Jack-in-the-Box (J.J. Connington)

  • By J. J. Connington
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1944; US: Little Brown, 1944

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Me at 16:

Barzun and Taylor believe that this is “not good Connington,” but it is interesting and well-handled until the end, when it degenerates into blatant melodrama, using the titular Jack-in-the-Box (the apparatus which kills two of the victims). The plot, dealing with the mass extermination of a series of heirs, has been used before by Connington in Murder in the Maze and The Sweepstake Murders; Driffield also mentions ideas from Mystery at Lynden Sands and a short story “by somebody Connington”. The occult comes in, in the form of impossible events (talking tables, dying fish, rabbits and people) associated with the spiritualist Jehudi Ashmun (similar figures appear in The Reader is Warned and Nine Times Nine). There is good reasoning from physical clues, as always with J.J.C., and an armament of scientific murder methods are used to dispatch the victims. Scientific procedure is barbaric, as evidenced by the cat’s eye on p. 99.

Me at 20:

Connington’s masterpiece. There is a wholesale holocaust of which Van Dine would have been proud, but is handled in a superior manner: the murders are all committed by a novel and ingenious application of scientific principles (SPOILER piezoelectricity, supersonic waves, Henry’s law and nickel carbonyl), and the plot is sufficiently complicated to make the murderer not too easy to spot. Sir Clinton and Wendover (one of the trustees) are both at the top of their form, arguing with great glee. The only flaw is the melodramatic finish, straight from some 1940s Hammer film.

Blurb (UK)

Connington - Jack-in-the-Box full panel.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

A war-time triumph of scientific detection.

“Wendover took the sketch and examined it with a doubtful expression on his face.  ‘I think you’ve got it upside down,’ suggested Sir Clinton…  ‘If you turn it the other way up I believe the north will be at the top.’  Wendover reversed the map, but seemed little the wiser.

‘What does C.C. stand for?’ he demanded.  My impression is that C.C. stands for Cæsar’s Camp and the thing is a rough plan of the ground around about the place which we visited to-night.

The black circle represents the bomb-crater, you see the position of the camp and that little rectangle is meant for Pirbright’s shack or his garden—the place where there has been a mysterious crime…”

Blurb (US)

Again Sir Clinton Driffield, an old favorite with Connington fans, gets into action with all his usual acumen, and the unraveling of another mystery proceeds under his suave direction to its inevitable outcome.

JACK-IN-THE-BOX opens with the discovery of a Viking’s hoard of gold, stolen many centuries ago from a Norman abbey and accidentally unearthed during an archaeologist’s excavation on the site of a Roman camp.  A local legend prophesies death to anyone who touches it.  Soon after, the archaeologist dies in an air raid, and at the same time some of the gold vanishes from his house.

Living in the neighborhood is a mulatto who professes to have discovered a “New Force” capable of killing at long distances.  To convince a skeptical doctor, some wild rabbits are killed by an agency which leaves no trace of poison or injury on their bodies.  Later, a ne’er-do-well dies in a similar manner, and the missing gold is found buried in his garden.  A chronic alcoholic is found dead from gas poisoning, another victim dies like the rabbits, and, finally, a girl disappears.

Mr. Connington once more justifies his considerable reputation for skillful plotting and for ingenuity in working out his solution.

Contemporary reviews

Bookmark (January 1944)

Sat R of Lit (22nd January 1944, 40w): Well-documented blend of scientific crime, ‘black-magic’, plain and fancy villainy, and careful sleuthing. Slow-moving but effective. Not for the impatient.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 23rd January 1944, 120w): To appreciate this story fully one should either be well grounded in science or take Sir Clinton’s explanations on trust.

Weekly Book Review (23rd January 1944, 250w): Here’s a special item for the nicer fans – the best new detective story in sight by a wide margin, one that should be on every list for 1944 consumption.

New Yorker (29th January 1944, 70w): Sir Clinton Driffield, whose prosy investigations have considerable appeal for Connington readers, finally manages to figure out the device which murders rabbits and men without leaving a trace. Interesting in its own peculiar way.

Spectator (John Hampson, 25th February 1944, 100w)

Western Mail (E. B., 6th March 1944): These four murder mystery novels are unlike, but each is well-written and entertaining, with the solution effectually guarded until the end. Moreover, some delightfully amusing episodes are recorded and quaint characters admirably drawn without being over-emphasised. … Jack in the Box provides thrills in plenty and sound detective work…

Birmingham Daily Post (14th March 1944): Mr. Connington easily retains his place among the most accomplished writers of detective stories. From a strictly professional point of view his long series of stories “featuring” Sir Clinton Driffield and Squire Wendover lies open to criticism, for chief constables do not ordinarily run about the country like common inspectors, doing the work of their subordinates. But it is not for police officers that murder mysteries are written; and this chief constable goes about his business so cleverly that others are little likely to complain. In this case a buried treasure, a bomb, a thoroughly nasty man of colour and a (probably) completely novel method of murder combine to make exceptional demands upon constabulary wits.

Booklist (15th March 1944)

The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 19th March 1944): An alarmingly thrillerish turn from Mr. J. J. Connington. In Jack-in-the-Box Sir Clinton and his dear old toady Wendover, who is getting crustier and creakier every year, crack a madman’s fly-trap murder method: stupendously complicated, with ingenious fake occult events. Two cackling fiends and a sinister stooge.

The Scotsman (6th April 1944): Discovery near an English village of buried treasure resembling in some respects the celebrated “find” at Traprain leads to an ingeniously contrived web of mystification in Mr. Connington’s new novel. Murder and robbery follow swiftly upon the unearthing of the battered golden vessels which have been partly exposed to view through the action of an enemy bomb during an air raid. There are, however, many threads to Mr. Connington’s plot, and he is careful to ensure that the detective spirit once awakened, the reader lays hold of the wrong one. His novel, indeed, is not inaptly named, for it is full of surprises, and suspicion attaches, in turn, to many of the skilfully differentiated personages in the story, from the young doctor badly in need of money to the rather sinister Liberian whose reputation as the possessor of mysterious powers unsettles judgment as to whether he is more scoundrel or humbug. But the Chief-Constable patiently unravels the tangle of suspicion and conjecture, and the climax comes rapidly to an exciting finish. If an otherwise excellent mystery story has a defect, it is that it perhaps makes rather too extensive demands on the reader’s scientific knowledge.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 29th April 1944, 150w)

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): A late Connington, and not a good one, despite the presence of Driffield and Wendover. The story starts with the examination of a bomb crater near a harmless village during the Blitz; there is a plethora of “scientific” methods of murder, including artificially produced “bends” (caisson disease), and there is a bit of the occult, debunked of course by Sir C.