The Ha-ha Case (J.J. Connington)

By J. J. Connington

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1934; US, Little Brown, 1934, as The Brandon Case

My review

One of the best Conningtons.  On the whole, I find Connington’s 1930s books drier and more humdrum (more detection-focused) than the faster-paced, crisper books of the 1920s such as Murder in the Maze.  The books published after Nemesis at Raynham Parva are more Croftsian; a local professional policeman does the bulk of the detection, and Sir Clinton Driffield and Squire Wendover appear much less (c.f. Sweepstake Murders, Castleford Conundrum).  This one is set in 1924, several years before Raynham Parva, but Driffield and Wendover don’t appear until p. 243, and the unlikeable Inspector Hinton, self-satisfied and ambitious, does most of the detection, Driffield making sense of the facts he gathered.

The plot is excellent.  The problem is the murder / suicide / accidental death of a young man in a shooting party.  There are only four suspects, and the real culprit is not too difficult to spot.  The mystery involves a legal problem (borough English / ultimogeniture; barred entail; insurance policy; victim shot on his 21st birthday) and ballistics (trajectory, etc.).  Connington does a superb job of showing the evidence, and then explaining what it means, in a clear, lucid and logical manner.  The Inspector constructs a water-tight case (motive; opportunity), which Driffield then quietly demolishes.  The clue of the absent blood-stain, SPOILER which seems to prove that they lied about moving the body but which Driffield vindicates on medical grounds (the bone blocking the blood vessel), is particularly fine.  Although not a sensational SURPRISE! story, this is thoroughly satisfying, and highly recommended to all who enjoy old-fashioned detective stories.

Connington is under-rated.  He carries on Mason’s tradition of a genuine detective story that also has characterisation (Miss Menteith’s poverty—pp. 18–19; the sensuous Diana—risqué even by modern standards; and the unlikeable policeman).  The first third establishes the characters.  It could be a flaw that Una and Diana Laxford recede, but Connington gets away with it; it’s more satisfying than Henry Wade’s novel-ish sections, because Connington is a better detective writer.  The second section is Inspector Hinton’s investigation; the final third is the entry of Sir Clinton and his explanations (deus ex machina?).

Blurb (US)

Readers who like to take their detective stories straight have found that Connington’s name on a titlepage guarantees a zestful contest of wits.  This new story is one of his best, a puzzle in which every piece is presented for the reader’s inspection until they are fitted together in the surprising solution.

It was at the hidden stone wall in the spinney that Johnnie Brandon, rabbit shooting with a party of guests, was instantly killed by a shotgun charge.  Only that day he had attained his majority; only the night before he had been discovered in a compromising situation with the wife of the man who had been his mentor.

Every one agreed with the finding of the coroner’s jury, “Accidental death” – especially his nearest kin, on tenterhooks lest someone mention suicide.  Every one, that is, except Inspector Hinton, who went ahead preparing one of his letter-perfect reports.  But he had not gone far before the outline of murder inescapably formed itself in his notes.  The murderer?  That was another matter, as he reluctantly admitted when the acumen of the Chief Constable, Sir Clinton Driffield, was brought to bear on the case.

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 30th September 1934):

It is far too long since we had a new story from Mr. J. J. Connington.  But here it is at last, presenting itself in one of those admirable “map” jackets (cross indicates the body) which not only make an attractive pattern, but are also very handy for reference.

“Once upon a time there was a king who had three sons.”  So the fairy tales begin; and in the end it is usually the youngest son who inherits the kingdom, even though he may be something of a simpleton.  It has been suggested by folklorists that this is a relic of the ancient custom of “Borough English” (still surviving or surviving till very recently in certain parts of the country), by which the heirship passed to the youngest son instead of to the eldest.  The estate which caused all the trouble in The Ha-Ha Case was entailed according to “Borough English”, and the youngest son was, in the traditional manner, but a poor, simple youth, easily led by a cunning master, but exceedingly hard to drive.  Here, however, Mr. Connington parts company with fairy tale; for young Johnnie Brandon never succeeds to his heavily encumbered inheritance.  Instead, he is found dead while out shooting rabbits with his friends, and the problem is: Accident, Suicide, or Murder?  It is all made very complicated by the financial entanglements in which his rapscallion of a father has tied up the estate, and by the fact that a gentlemanly lunatic with large gaps in his memory wanders on to the scene at the crucial moment.

There is no need to say that Mr. Connington has given us a sound and interesting plot, very carefully and ingeniously worked out.  In addition, there are the portraits of the three brothers, cleverly and rather subtly characterised, of the eldest brother’s young woman, and of Detective-Inspector Hinton, whose admirable qualities are counteracted by that besetting sin of the man who has made his own way: a jealousy of delegating responsibility.  Sir Clinton Driffield takes up the reins in the end, to conduct the investigation to its goal and so conclude a work in every way worthy of Mr. Connington’s high reputation as a detective writer.

Times Literary Supplement (18th October 1934):

Although he has a pretty little problem in ballistics, for those who like ballistics, Mr. Connington does not, as so often in the past, base his new detective story on a mechanical curiosity, but on a curiosity of law.  Those who have knowledge of such matters will certainly enjoy an advantage over the ordinary reader, but Mr. Connington is very fair and gives even the most inexpert a chance of guessing the nature of his legal point.  Both the motive and the means of the murder are most ingeniously concealed in these two puzzles, the legal and the ballistic, and it is no wonder that the unamiable Inspector Hinton did not find the solution but should lead himself and the reader in an entirely wrong direction.  It is, of course, Mr. Connington’s usual chief constable who solves the mystery, and those who have never really liked Sir Clinton’s perhaps excessively soldierly manner will be surprised to find that he makes his discovery not only by the pure light of intelligence, but partly as a reward for amiability and tact, qualities in which the Inspector was strikingly deficient.

Francis Iles in the Daily Telegraph:

THE HA-HA CASE, like all Mr. Connington’s work, is first-class.

Books (Will Cuppy, 9th September 1934, 180w):

Mr. Connington isn’t nearly as graceful as some of our favourite Britishers, but his stories always do in a pinch.  He has a likeable sleuth in Sir Clinton, anyway.

NY Times (16th September 1934, 240w):

These Connington mystery novels unfailingly observe a remarkably high standard of ingenuity and workmanship.

Boston Transcript (7th November 1934, 220w):

Mr. Connington’s detectives are real and earnest, but Mr. Connington’s mysteries are more readable.

Glasgow Herald:

Mr. Connington is in the first flight of thriller-writers and has given of his best.