The Case with Nine Solutions (J.J. Connington)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this early Connington (his sixth), Sir Clinton Driffield is at the very peak of his form — acerbic, sardonic and cynical — as he investigates four murders (beginning with that of an egomaniacal would-be rapist, who gets nothing less than his just desserts), which he reconstructs most ingeniously, and complicated by the clever code letters sent by “Mr. Justice.” Although the Nine Solutions themselves are disappointing, being only the mathematical permutations and combinations of the crimes, everything else about the book is of the highest order. In a complex plot, the author has a firm grasp on all the threads: the choice of red herrings, clues, motives and suspects is excellent; and every page teems with good ideas, including some highly ingenious scientific dodges. Only the final solution (Excerpts from Sir Clinton’s Notebook) seems a bit long — methinks the author doth protest too much.

Blurb (UK)

This novel will be found as intriguing as its masterly title.

A number of deaths occur; and in quite an early chapter the exposition is finished and the record of crime almost complete.  In that chapter nine different solutions are propounded; and the remaining chapters are occupied, amid every circumstance (not only of intellectual but also of physical excitement) with the elimination of the eight erroneous solutions, until the right solution is finally achieved.

This is a masterpiece of detective architecture.

Blurb (US)

As a writer of detective stories, the distinguished Irishman who signs himself “J. J. Connington” has rapidly arrived in the first rank.  “The Case with Nine Solutions” is as intriguing as its title promises.   Early in the book a number of deaths occur, and by the sixth chapter the exposition is finished and the record of crime almost complete.  Nine different solutions are propounded and then – amid every circumstance, not only of intellectual, but also of physical, excitement – comes the elimination of the eight erroneous solutions, until the right solution is finally achieved.

Mr. Connington’s latest proof that he is a master of detective architecture preserves honestly the first rule of the game: every clue is presented as it is discovered by the police, so that the reader can compete with the detectives in that breath-taking race towards the solution of the mystery.

Contemporary reviews

The Sphere (Arnold Palmer, 29th September 1928): Of all the improbabilities which go to make up the plot of Hell and the Duchess, no single one is by itself inacceptable; in the aggregate, however, they become so. The story is altogether too steep and violent for an ordinary novel which has nothing to do with crime and its detection. In The Case with Nine Solutions the improbabilities are, of course, even greater, but in the work of popular writers of detective fiction the test is not probability but logic. Nevertheless, the reader cannot entirely suspend his powers of observation, and there are features of Mr. T. T. [sic] Connington’s tale which strike me as – well, unlikely. It is surely strange to find a large house where all the servants have their evening off together, and that, too, on a night when their employers are out. At least, it strikes me as unlikely. The police see nothing odd in a rich house being left unguarded but then the police again are, to me, most unlikely. Their reluctance to question seriously the people in the best position to help them in their investigation of the series of murders with which they are suddenly confronted is inexplicable. So is the apathy of the husband of the pretty young woman found dead in a bungalow. His love may be cooling, but a murder – hang it all, a murder is an event of importance. Mr. Connington has manufactured a good mystery, but he has handed it over to a cast of amateurs who don’t know what is expected of them.

Spectator (6th October 1928, 60w): The dénouement is completely unexpected, and fully upholds the author’s reputation as a master of this kind of story.

Daily Mirror (8th October 1928): Readers with a taste for solving detective problems will leap at this book with enthusiasm. After a number of deaths have occurred, nine different solutions are propounded. The rest of the story is devoted to the clever elimination of the eight erroneous theories.

Times Literary Supplement (8th November 1928): Mr. Connington has established his name in the front rank of detective story writers. His particular strength lies in his respect for his readers’ intelligence, and his stories are essentially puzzles with honestly worked out solutions. He does not make it as difficult as he can for the reader to detect the murderer very early on, and does not load his stage with dummies, for he has realised that a story is just as good reading when the reader feels he is no befogged Watson but worthy to join in the hunt, and that establishing the evidence against a criminal may be as exciting as finding out who he is. The Case with Nine Solutions is a tale of a double murder – with later murders thrown in – and the nine solutions are the combinations of accident, murder and suicide that are possible. The reader need not be afraid that in the event accident plays much part. This is a very well constructed story, and piece after piece is added to the puzzle till the reader shuts the book with a mind satisfied and replete, after a tussle with a criminal worthy of Mr. Connington, who has already brought into the world and removed again more than one singularly discerning villain.

The Sketch (Alan Kemp, 2nd January 1929): Take Your Choice.

Mr. J. J. Connington, in a less fantastic vein than Miss Sayers [Lord Peter Views the Body], brings stern and somewhat affrighting mathematical and chemical elements to his Case with Nine Solutions. The facts are these: In a certain house, otherwise deserted at that particular time, lies a young man mortally shot through the lung. In a bungalow some distance away lies, or rather sits, a woman shot through the head. The bullet, you would say, is the obvious cause of her death; but it is too obvious: actually, she was poisoned by hyoscine before she was shot. It also soon appears that the young man, though found in the house, was as a fact shot at the bungalow. In other words, double homicide at the bungalow. Now, apart from natural causes, which do not enter into the question here, there are three kinds of death – by accident, by murder, or by suicide. Sir Clinton Driffield, Chief Constable, awakens unpleasant recollections of school-days by demonstrating to Inspector Flamborough that there are nine, and only nine, possible permutations and combinations of the three kinds of sudden death in these circumstances. It remains to eliminate the eight wrong ones – none of which is impossible – and this Mr. Connington does with great and convincing skill. His construction is faultless, except in one respect: it is a weakness, I suggest, that the criminal should have got the opportunity of setting so much mystifying machinery in motion by the mere chance (admittedly providential for him) of an overheard telephone conversation. And also, it was asinine of Sir Clinton to allow such a vigorous killer to play about with those chemicals – almost certainly dangerous in such hands – when he was on the point of being captured. Otherwise, Sir Clinton is a very satisfying kind of sleuth, because, unlike so many of his kind, he as a gift of masterly silence. It is not from what he says, but from what he does not say, while Flamborough is doing the talking, that you can pick up the clues if you are alert enough. I thought the culprit gave himself away by his overanxiety to shield others; but there was always the possibility that that might be, in Sir Clinton’s phrase, Mr. Connington’s “double bluff”. The yarn is well and realistically written. I was particularly grateful for a detective-novel Frenchman who did not talk the intolerable jargon of most detective-novel Frenchmen. Altogether, The Case with Nine Solutions is an easy prize-winner in its class, and Mr. Connington again shows himself one of the most expert and careful living craftsmen in bloodshed.

NY Times (3rd January 1929, 160w): Mr. Connington has several good detective stories to his credit – The Case With Nine Solutions is not the least of them.

Outlook (W.R. Brooks, 9th January 1929, 110w): The combination of plenty of action with a careful presentation of the puzzle is rather unusual. We recommend it to those who like a good story.

Liverpool Echo (Arnold Bennett, 17th January 1929): This Detective Fiction.


Life is full of pitfalls, into which even the most innocent may tumble. I said last week that Balzac’s death was partly due to coffee. (It was.) I had no wish to hurt anybody’s feelings. But the editor of “Grocery” wrote thus to me, on the very day of publication: “I was shocked and deeply grieved to learn that you attribute the premature death of Balzac to the excessive drinking of coffee.”

Apparently I have dealt a cruel blow to the grocery trade. The fact is that, like G. K. Chesterton, who is a contributor to “Grocery,” I adore grocers.

A few weeks earlier, I said here, of detective fiction, that in my opinion the new school of “mystery-mongers” was over-praised. (It is.) This remark has caused much more serious trouble than my mean remark on coffee.

I have indeed had many spirited protests from passionate admirers of the said school of novelists, and many injunctions to read venous supreme modern masterpieces – named by name – and then humbly to reconsider my views in the light thereof. Every correspondent chose a different supreme modern masterpiece.

I was prepared to reconsider; but I had insufficient leisure to peruse all the masterpieces. Hence I obtained advice from an independent and erudite student of detective fiction. He told me to read J. J. Connington’s The Case with Nine Solutions. He said that this novel was representative, and among the best of the school. I have read it.

An Older Masterpiece.

But before reading it 1 took the precaution of re-reading an older masterpiece of detection – Emile Gaboriau’s L’Affaire Lerouge. I read this work in English. as a youth. I read it again in French in 1916, and now 1 have read it a third time. It is over sixty years old.

You can judge its antiquity by the fact that one of the characters is saved from a nervous breakdown by running into a doctor’s and getting himself bled. But the novel still vigorously lives. It held me once more.

The basis of the plot is far older even than the book; substitution of infants soon after birth, in this instance one half-brother for another half-brother! (Gaboriau very persuasively exonerates himself from a possible charge of conventionality.)

The denouement is delayed because, out of regard for a girl’s honour, the accused man would not establish an alibi! What is even worse, the plot depends on two enormous coincidences. The amateur detective – there were amateur detectives before Sherlock Holmes – happens to live in the same house as the assassin! And the examining magistrate happens to be madly in love with the aristocratic girl, who is madly in love with the accused man! A trifle thick, or steep? Yes. And further, the murder is insufficiently motived.

The Human Interest.

Nevertheless, the narrative sweeps you swiftly and irresistibly along, because the coincidences and the one defect of motivation being condoned, it shows a consistent logic, and also it has a continuous powerful human interest, which interest is worked out with extreme thoroughness; perhaps with excessive thoroughness.

The characters are conceived with some originality, and convincingly drawn. The amateur detective, the examining magistrate, the two half-brothers and their astounding patrician father, the noble girl, the expensive wanton, and the dying mother of the assassin, are created. You are genuinely concerned about their destinies.

The scene of the discovery of the crime, and the first activities of the amateur detective, are brilliantly presented. All the detective parts are, indeed, excellent. But in the scheme of the book they are not more important than the human drama; nor are they developed at such length as the human drama. Take away the entire business of detection, and the book would remain a good, sound, old-fashioned, emotional novel. Gaboriau was a novelist, not merely a clever amateur detective.

Murderous Work.

I had set a high standard for Mr. Connington to reach. But of what use is a standard if it is not high? The Case With Nine Solutions is based on the mad passions of two men for one woman. It is murderous work, for four assassinations – three by one man – occur in it within quite a brief period.

Three of these homicides are insufficiently motivated, and I am not sure about the fourth. In my experience real people do not go about committing capital crime with the nonchalance of Charlotte cutting bread-and-butter. The dose of blood is exaggerated. Nor, today, would a correct denouement be delayed because, out of regard for the honour of a girl, an accused man will not establish an alibi.

Still, Mr. Connington has a fairly logical mind, and he has unquestionably developed and resolved his plot with an unusual and satisfying ingenuity. It is agreeable to watch the narrowing down of the nine solutions to one solution. His opening scene in the fog is very well done; though, of course, fog in a detective novel is a rather facile device. The clues are marshalled with a truly adroit misleadingness, to which no exception can be taken. And so on.

A Disquieting Detail.

But I cannot say that I was particularly interested. As early as page 8 Mr. Connington impaired my respect for his knowledge of the world by the strange assumption that in moving a telephone receiver nearer to you, you also move the telephone bell nearer to you! A detail, but. disquieting.

More grave, the series of murders seem to leave all the people implicated or bereaved in a state of unperturbed calm. No excitement even in the great provincial town where these enigmatic murders happen! One must suppose that murders in that neighbourhood were part of the daily round, the common task.

The (innocent) husband of the murdered woman went to his job as usual the day after the first horrifying crime. and instead of rushing to the police waited for the police to come to him. He was a chemist (not an apothecary), and the police found him sitting before a delicate balance. Again, if there were four sensational violent deaths, there must have been four sensational inquests. Mr. Connington says nothing about any of them. And so on.

“No Attraction of Emotion.”

But my main adverse criticisms of the store are that the human repercussions of its events are simply not handled: and that only one character has any life, the Chief Constable of the borough. He lives. The rest do not.

The book is inhuman. If a jig-saw puzzle has emotional quality then The Case with Nine Solutions has emotional quality. If not, not. The story is flat; it has no contours. And the writing is as flat as the story. I do not deny that the thing can be read. It has some attraction. but no attraction of emotion.

It has employed the invention of the author, not his imagination. A tragedy is not a tragedy until it moves you. This book has four tragedies, and you do not care twopence. The mystery-mongers of 1929 ought to understand that detective novelists are subject to the same great principles as other novelists. One of these principles is that a good novel cannot be made out of puppets. I shall have to try another mystery-monger.

Sat R (H.C. Harwood, 2nd February 1929, 150w)

Boston Transcript (9th February 1929, 200w)

Sat R of Lit (9th February 1929, 130w): This is a very conventional, not altogether exciting, but quite readable detective story.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 10th February 1929, 100w)

Springfield Republican (10th February 1929, 200w): There is more action in this story than in some of the author’s preceding ones, and it is a difficult book to lay down until it is finished.

NY World (17th February 1929, 110w)

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): When this was a new book both readers thought it poor: they were reading a good deal of Connington and preferred others to this seemingly cheap attempt to arouse interest by playing on the permutations of two deaths. The readers now take a juster view. The tale starts very well indeed and it ends satisfactorily. It’s the plateau that offends: the anonymous missives are not convincing, and Sir C. gives the impression of doing nothing and thinking even less. But the acerb doctor is good, and the interplay of motives is sound. No Wendover. The explosion at the end is a classic of contrivance, comedy, and crime.