The Counsellor (J. J. Connington)

  • By J. J. Connington
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1939; US: Little, Brown, 1939

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Connington was obviously trying to refresh his detective fiction after the poor last few Driffields.  It didn’t work.  The Counsellor wears loud tweeds and owns a plane, the dialogue is bright and cheerful – but the mystery itself is dull.  By the 1/3 mark (90 odd pages), we haven’t been given an interesting puzzle.  Once murder is committed, the detection is slow and steady, but it lacks the zest and concentrated interest of the 1920s books.  The solution is unsatisfactory, because it’s not a whodunnit at all; it’s a gang story.

Why are several chapters told second hand?  (e.g. visit to Grendon Manor’s rave party)

Blurb (UK)

In The Counsellor, Mr. Connington introduces to his many admirers a new detective.

Every Sunday on Radio Ardennes, the Counsellor has his hour.  His voice, clear, expressive and sympathetic as it answers a selection from the queries that crowd his post-bag, went straight to the public heart.

“Just ask a question” is his motto.  But it may be doubted whether he ever expected to have so many problems to solve, when he first decided to take seriously the letter addressed to him on page 15 of this book.

Inside blurb adds: The Counsellor is full to overflowing with ‘satiable curiosity’.  Human problems are the breath of his nostrils, and the more circumstances spank him with a hard, hard hoof, the more he quivers for information and the more volatile and versatile he grows.

Blurb (US)

“It is Mr. Connington’s high merit as a writer of detective novels that each one of his clues is fairly presented for the reader to draw from it, if he can and will, the conclusions that afterwards prove correct.” – Manchester Guardian

The Counsellor, a young man of means, makes his living by giving advice to listeners over a continental broadcasting station.  Unusual requests come to him from all over England.  But none more unusual – or challenging – than that which asks him to find a girl who has mysteriously disappeared.

Remember that Mr. Connington always writes an honest detective story.  No clues are hidden, no mass of evidence is unearthed at the last moment, no freak solution is offered.  Perhaps you can beat The Counsellor to the solution.

Contemporary reviews

Sat R of Lit (15th July 1939, 40w): Mark Brand, ‘the Counsellor’ is refreshing new figure in mystery fiction. Plot of tale beautifully tangled and unravelling admirable. Extra good.

Books (Will Cuppy, 16th July 1939, 180w)

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 16th July 1939, 160w)

The Observer (William Blunt, 16th July 1939): A PROBLEM AND SOME THRILLS

Only one of these books is a detective story, and that is Mr. Connington’s. His Counsellor is a rich eccentric who, for his own pleasure and the improvement of the world, hires the air for an hour a week and broadcasts answers to correspondents. He builds up an enormous clientèle and a staff to deal with it. He reserves for his wireless hour questions of general interest, but leaves none unanswered, whether by post or otherwise, and now and again is stirred to private investigation. A Mr. Whitgift appeals for his help in tracing a young lady who has disappeared with motor-car and tennis-racket. The Counsellor proceeds to play rikki-tikki-tavi, and has very little difficulty in finding the car, abandoned in Scotland, and in tracing its progress thither by way of Gretna Green. The case would appear to be solved, but is it? At one point on its journey north the car ran over a dog, and the young lady was overheard to say that she did not like dogs anyway. Very odd, as she had one of her own. Then the Counsellor becomes puzzled by the affairs of a company devoted to the reproduction of good pictures. The mutual relations of the directors are queer, and the young lady had shares in it. He acquires a share himself, attends the annual meeting, and learns that the company, doing badly, is thinking of selling out. He is still more intrigued at observing obvious annoyance when he personally makes a higher offer than the one the company was intending to accept. Complications pile one upon another. You remember how the Vicar of Wakefield’s daughter was to be painted as a shepherdess “with as many sheep as the painter could put in for nothing”. Mr. Connington is a very generous painter. Not content with the clever business of the vanishing young woman, he throws in a murder (method quite new and really brilliant), a Hellfire Club, some de Quinceyish dope effects and what not, in the way of sordid crime, to give the reader full value for his money. Mr. Connington’s wireless Counsellor is a new thing in detectives, but I could have wished that the solution of his problem had been a little less elaborate. The flock, I think, would be more impressive if there were not quite so many sheep.

The Leicester Mercury (19th July 1939): Now for few remarks about a new detective. He is a radio speaker who answers all sorts of inquiries. “Just ask a question” is his motto. Then somebody asks him to ask a question and things begin to happen.

For really novel effect in detective stories The Counsellor, by J. J. Connington, would take lot of beating.

Sometimes the author does not appear to be playing quite fair, but he makes amends towards the end, ties up all the ends neatly and leaves one convinced that is a might pity to reach the last page.

But we are certain to have more of The Counsellor before long. If we don’t I, for one, will be greatly disappointed.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 22nd July 1939): BROADCASTING INVESTIGATOR

Mr. Connington has invented a new character to replace his able Chief Constable and his Squire Wendover. “The Counsellor” from whom the story takes its title is the pseudonym of Mark Brand, a broadcaster who gives advice to all and sundry from Radio-Ardennes. Brand was a rich young man who sought a new profession for himself. He bought “time on the air” each Sunday to discuss personal problems of general interest. So good was his advice, so persuasive his voice that the public listened and soon floods of letters came to him accompanied in due course by sixpence postal-orders. One day he is asked to help in finding a girl who set off to a tennis party in her car but never got there. The Counsellor’s detective interests are aroused and with the somewhat reluctant help of his staff he personally traces the girl’s adventures with the aid of information supplied by his listeners. He discovers that the girl had gone to Scotland with a young man and underwent an illegal marriage ceremony at Gretna Green. However, the Counsellor begins to wonder whether the trail was not too pointedly laid and suspects that the incident may conceal more sinister happenings. He proves right, for the lost girl’s uncle is murdered and a criminal plot unravelled. The book has its faults; it begins better than it finishes; some of the dialogue is arch and not all of the characters are as distinctive as the Counsellor himself. Nevertheless Mr. Connington is to be congratulated on experimenting in a different type of detective story.

The Scotsman (27th July 1939): The hero of Mr. Connington’s story is a young man who, chiefly from philanthropic motives, runs a broadcasting venture in which he resolves the doubts and problems of numerous inquirers. He is known as the Counsellor. From this advisory capacity it is a short step to the role of detective, which the Counsellor finds himself assuming as the result of answering an appeal to trace a young lady whose disappearance at first seems to be an elopement. The trail leads to Gretna Green, but it is blazed so carefully that the Counsellor jumps to the conclusion that it is a false one. He returns to investigate the affairs of a picture-reproducing concern with which the vanished lady was associated, but the matter takes a more serious turn with the apparent suicide of her uncle. Thanks to his resource- and his liberality in oiling the palms of those who have information to give, the Counsellor succeeds in his task of knight-errantry and brings a gang of swindlers to justice.

Mr. Connington constructs his plot with his usual care, though the story drags a trifle towards the end. In the Counsellor he introduces an engaging personality whose lively dialogues with his sceptical assistants provide an element of brightness.

The Times (1st August 1939): CRIME WRITERS IN REVOLT

Are detective-story writers revolting against their own heroes?  Instead of characters in search of an author authors seem to be seeking new sleuths, bored with their own popular creations. Too often the detective who is a hero to thousands of readers is an Old Man of the Sea to the writer who launched him so gaily on his adventures. Conan Doyle actually killed Holmes in an attempt to be rid of him; Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham has apparently retired; Poirot is missing from Miss Christie’s last book; and even Lord Peter had to stand aside for a time for the plebeian Montague Egg.

Mr. J. J. Connington joins the revolutionaries in his new story. Sir Clinton Driffield and his colleagues in so many cases are replaced by Mark Brand, an energetic young man who broadcasts a weekly talk on listeners’ problems. One appeal is for help in tracing a young woman who vanished on her way to a tennis part; and this sets The Counsellor off on an intricate piece of amateur detection. Traces of an apparent elopement do not convince him, and his further researches result in a murderous attack on himself and a more successful attempt on the girl’s uncle. Eventually Mark reveals a sinister and cleverly worked-out plot.

Time (7th August 1939, 40w): Merits: a neatly involved plot; an engaging new sleuth (Mark Brand, ‘The Counsellor’). Fault: readers can beat the author to the solution.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 8th August 1939): Mr. J. J. Connington has always possessed in a high degree the detective novelist’s special gift of inventive ingenuity, but his tales never reach beyond themselves, as is the strange power of imagination, nor is he able to impart much semblance of life to his characters. In The Counsellor his ingenuity and constructive powers are shown at their best, and there is originality in the idea of the private broadcaster who undertakes to answer those many questions of modern life that at times worry us all. In one problem put to him he grows personally interested and, following it up, unearths a wide-spread criminal conspiracy.

The Daily Telegraph (D. S. Meldrum, 15th August 1939): A New Detective

“The Counsellor” is a new type of amateur detective of whom, it is to be expected and hoped, more will be heard. He is one of those people, commoner in fiction than real life, who have more money than they know what to do with, so he gets rid of some of it by running an advisory bureau and broadcasting information and advice every Sunday from Radio Ardennes.

He is also, like the Elephant’s Child in “The Just So Stories,” blessed with a “satiable curiosity,” and a letter asking his co-operation in tracing a missing girl sets him off on what his unenthusiastic colleagues persist in calling a wild-goose chase. Needless to say, a pretty tale of devilry is gradually revealed.

Mr. Connington plays scrupulously fair with his readers, putting them in possession of all the clues as they turn up. This is a lively, humorous and exciting yarn.

Liverpool Daily Post (29th August 1939): There is an excellent idea in the plot of Mr. J. J. Connington’s new story The Counsellor. The detective in it has an hour on the radio every Sunday in which he answers questions supplied by his listeners. One particular S.O.S. interests him intensely, and, through his personal “follow-up,” he becomes involved in a mystery which requires some very complicated investigations before he arrives at its “solution.” Mr. Connington, if not quite here in his very best form, displays his usual competence in constructing an absorbing tale.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 9th September 1939, 100w)

Northern Whig (14th October 1939): Mr. J. J. Connington in his new story, The Counsellor, once more demonstrates his ability as a deviser of puzzles and his unrivalled skill in narration. “The Counsellor,” as Mark Brand called himself, was the guide, philosopher, and friend to all who sought advice from him at his wireless station, “Radio Ardennes.” Consulted about the strange disappearance of Helen Trevaton, niece of a cross-grained art publisher, the Counsellor, contrary to his usual procedure, undertook to make inquiries personally. They led him far afield, and he came to the conclusion that Helen Trevaton had been kidnapped by persons who had laid a false trail to make her friends believe that she had eloped with and been married to her American sweetheart, Howard Querrin. The mystery took a tragic turn; old Trevaton was murdered, and the murderer attempted to get rid of the Counsellor by the same method. In this he failed, and exposure of the plot, the object of which proved to be the acquisition of Helen Trevaton’s little fortune and the art business of her uncle, which would serve an easily comprehended purpose, followed in due course. Nemesis overtook the conspirators, and the Counsellor had won a triumph which, one sincerely hopes, will not be the last to be recorded by Mr. Connington.