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!
See also: https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/the-hogs-back-mystery-1933-by-freeman-wills-crofts/
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…!
Freeman Wills Crofts on The Invisible Event:
The Cask (1920)
The Ponson Case (1921)
The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922)
The Groote Park Murder (1923)
Featuring Inspector Joseph French
Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924)
Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926)
Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927)
The Sea Mystery (1928)
The Box Office Murders, a.k.a. The Purple Sickle Murders (1929)
Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930)
Mystery in the Channel, a.k.a. Mystery in the English Channel (1931)
Sudden Death (1932)
Death on the Way, a.k.a. Double Death (1932)
The Hog’s Back Mystery, a.k.a. The Strange Case of Dr. Earle (1933)
The 12.30 from Croydon, a.k.a. Wilful and Premeditated (1934)
The Mystery on Southampton Water, a.k.a. Crime on the Solent (1934)
Crime at Guildford, a.k.a. The Crime at Nornes (1935)
The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936)
Man Overboard!, a.k.a. Cold-Blooded Murder (1936)
Found Floating (1937)
The End of Andrew Harrison, a.k.a. The Futile Alibi (1938)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)
The 9.50 Up Express and Other Stories [ss] (2020) ed. Tony Medawar
26 thoughts on “#39: The Hog’s Back Mystery, a.k.a. The Strange Case of Dr. Earle (1933) by Freeman Wills Crofts”
I have to differ from you on this book.
I found it too tedious, too slow, full of unnecessary details of every thought, whim and action of French. For me, it was plodding to the end.
One aspect of the solution didn’t appeal to me. A person is presumed innocent since he has an alibi. But it turns out that the alibi is false since another person impersonated him by disguise !
I note that your next book for review is Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling. I purchased this book today and have started reading it.
Ha, yeah, Hog’s Back really is one to split opinions; literary Marmite, if you will.
I’m very excited about Hard Cheese; I know absolutely nothing about it, but the fact that Joh Pugmire thinks it worth publishing is good enough for me. Look forward to heaing your thoughts next week, Santosh…
Thanks for the shout out. But yes I am definitely one of those people who can’t stand the plodding, plodding, plodding, plodding and even more plodding of Inspector French. I find his investigations ruin the interesting nature of the problems set in the books, including this one. That’s why Antidote to Venom is my favourite Crofts purely on the basis that French doesn’t turn up until 3/4s of the way through.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Ah, but it’s such well-justified plodding, though…
I think I have to agree with JJ here – in that I enjoyed ‘Hog’s Back Mystery’, and found it to be a charming novel. Which slightly surprised me, as I’ve found some of Ellery Queen’s investigations too long-drawn… Inspector French came across as an underdog for much of the story, which encouraged me to root for him – and his deductions towards the end were impressively meticulous.
I got the impression that ‘Murder of a Lady’ will only be released early next year – good to know that it has already hit the shelves!
P.S. ‘Hard Cheese’ sounds bizarre… Was it used as a murder weapon? *confused*
LikeLiked by 1 person
My suspicion is that the victim might be lactose intolerant…
Erm. Hmm. Sounds peculiar. Hope it turns out to be a good read! 🙂
“Inspector French came across as an underdog for much of the story, which encouraged me to root for him”
That’s one of the things I love about him. Just when it seems like he’s got the solution and he’s about to make an arrest it all falls apart for him, and you feel his pain. But he’s never ever daunted – he just keeps plugging away. Some readers find him tedious but I find him incredibly entertaining.
LikeLiked by 1 person
“…combinatorics which studies the interactions of countably finite discrete sets.”
Countably finite ? As far as I know, a finite set is always countable, whereas an infinite set may be countable or non-countable.
You’re quite correct; all fintie sets are countable, but not all countable sets are finite…hence the need to specify that we deal with the countable finitie sets in combinatrics (as opposed to countably infinite sets, for which the number of possible combinations is infinite and so unquantifiable) . Aaahhh, maths, gotta love it!
What I meant was that since all finite sets are countable, there is no need to say “countably finite”; one can simply say “finite”.
Haha, oh yeah, silly me! There goes my cover of a Maths degree ;P
Incidentally, I just got a copy of Mavis Doriel Hay’s ‘Santa Klaus Murders’, one of the early British Library Crime Classics reprints, out of the library. They are beautifully produced, and make you want to collect the entire set!
Yeah, they’ll make a lovely set on a shelf, won’t they? Doing the basics right as the BL have done here really makes all the difference.
Well, you’ve convinced me. I’ll take a look soon.
This review gets at why Hog’s Back was one of the Crofts’ mysteries I praised highly in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. Along with his Sir John Magill’s Last Journey, it really seems to me his finest performance in this highly mathematical form of detective novel. Conversely, I wasn’t that great a fan of Antidote to Venom, because for me it relies too much on emotional appeal, something that in my view Crofts doesn’t do well. But it’s fair to say some people are just not going to take to this type of detective novel, just like some can’t abide the endless literary allusions in Michael Innes.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It would be quite difficult to write something more mathematically-inclined than this that remained a genuine novel of detection, certainly. Was quite excited to see your recent post about Patrick Quentin as I’m led to believe he’s in much the same rigorous vein, but the sheer unavailability of his novels means I’ll have to wait for those stories in order to find out for myself! Any other Crofts you would recommend?
Sir John Magill’s Last Journey is superb. Amazingly intricate plotting.
Much appreciated; will keep an eye out.
Incidentally, Murder of a Lady I reviewed over five years ago, over at Mystery*File and have written a fair bit about Wynne at my own blog.
Death in the Tunnel is one of the Burtons I praise highly in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Wonderful news all round!
Pingback: #231: Antidote to Venom (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts | The Invisible Event
Having just finished this, I enjoyed it, I think? I certainly was never bored!
The mundane aspects of it, I think, anchored it in reality and I was able to feel like these events could really have taken place. When I liked it least was when it became more abstract and faded away from reality for a while.
And despite that, what a pleasant surprise to find the traditional GAD aspects of complicated, clever deception and of recalling past events with clarity on their real meaning, were both present.
I liked the way French refers to a bunch of his past cases as having more exciting conclusions – almost like he’s trying to sell the other books. 😀
Having just finished this, I enjoyed it, I think?
Hahaha, yeah, there were definitely times in this one where I wasn’t entirely sure myself how much fun I was having — it’s fascinatingly detailed, and I’d not read anything like that before, but I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say it was “fun”.
I enjoy how the alibi trick here should really be a hoary old chestnut that stinks the place up, but there’s so much intricacy alongside it that you allow it to sail past (or I did, anyway). This is one of the many things I enjoy about Crofts: he’s great at the layering of a problem, of having just enough going on for it all to be pulling the the same direction — he’s not yet dragged false herrings across the trails too copiously — yet at just enouch cross purposes to keeo you missing the key ideas.
As for more exciting endings…yup, the man knew his faults! 😀
Pingback: My Book Notes: The Hog’s Back Mystery (Inspector French #10) by Freeman Wills Crofts. – A Crime is Afoot