypurzvfg” = srapr) isn’t new; Leslie Charteris had used it in a couple of Saint stories published before Connington.

Then there are the dubious sexual politics. The women get short shrift; Trent’s wife Jean is decorative (she burbles), and then a damsel in distress. As a conventional 1930s male, Colin wants to “protect” his wife, so does not tell her his secret – and she is unaware anything is wrong until she finds four strange men in her room, threatening her with guns. She and her friend Hazel are only there to be kidnapped and threatened with rape. They lack agency. As a fan of Gladys Mitchell’s empowered women, and the Avengers (in this case, the Gale and Peel one, rather than the Stark and Steve one), I had hoped Jean would play a larger part; why should men have all the fun?

Still, Freudian critics would have a field day. Mr. and Mrs. Trent don’t spend their first night on the island in each other’s arms – they sleep in separate rooms, which bodes well for their married life; instead, Colin encounters a hare-lipped brute of a man on the heath:

“Feel pretty bad?” Colin asked kindly, as he put his arm round the man’s shoulders to support him.

There was no reply. The momentary glimpse of that brutish countenance had repelled Colin; but as he knelt with his arm about the figure of his protégé, his natural sympathies got the better of his distaste. Whatever the fellow might be, he was a badly-hurt man needing careful handling. And suddenly Colin felt the full weight of the body against his arm.

“Hullo! The beggar’s fainted,” he ejaculated to himself as he lowered the unconscious head to the ground.

Ho-yay hurt/comfort. And Colin goes on ejaculating throughout the book (once with “a gasp of relief”), and almost always in the company of other men. (Everybody’s at it, though: Jean ejaculates as she looks over her husband’s shoulder; Northfleet the chemist ejaculates; Leo the gunman ejaculates.) Some honeymoon!


1933 Hodder & Stoughton

A young couple, the Trents, arrive on the lonely islet of Ruffa where a large house has been lent to them for part of their honeymoon, and stumble upon mystery.

Gold is being exported from Ruffa in quantity.  Where does it come from?  From the Armada wreck in the bay?  Or from some old Norseman’s hoard like the Traprain Law treasure?  Or has the other tenant discovered the secret of making gold?

This book is more exciting than anything that Mr. Connington has written since “Nordenholt’s Million”; and, in the end, most readers will be surprised by the solution unless they have followed the clues given in the narrative.

1933 Little, Brown (US), as GOLD BRICK ISLAND

A THRILLER that will curl your nerve ends. 

A MYSTERY that you won’t solve until you see the hole in the fence.

Mr. Connington here turns from the straight detective story to a mystery tale – a real thriller.  The Trents have been lent for their honeymoon a large house on the lonely islet of Ruffa.  Shortly after arriving, Trent accidentally intercepts a mysterious wireless message and, a bit later, stumbles across a wounded man who vanishes, leaving behind him an ingot which seems to have slipped out of his pocket and which later proves to be pure gold.  Next day Trent comes upon a college acquaintance, now a consulting chemist, ostensibly bird-watching.  The second house on the island is found to be under armed guard, and the Trents are warned away from it.  A strange yacht with an armed crew appears in the bay.  Finally Trent learns that gold is being exported from Ruffa in quantity.  Does it come from the Armada wreck in the bay?  Or from some old Norseman’s hoard?  Or has the tenant of the other house discovered the secret of making gold?  The rest of the book is more exciting than anything that Mr. Connington has yet offered his American audience, and most readers, although given all the necessary clues, will be amazed at the solution.

Contemporary reviews

Books (Will Cuppy, 23rd April 1933, 150w): One of the dozen or so really worth-while bafflers of the credible school.  Mr. Connington has gone in for the wildish adventure this time; the result is a sound thriller of the better sort.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 23rd April 1933, 250w): Gold Brick Island is a real thriller, but it is not so convincing as the straight detective stories that Mr. Connington usually writes.

Wis Lib Bul (May 1933)

Sat R of Lit (13th May 1933, 60w): Adventure yarn by a master mystery craftsman who uses all guaranteed, surefire methods—even a secret passage—to provide plenteous thrills.

Springfield Republican (14th May 1933, 180w)

Birmingham Gazette (Christopher Adams, 18 May 1933): Mr. J.J. Connington is one of that very small band of writers whose mystery thrillers have some literary grace.

His latest book, Tom Tiddler’s Island, will appeal to the discerning. A young couple go to a lonely islet where a big house has been lent to them for their honeymoon. And they stumble upon a mystery – gold is being exported from the island in quantity.

Sounds almost like a case for the international bankers or economists. But no, nothing so humdrum.

Mr. Connington gets a nice problem, where does the gold come from? A wreck, hoarded treasure, or has someone solved the problem of making it?

You will have to be remarkably acute to get ahead of the last page.

Boston Transcript (24th May 1933, 300w)

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer (S.S., 31 May 1933): If Mr. Masterman goes on like this [An Oxford Tragedy], Mr. Connington, who hails also from academic circles, will have to look to his already well-established reputation. In Tom Tiddler’s Island he gives an exciting yarn full of the freshness of the Scottish Isles. A pleasant young couple, the Trents, are spending their honeymoon on Wester Voe, an island off the coast of Northern Scotland. A neighbouring scientist is rumoured to have discovered the secret of the transmutation of metals. But the work of this alleged scientist is known to several members the underworld, whose arrival on the island makes the Trent honeymoon one that they are never likely to forget.

Times Literary Supplement (15th June 1933): Mr. Connington’s latest mystery story should appeal to a variety of readers, even if it fails to satisfy the expert solver.  There is plenty of romance, both of place—a lonely Scottish island—and of persons—a honeymoon couple.  There is a faithful servant, and a strong, silent individual, who is something more than an ornithologist; a carefully guarded house, occupied by people who are up to no good; several foreigners, including the now familiar gentleman with a ferrety face; an underground maze; a short-wave radio set and an ingenious code.  And for those readers who can still remember their schooldays, Mr. Connington has provided more interesting chemical experiments, including an account of the preparation of that very alarming substance, fulminating gold.  The story runs smoothly to its fore-ordained conclusion.  But if there is never any doubt about which side will win, there is until the very end of the book some anxiety about the choice and effectiveness of the methods employed to save the honour of the two young ladies and to exterminate the gang.

Spectator (Sylvia Norman, 16th June 1933): Tom Tiddler’s Island is a brighter spot [than George E. Lancaster’s Traitor’s Rock] containing a honeymoon couple, a hoard of treasure, a gang of roughs and a series of adventures.

Eric Gillett in the Sunday Times: A spirited and well-written thriller, and Mr. Connington may be congratulated upon achieving a full measure of success in it.

Birmingham Post: It is absolutely first class.

Scotsman: A good, engrossing yarn, well told.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): On the island of Ruffa (not Uffa) off the Scottish coast, young Colin Trent and wife encounter a set of mysterious characters and circumstances.  “Gold making” is suspected, an underground passage certainly exists, and wireless messages in code are detected and deciphered in a really masterly way.  Connington does less well with the gang of thugs who seem required by the plot.  No substitute for admirers of Clinton Driffield, but entertaining even so.

Other reviews

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