Tragedy at Ravensthorpe (J.J. Connington)

By J. J. Connington

First published: UK, Ernest Benn, 1927; US, Little Brown, 1928


Blurb (UK)

Connington - Tragedy at Ravensthorpe.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Mr. Connington definitely passed with “Murder in the Maze” into the very small class of writers of perfect, or all but perfect, detective stories.  “Tragedy at Ravensthorpe” is as logical and as exciting as its predecessor.  There are three deaths by violence and two wonderfully exciting chases through a wood, and an important part is played by a strange and rare disease, which, for all its strangeness and rarity, everyone knows.

 

Blurb (US)

At Ravensthorpe – a lonely country house inherited by Maurice Chacewater – a masked ball is in progress amid scenes of great gaiety, celebrating the honor of his sister’s coming of age.  What each guest was to wear had been kept a secret and all who enter Ravensthorpe that night wear masks.

Connington - Tragedy at Ravensthorpe US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Cecil, who is on bad terms with his brother Maurice, arranges a practical joke with several young friends to plunge Ravensthorpe into darkness and to carry out a mock burglary at a given moment; but the plan is overheard.  The ensuing situation is doubly complicated.

 

In the drama that follows, the theft of rare Leonardo da Vinci medallions, thrilling chases through the wood, secret passages, a rare form of nervous disease, suicides and murders, all have their places.  Everything is woven into one complex and exciting pattern, and the final unravelment is masterly.


My review

Sir Clinton’s second case presents him with rather a tangled situation: two (or more) robberies (one a practical joke), two murders and a disappearance. Although the fabulous artistic treasure (here a set of da Vinci medallions) is an old device, the set-up augurs well for admirers of the 1920s domestic detective story. Unfortunately the plot is a mess of ideas ingeniously contrived (the statue, the “family curse” of SPOILER agoraphobia) but very poorly combined. The most glaring example is SPOILER the agoraphobic suicide of Maurice Chacewater, which could (and should) have been used as the central idea of an ingeniously horrible murder along Chestertonian lines (c.f. The Eye of Apollo), but is instead tacked on to the central plot, whose reliance on SPOILER a criminal gang of characters the reader is scarcely aware of, is quite disappointing.


Contemporary reviews

 

 Times Literary Supplement (15th December 1927):

Mr. Connington’s new detective story is as ingenious as are all of his, but in this he has added a new device to his art, a variation to the familiar device of Dr. Watson.  The detective, a chief constable, goes about with a subordinate police officer, and the detective decides that they will share all the facts, but that their deductions will not be shared since “two heads are better than one”, a rather specious excuse, it must be admitted.  Thus no facts at all are kept back from the reader, and they are put plausibly and even ostentatiously before his eyes.  And so the purely intellectual pleasure of the detective story can be enjoyed without hindrance, since everything, as in a mathematical problem, is plainly before us, and yet the probability of the action is not strained owing to Mr. Connington’s ingenious device.  The plot concerns a theft and several murders, and it is admirably tied together.  But Mr. Connington has allowed himself to use a formula in one case, for he is rather too fond of curious heirlooms which conceal a secret, and in this book he employs a number of buildings as small as dolls’ houses, scattered about the grounds of a house.  It is a pity that one should begin to expect such things in Mr. Connington’s stories.  Nevertheless the ingenuity of the plot is such that one can easily forgive this one use of a formula, especially as the whole mechanism of the story is not by any means mechanical.  One minor improbability may be found, for the story turns upon a hereditary disease, but it is very doubtful whether such a disease could be hereditary, and at any rate the reader is not likely to think of it as within the category of possible hereditary diseases, so that this is not perfectly fair.

 

Spectator (3rd September 1927, 150w):

This is more than a good detective tale.  Alike in plot, characterisation, and literary style, it is a work of art.  Connington’s ingenuity is exceptionally fertile and brilliant.  The reader’s nerves are kept tense to the last page.  The final unravelment is masterly.  In short, this is one of the best ‘thrillers’ of the year.

 

 

NY Evening Post (H.E.D., 17th March 1928, 70w):

A detective story worth casual recommendation.  It is written rather brightly, if hastily.