“Nothing like a little shooting to blow away the cobwebs.”
Johnnie Brandon has a lot to celebrate on his twenty-first birthday. Even though he is the youngest son, an obscure law has made Johnnie heir to what remains of the family estate. Now that he has attained his majority, he can begin carrying out grand plans for the inheritance, guided by his tutor Thomas Laxford.
His older brother, Jim, is determined not to let that happen. He doesn’t trust Laxford, who has inserted himself so neatly into Johnnie’s life. Before Jim has a chance to talk his brother out of his plan, however, the weekend’s shooting party goes terribly wrong. Sir Clinton Driffield has a cunning killer in his sights, but, as any hunter knows, it’s one thing to spot your quarry, and quite another to bring it in.
The Ha-Ha Case is a solid country house detective novel with an intriguing setup and a solution that genuinely surprised me. The mystery itself, though detailed, is clearly explained and rarely dry. It also features an unusual structure, but this serves the book less well. This is my first experience with J. J. Connington, so I’m not sure whether it is typical for Driffield to enter the story at the last minute as he does here. Most of the investigation is handled by Inspector Hinton before his boss, Chief Constable Driffield, brings the spark of genius needed to the solve the case. In theory it’s an interesting idea, showing that even if you can spot all the evidence, it takes a special gift to be able to put it together. In practice, however, it just means going back over the same ground again and again.
The opening is nice and mysterious, as Jim Brandon arrives at his brother’s country home, Edgehill, without knowing whether he will be welcome there. For that matter, he isn’t sure how Johnnie can afford to live at Edgehill at all, given that he has no money of his own and their father cannot even pay Laxford’s tutoring bills. Jim has no idea who or what he will find in his brother’s house.
Nothing about the setup makes any sense. Johnnie is distant and evasive about both his finances and his relationship with Laxford. He seems far too close to Laxford’s wife Diana, who has “good looks of a rather hectic type and curiously disturbing hot eyes.” Johnnie is quite naive even for his age. When Jim tries to press him for details of his life, he closes off, especially after Jim blunders by criticizing Johnnie’s idealistic plan to turn their father’s estate into housing for the poor (“Think of the slums, Jim”). Jim senses Laxford’s fingerprints all over this scheme; the only thing he can’t figure out is what Laxford might be getting out of it.
It’s a small party this weekend. The only others present are the Laxfords’ governess, Una Mentieth, and a mysterious character named Hay. There is something about Hay that bothers Jim, though he can’t put his finger on exactly what.
[Jim] himself moved now among people to whom dressing for dinner was an event, and he knew the symptoms. They fumbled in the wrong pockets for their cigarettes or their pince-nez, they groped after diaries or papers they had left at home, or in extreme cases they grew embarrassed in the search for pocket-handkerchiefs. In a dozen different little ways they betrayed that they were clothed in unaccustomed garments. But Hay had none of these troubles. His hand went automatically to his cigar-case when he wanted it. He carried his dinner-jacket as though it were part of his habitual wear. And yet in some subtle way the coat and the man inside it failed to harmonize.
Una seems to be on Jim’s side, as the two share many snobbish laughs together making fun of the lower classes. In fact, she appears to have a lot more money than most governesses. And right from the start, Una seems to be steering Jim in a particular direction, with unclear motives.
As the sun rises on Johnnie’s twenty-first birthday, the four men head out on a hunting expedition that will end in tragedy. This chapter is marvelously titled “The Ha-Ha of Death,” and Johnnie will indeed meet his demise at that ironically named location. (“The junction of high and low ground was demarcated by a ha-ha,” Connington helpfully shares, “a four-foot stone wall forming a tiny cliff, its top flush with the slope and its base resting on the horizontal stretch below.”)
Police must determined whether Johnnie’s death was an accident, suicide, or murder. This task falls to Inspector Hinton, an ambitious detective who has been waiting for this kind of big chance, though “it never crossed his mind that he might not be equal to the emergency when it came.” As an investigator, Hinton certainly has feet of clay. Though competent and thorough, he seems to lack the imagination needed for such a complex case. His arrogance and unwillingness to collaborate makes him unpopular with colleagues.
In his rare moments of expansion, Inspector Hinton would impress upon his subordinates that a member of the police force should function like a perfect machine, smoothly, efficiently, and without emotion of any sort. “Like me, you understand?” he would add modestly, to make the matter perfectly clear.
Hinton is dogged in pursuit of evidence, but takes a narrow view of what information might be relevant to the case. While The Ha-Ha Case would never be mistaken for a character-driven mystery, there are a few vividly drawn characters, including Hinton. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, yet he’s not a bad detective, so there is some suspense in wondering just how close he is getting to the truth.
Another entertaining character is the Laxfords’ maid, Miss Tugby. This rather downtrodden figure, sneeringly nicknamed “Beauty” by Inspector Hinton, devotes herself to gossip with the intellectual fervor of a Marie Curie.
It cannot be denied that she habitually listened at doors, and that no letter escaped her perusal if its owner left it within her reach. But these practices were not dictated by any hope of personal advantage. Indeed, much that she overheard through the keyhole of the servants’ hall was greatly to her disadvantage, for the cook had decided views about her efficiency.
Miss Tugby, in fact, like many a distinguished scientist, “wanted to know about things.” The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, without ulterior design, was her object…In most scientists the thirst of knowledge is accompanied by a desire to publish to the world the results which they have acquired…Here the orthodox scientist had a decided advantage over Miss Tugby, who had no Journal or Transactions in which to record her discoveries. But Nature ever finds a way. In addition to her sharp nose and receptive ears, Miss Tugby had a mouth and a mother.
Driffield’s willingness to listen patiently to anyone, to seek help on topics he is unfamiliar with, and to think outside the box serve him well in this case. He is at pains to point out that Hinton actually has gathered all the evidence needed to solve the crime. This is technically true, but it would take an expert to know some of the obscure information required to interpret these facts.
If Driffield had entered the case a bit sooner, The Ha-Ha Case would be tighter and less repetitive. Even so, however, Connington keeps things fairly lively—this is not the first time I’ve been surprised at how nimbly a “humdrum” mystery author is able to introduce and explain highly detailed information while keeping the reader’s attention. The situation brings some unusual legal elements into play, setting the stage for an excellent solution.
So, a decent read, and I wish I’d been in a better state of mind to concentrate on the fiddlier aspects (although it’s all explained clearly enough at the end). Another example of why Connington shouldn’t be overlooked, as this book certainly isn’t Humdrum. Well Worth A Look.
The snag is that here (as compared, for instance, to the superior The Sweepstake Murders) Connington allowed plot contrivance to dominate the book. As a result it is rather awkward in construction, and the trickery used to disguised the surprise solution is not entirely satisfying. These are significant criticisms, yet the flaws did not destroy my enjoyment, because I find Connington’s ambitious and sometimes unorthodox approach to be rather admirable. He was trying to do something different, yet play fair with the reader, and these are excellent aims for a writer of traditional mysteries.
Although not a sensational SURPRISE! story, this is thoroughly satisfying, and highly recommended to all who enjoy old-fashioned detective stories.
The Ha-Ha Case is available in paperback from Coachwhip under its American title, The Brandon Case.