#285: The Sea Mystery (1928) by Freeman Wills Crofts

The Sea MysteryFirst thing first: yes, I’m aware that the 2017 Collins Crime Club edition of this novel — for which I am eternally grateful, since it has enabled me to read it in the first place — has been reissued with the title Inspector French and the Sea Mystery.  What can I say?  I’m a stickler for origins, and so am reviewing it under the original title.  My delight at having Crofts back in print is undimmed, and if building an MCU-esque awareness through uniformity in titles helps the books gain popularity and leads to even more Crofts back in print, hell, I’m all for it.  And, while we’re on the subject of these new editions, the covers are exquisite — simple, direct, clean, beautifully evocative…a great job.

Anyway, to the book itself.  The plot here is, to my understanding, a reworking of the same essential ingredients of Crofts’ debut novel The Cask (1920) — spoilers for that herein, a little frustratingly — with an unrecognisable victim of murder found sealed up in a crate dumped at sea, and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Joseph French tasked with identifying the corpse and bringing those responsible to justice.  That’s basically it; no embellishments, it never escalates to include malignant Big Business (much more of a concern of American crime fiction at this time), international spy rings, or some nebulous threat to the Crown: someone’s dead, identify ’em, find the killer.  This is detective fiction at its purest, exquisitely thought through by killer and detective alike, with the former doing their best to leave no trace of malpractice and the latter spinning even the faintest thread of opportunity into a net for their quarry.

It.  Is.  Wonderful.  From nail holes in the end of the crate French very swiftly spins the deductions, conclusions, and consequent implications that set him on a nemesis-like route to his intended’s door.  There’s no grandstanding, no magical moment-of-genius bullshit connecting two unrelated causes — it’s just patient, rigorous police work that plays the probabilities and relies on the sheer number of people involved in a nationwide police organisation to run each wrinkle and idea to ground:

“In a novel the episodes are selected and the reader is told those which are interesting and which get results.  In real life we try perhaps ten or twenty lines which lead nowhere before we strike the lucky one.  And in each line we make perhaps hundreds of enquiries, whereas the novel describes one.  It’s like any other job, you get results by pegging away.”

A huge part of the enjoyment is how intelligent it is.  From the received wisdom about Crofts and French — and to hell with Julian Symons, Crofts calls it ‘humdrum’ himself at the end of chapter 7 — you’d think these cases unfolded with pure combinatorics: French investigates every van, then every bicycle, then every henhouse, then every chimney, and somehow puts it together at the end.  Seriously, the way he deduces up to timings and tides from just a few holes in a box would have everyone falling over themselves is this were a Sherlock Holmes story; it feels less spectacular because French is a deliberately unspectacular presence, but the level of smarts Crofts’ engineer’s brain brings to the construction and then destabilisation of this seemingly insoluble problem shows off this genre at its absolute best.

Yes, I’ll admit that no characters emerge much beyond being useful vessels for French’s quest for truth, but there’s a great deal of atmosphere and period detail worked in here that gives time and place personality enough to compensate: from the necessity of checking whether a policeman is able to drive a car up to the public perception of trade unions, Crofts captures the contemporary detail beautifully, as well as giving us isolated rural settings as beautiful as they are “hard up for something to talk about”.  He’s no prose stylist — it’s interesting that Raymond Chandler, whose own slathering on of metaphors make his work unbearable to me, was such a fan — but equally that lack of conscious posturing simply means his plot is always forefront in your mind and so must be up to the rigours of inspection.

So, I loved it; it has all the accoutrements of the best examples of this genre, each of the plot threads form a legitimate part of the narrative and all coalesce come the end to make a complete picture with no spare brushstrokes or unused paint left over…it even has a couple of jokes, and flint-eyed toughness to some of its closing-stage writing that sits well against the measured construction elsewhere.  One book alone is never going to depredate Crofts’ undeserved reputation as a dullard, but if you want somewhere to start then, hot damn, you could do so, so much worse.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstar filled

See also

Mike Grost: The best parts of The Sea Mystery (1928) are the opening chapters (1-3), which show the discovery of the body, and Inspector French’s reconstruction of part of the crime. Despite the book’s title, these are the only parts of the story that take place on the water – the remainder of the book takes place on dry land. They have a magical, lyrical quality that the rest of the book lacks. They are also the only parts of the book concerned with pure detection. French uses logic, reasoning and science and engineering skills to reconstruct a very mysterious looking crime; these sections are a gem of pure detection.

D for Doom @ Vintage Pop Fictions: One rather amusing aspect of his novel is the guilt Inspector French feels about having given a suspect the “third degree” – it’s amusing because his methods of interrogation would be considered extraordinarily mild by the average detective in a hardboiled novel of this era. He does however demonstrate an enthusiasm for conducting illegal searches that would give a modern lawyer apoplexy.


47 thoughts on “#285: The Sea Mystery (1928) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Gasp, a rare five-star review! I’m glad to hear that Crofts has written at least one outstanding novel. Since ‘Hog’s Back Murders’ I’ve not encountered a Crofts novel I enjoyed as much. I’ve recently read ‘Loss of Jane Vosper’, was was not unduly impressed in that the story leaned too much towards the procedural genre, whereby significant information unfolded in a way that reduced the solving of the puzzle into a process of discovery.

    ‘Sea Mystery’ winking at me, from where it sits on the shelf. But no, thanks to your review I will resist, and it will be bumped right to the last few Crofts novels I will pick up. 😀


    • I recently read The Loss of the Jane Vosper too, and have to agree. This was the first time I truly thought I read a boring Crofts, as it takes *a long* time for things to finally move after an otherwise great first chapter.

      My favorites (of the ones I’ve read) are Mystery on Southampton Water, Fatal Venture and Inspector French and The Starvel Tragedy.


      • I understood Fatal Venture to be usually considered among the weaker end of Crofts’ output, so I’m massively intrigued to see you rate it so highly. I shall keep an eye out for an affordable copy…


    • Haha, I will never understand the mindset that goes “This book is supposed to be excellent, therefore I must put off reading it for several more years!” but whatever makes you happy 😀

      At least in 15 years you’ll have stacks of great detective fiction to turn to…!


      • Well, I suppose the thought that keeps me going is that in 15 years time I might be stuck with ‘Papa La Bas’ or ‘Patrick Butler for the Defence’ rather than ‘He Who Whispers’ or ‘Hollow Man’… 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • But in the meantime you’re missing out on He Who Whispers, The Problem of the Green Capsule, etc. It’s like some sort of weird exile, and a punishment I’d not inflict on many people 😛

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yeah, John, I don’t quite understand it either! I chose haphazardly myself, and Ben is trying to mix the good, the bad and the ugly . . . Putting off pleasure till the end sounds awfully . . . is it Spartan? Did they ever allow themselves pleasure? I’d throw in a goodie once in a while!!!


        • Hey JJ and Brad, I have read some of the good to great Carr titles so far: ‘She Died a Lady’, ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, ‘Green Capsule’, ‘Nine – and Death Makes Ten’, etc. It’s just that I’ve reserved one excellent title per Merrivale (Reader is Warned), Fell (He Who Whispers), Non-sleuth (Burning Court), Bencolin (Four False Weapons). I usually intersperse the ‘ok’ titles with the good titles, occasionally an excellent title, so as to reserve the final one to be at least an excellent title.

          Liked by 1 person

      • First of all, I want to say to JFW, as a great consumer of GAD-fiction, not to worry about running out of quality detective stories. You have no idea how large and all encompassing this genre of ours really is. There is still so much out there waiting to be rediscovered. Just look at some of the gems recently unearthed by Dean Street Press and Coachwhip.

        I had never heard, or read, of Tyline Perry and Harriet Rutland, but The Owner Lies Dead and Bleeding Hooks are now on my list of all-time favorite detective novels.

        But there’s also a practical reason why you don’t want to hoard too many of the good stuff. The clock is ticking on the copyright of an ever-growing pile of GAD-era mysteries, which are going to start to expire in the upcoming decade (1920 was almost a century ago)! So there will probably too much to choose from during, and after, the 2020s. The reader has been warned!

        Secondly, I completely agree with your enthusiasm about The Sea Mystery, JJ. A top-drawer title showing how undeserved his reputation as a boring, sleep inducing writer is. I recommend you take a look at The Mystery in the Channel next, which is as good, if not better, as The Cask and The Sea Mystery.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Wonderful news! I’ve stockpiled a few Croft novels and will most likely work through what I have chronologically, as I tend to try with most authors. So while The Mystery in the Channel is among the ones I have — and I’m delighted it’s at the very least on par with this — the next time Crofts pops up on here will most likely be in Sir John Magill’s Last Journey. Watch this space…


          • You show, I must say, alarming signs of creeping humdrumism! By the end of the year I fear you will have sold all your Carr to buy railway timetables! (Take two Julian Symons and call me in the morning.)

            I just finished the Channel. It’s (ahem) Streets better The Cask, the only other Crofts I have read, but I cannot give more than 3/5. The milieu is well drawn, but there are few novelistic rewards and fewer still puzzle rewards. But if this kind of thing is to your taste you should read some of Rendell’s Wexford books. I am a huge Randell fan, but find the Wexford’s a bit, what’s the word, humdrum. However she has stronger characters and leaner prose than Crofts. None of “the amateur detective parades his eccentricities” .


            • I tried Rendell about a decade ago when I was into my more contemporary authors…and not really enjoying them. But, actually, you might well be right — my tastes have developed, and it could well be that I’ve come around to her way of doing things. Hmmmm, many thanks for the comparison, I shall bear it in mind.


  2. I have a few books by Crofts on my shelves (though not this one) and always have it mind to go back and give his work a go again. The problem is I still have a memory of reading The Cask many years ago and being bored, really bored by it. I recall it being dry to the point I got completely turned off. I may be doing both the book and the writer an injustice of course – The Cask may well be far better than my memory suggests, or it may be colorless and dull but not actually representative of Crofts’ later efforts.


    • For Crofts, given the sheer range of stories it’s my understanding he applied himself to, being put off by one dry book would be rather like never visiting a country again because you went there on one weekend city break and stayed in a lousy hotel.

      Dive in! For the detection enthusiast there’s a world of meticulous joy herein; this would be a good test case, too, as I imagine it stands in good contrast to The Cask, having as it does the exact same plot.


      • I know what you mean but I also know The Nine Tailors was enough to keep me away from Sayers, although I have The Documents in the Case on my shelves.
        I have four or five other Crofts titles so perhaps put off isn’t the right expression in his case – more a case of being cautious.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The Nine Tailors was the final straw for me and Dot. I tried, I really tried, and I got used to all her irritating habits and the frustrations of her characters, and then I sat down with that bona fide classic and just hated the guts out of every single aspect of it. So I feel your pain.

          I’ll be picking through Crofts in the months ahead, so maybe I’ll hit one you own and pique your interest; I totally appreciate that not everyone does things the way I do them! But it would be nice to find more enthusiasts to share this new-found exitement with 🙂


          • That was the last straw for me too, after struggling through Advertise and Five Red and Carcass. It’s long, it’s ridiculously obvious, it’s duller than the Collected Speeches Of John Major, and all her snobbery is on full display.


  3. Gladys Mitchell! Freeman Wills Crofts! Is anybody going to review something inwant to read?!?

    The Word Is Murder just arrived in the mail, I’ve got library copies of The Punch and Judy Murders and Death in Five Boxes sitting on my bedside table, and I just ordered that big, new locked room short story collection from LRI. You are a bad influence on me, but I’m not sure even you can get me to read Crofts, JJ.


    • If you want a guaranteed steady stream of reviews of the things you want to read, my advice is to start a blog and write stuff on that, then start conversations about those books in the comments. Here’s a good example of the sort of thing I mean…

      Punch and Judy, incidentally, is one of my choices of Neglected Carr Masterpieces, though a lot of opinion seems to side against me on that front. Five Boxes is sheadloads of fun and nearly an equally-unappreciated masterpiece, but falls down from the perspective of fairness…though you’ll probably still solve it.

      I went to a talk-and-Q&A with Horowitz last night and have my signed TWiM to prove it; he’s a very interesting speaker, and his motivations for the structuring of this make it sound especially excellent. He acknowledged Christie as the key influence on the novel, so it will be interesting to see what you make of it. I’ll get to it once things calm down at work; I want to be in a calmer place to be able to really enjoy it, but it will be featuring here at some point in the next month or two…

      Liked by 2 people

    • I think Death in Five Boxes is a nifty little book and one that ought to please. I noted the following in an Amazon review I penned a few years ago:

      Written in the middle of Carter Dickson’s (J D Carr’s) strongest period, this is an engrossing little mystery. A murder victim (poisoned and stabbed for good measure) is found seated at a table surrounded by his three drugged guests. The question is whether any of the trio did the deed, and if so how.

      Ultimately, the murder method isn’t as impossible as it first appears and the identity of the culprit can be deduced if you’re paying attention. The motive is reasonable but I doubt if anyone could actually hit on it before the reveal.

      As in the best of the author’s books, the central puzzle is accompanied by a strong atmosphere and a good evocation of the period. There are plenty of little asides to entertain and distract the unwary along the way, and Merrivale is in fine form.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The setup is awesome: four people around a table, all poisoned, one of them also stabbed, and all with weird objects in their pockets — like the parts of an alarm clock — that they’re oddly reticent to explain. As hooks go, it’s awesome. The unfair nature lets it down, but it’s a supremely-structured puzzle, as we would expect from Carr in this period, I agree.


  4. Would you recommend I make an effort to read The Cask first because of the spoilers for that here or is the material spoiled irrelevant enough that I might possibly forget it by the time I come to read that book?


    • It states herein, very specifically, the relationship that links the body found in the titular cask and the person responsible for their murder. The spoiler is at the bottom of page 22 in the edition shown above, in the very final paragraph, starting “It reminds me…”. If you’re careful, you can skip over it straight to the top of page 23 and you’re fine — nothing missed, nothing spoiled.

      Or, yeah, just read The Cask first, I suppose. Though (having not read it myself) I get the impression that he reuses that essential plot again because he found a better way to expand upon it. That’s pure surmise, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the superior book in the eyes of most people….

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the heads up. I have a copy winging its way to the US and I will skip over that paragraph and hope for the best. A side benefit to this plan is that if I fail to deduce the villain I can tell myself that the critical information was contained in those few lines…

        Liked by 1 person

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  6. Pingback: The Sea Mystery – Freeman Wills Crofts (1928) – The Green Capsule

  7. Pingback: Inspector French and the Sea Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts (1928) – Bedford Bookshelf

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    • Oh, rest assured it’s a very, very different book indeed. This is only seen as a reworking of the Cask in the very general details of its setup: unidentified dead body found in wooden shipping container. The deductions, progress, and solution are all completely new — Crofts was far too much a pro to simply recycle a book like that 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

          • On my current reading, I’d say those are probably the top tier from Crofts’ early career. I’m also a huge fan of The Ponson Case, and I think The Cask is something of a masterpiece for how thoroughly it innovates in the genre..

            And second tier Early Crofts — Sudden Death, Box Office, Southampton Water — is nothing to dismiss lightly, either!


  9. True.. I absolutely loved Cask and Cheyne very much and did not find anything to complain about Groote, Box office or Death in the way either. They all are very entertaining and never once made me think why did I pick it .
    I have ponson & antidote in ebook form…lets see how they turn out for me . 🙂


  10. Pingback: “(Inspector French and) The Sea Mystery” by Freeman Wills Crofts – Tangled Yarns

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