The Ha-Ha Case (1934) by J.J. Connington

The Ha-Ha Case by J J Connington

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“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 Brandon Case (The Ha-Ha Case) by J J ConningtonThe 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.

Second Opinions

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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.

Martin Edwards

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.

The Grandest Game in the World

Although not a sensational SURPRISE! story, this is thoroughly satisfying, and highly recommended to all who enjoy old-fashioned detective stories.

Availability

The Ha-Ha Case is available in paperback from Coachwhip under its American title, The Brandon Case.


5 thoughts on “The Ha-Ha Case (1934) by J.J. Connington

  1. I can set your mind at rest about Driffield: he shows up at all manner of points in various books. Sometimes he’s there from the beginning, sometimes he’ll crop up halfway through, sometimes not until the end — I guess it depends on how much Connington wants to cover before pulling it all together, since he’s a fairly perceptive sleuth.

    I’ve read four Conningtons and am halfway through my fifth and this sounds fairly standard from my reading of him to date: yes, there’s a slight sneering at the poor and some unfortunate social attitudes displayed by some of his characters (though Driffield is always tolerance itself, so I wonder if this is just Stewart getting his objectionable views in without seeming to…) and his plots are a little repetitive, but he’s generally pretty enjoyable without having yet blown my socks off. You use the word “nimble” above and it’s a good one: even The Sweepstake Murders, which takes a loooong time to do what it does, feels quite light on its feet.

    I can understand why Connington fell out of favour — nothing in his writing strikes me with the brilliance of Carr, nor the accessibility of Christie or the staggeringly patient rigour of Crofts — and also find it surprising, given the classic nature of his plots. I imagine there are rights tie-ups now in the UK, but I get the feeling he’d be a very popular inclusion in the British Library range, and would land well with a non-specialist audience, on account of how classically styled his work seems to be.

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    1. Good to know that Connnington is pretty consistent in quality–there’s nothing wrong with an author whose work is reliably quite good. It’s also a promising sign that he uses Driffield in the way he deems best for each story, rather than following an established formula.

      I think you might be right about Connington using other characters to express some of his own feelings while keeping Driffield’s hands clean, or maybe it’s simply to make him a more endearing character. Driffield’s kindness and tolerance are certainly appealing in comparison to how judgmental many of the others are! What’s interesting is that, while Connington is straightforward in expressing negative views of some of the characters, he holds back on expressing positive views of the others. Poor Hay, for example, is somehow objectionable for having good manners when Jim and Una think he should not. Yet Connington still rakes him over the coals for his piggy little eyes and for taking too many helpings at dinner. We are not meant to like Hay. At the same time, however, it’s not clear whether we’re actually meant to fully agree with Jim and Una in their snobbery, or whether we should be giving them the side-eye as well. The author never tells the reader what we are supposed to think of these two, who would normally be our hero and heroine. So maybe Connington doesn’t like them, either? Or maybe he does. Either way, it keeps them in play as suspects when most authors would have taken at least one of them off the plate.

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      1. You’ve got me thinking now — maybe Connington has his own views on his characters, but is leaving more up to us about what we find objectionable and what we choose to fixate on.

        You’re never in doubt as to Wendover’s views — that anyone who didn’t have the sense to be born with an estate and millions of pounds in the bank is clearly a cretin — but this doesn’t mean that the reader has to share them. So perhaps (and this is pure surmise, not something I’ve deliberately noticed myself in his work to date) he has his opinions, Connington has his opinions, Driffield had his opinions…and the reader is left free within this triangle to form their own opinions.

        That’s a bit meta now I think about it, isn’t it? Still, it sounded good in my head for a while… 🙂

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      2. That is an interesting theory–I will have to keep an eye out when reading Connington in the future. For instance, I didn’t realize that Wendover’s attitudes were so stuffy because he doesn’t get any real attention in this one. He is strictly there to serve as Driffield’s gun expert. (Sad as it is that no member of a rural police force has any knowledge of shotguns…) I wonder if your current Connington read will support this possibility.

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      3. There are certainly some objectionable expressions in Jack-in-the-Box, and they do rather come out of nowhere given what I’ve read of JJC to date. So I may have accidentally stumbled onto something revelatory here… 🤣

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