There is a branch of Mathematics known as combinatorics which studies the interactions of countably finite discrete sets. Or, in English, it’s the formal study of combining things in all the possible ways they can be combined. It’s a little bit like doing a jigsaw by picking up one piece and then going through the box to try every other piece to find one that fits with that piece, and then going through again to find another piece that fits with those two…and so on until you’ve finished the picture. Approximately a third of the thesis I wrote in my final year of university was based in a combinatorial approach to solving a particular problem (I shall spare you the details), and the formalisation of what sounds like an exceptionally dull way to go about something took on for me a particular beauty in the context of all the mathematics I has studied to that point.
Why am I telling you this? Well, because my mathematical background and consequent love of combinatorics is particularly important in understanding my enthusiasm for Freeman Wills Crofts’ combinatorics-as-applied-to-detection extravaganza The Hog’s Back Mystery. If genius detectives with their lightning-quick deductions exposing staggering connections between seemingly-disparate truths that have been staring you in the face are your thing then you need to stand aside, son. This is Detective Inspector French’s show, a man who, were he ever to turn his mind to professional snooker, would make Steve Davis look like Bruce Lee. Painstaking is not the word, he is equanimity personified; when something doesn’t pan out the way he’d hoped – and it is immensely to Crofts’ credit that this is often the case – French simply reconsiders everything to expose the flaw in his previous thinking. But, like, everything.
And, y’know what? It is amazing. Oh my fur and whiskers it really won’t be to everyone’s taste, but watching a detective prevail through sheer dogged determination – no sudden breaks, no miraculous insights, no authorly sleight of hand – is an experience quite unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. I couldn’t do too many of these in a year, the obsessive details on details on details overwhelm the brain after a while, but I was fascinated with the permutations and combinations Crofts works through: the closest I can get for a comparison is Andy Weir’s recent stranded-without-hope-of-survival bestseller The Martian. Where that book delighted in scientific details to forward (and indeed provide) its plot, here we also have a lone central figure hammering out the details of every tiny factor on the way to his reckoning, and it works superbly if you’re able to buy into it.
Take chapter 8, in which French attempts to track down a lady glimpsed briefly on a London street by another character earlier in the book. The steps and deductions he works through – while a touch twee, such as in being able to guarantee that absolutely everyone stops to have tea in the afternoon – are as rigorous a piece of plotting as you’ll find in most full-length novels. The logical steps and their inferences are gorgeously described and constructed, and you need to be able to take that level of care in everything if you’re going to get what there is to be gotten out of this. That the central plot of a man disappearing without trace or reason can be so convincingly spun out to such ends is also testament to the talent Crofts puts on show here, and is likely to be forgotten amidst all the details, but there remains something almost – almost, mind – Carrian in this simple start providing so much possibility.
Nothing is perfect, of course, and if the joy of dryness in detail doesn’t wear you out then you may struggle with the denizens of the story. It’s a show that doesn’t contain characters so much as it does a series of names spouting dialogue, with even the near-omnipresent French little more than a hat and a somewhat dull nature. Indeed, it stands almost as a perfect counterpoint to last week’s The Bishop’s Sword by Norman Berrow: that did infinitely more with its characters in significantly fewer words, but this will leave you in no doubt as to how absolutely everything works, every idea examined as the plot grinds slowly and exceeding small. Of the two this is absolutely the harder to love, but those of you with completion anxieties have no grounds for complaint this time.
The British Library have once again produced a fabulous product: the paperback version of this is exquisitely proof-read and formatted, and as a tactile object it’s among the most pleasing books I’ve picked up all year. Being the first of their Crime Classics that I’ve reviewed here, I congratulate them on the stellar job they’ve done with this series: here not only is the provenance of the cover image a delightful inclusion but it is also printed in a wonderful font – there weren’t anywhere near enough of those exquisite capital Qs in here for my liking!
A quick footnote to express my delight at three impossible crimes from this series: Murder of a Lady (1931) by Anthony Wynne can already be found in bookshops, with Death in the Tunnel (1936) by Miles Burton and Calamity in Kent (1950) by John Rowland forthcoming in 2016 – I, frankly, am stoked. The rise of the classic impossible crime has begun…!