First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1944; US, Little Brown, 1944
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…”
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.
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.
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.