First 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.
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.
Crofts is going through something of a resurgence of late, with the following works reprinted under various banners. While this may represent only about half of his output let’s not forget that this is more Crofts currently in physical print than Berkeley, Carr, Connington, Rhode, and Wade combined…it is to be hoped that they enjoy such a level of interest before too long!