#356: Minor Felonies – Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947) by Freeman Wills Crofts

The thirty-first novel Freeman Wills Crofts published in his career was this novel for younger readers.  Let that sink in a moment.  Captain Dryasdust encroaching on Enid Blyton’s territory seems about as likely as Blyton herself trying her hand at Raymond Chandler’s metaphor-laden hard-edged novels of moral decay…the difference being that Crofts actually tried it.

For Tuesdays in March I thought I’d look at four examples of juvenile mysteries from the classic GAD era, motivated more than a little by the unexpected discovery of this tome in Crofts’ library.  I also have a slew of modern juvenile mysteries I want to read and look at in the future — really, there’s a lot of stuff out there at the moment, it’s quite wonderful — but first a look backwards.  Also, a quick note to Ben of The Green Capsule: sshhhh, don’t say anything.

Anyway.  As you’d expect, there’s a lot to talk about here.  I’ll start with the book as a physical object and then move onto the plot and writing in a little while.  I find it interesting — but, perhaps, understandable — that seems never to’ve been reissued.  My University of London Press edition has the sole publication date of January 1947 listed in the front, and a search for editions online throws up one from Japan but no other English publications.  As such, it’s sort of fascinating to see how this is presented; says the inside flap:

It is specially written and designed for the multitude of boys and girls who are midway between the “children’s book” stage and the whole range of adult reading.

There are also no fewer than five instances on the dustjacket alone assuring said boys and girls just how famous, world-renowned, and generally marvellous Crofts is as an author — the effect is very much a sense of this sort of undertaking being new, as if the notion of a novel written for younger teens is something the publisher is keen to assure you is being taken seriously, as if to demarcate how this represents a serious steps in a young person’s reading development.  I love that they went to this much effort, even if it does feel a little stodgy — a group of people who have probably only ever seen children behind glass now choosing to engage with them and consequently feeling a little self-conscious.

The production values are also pretty darn good.  As well as a series of beautifully detailed line drawings sprinkled throughout — some examples will be used in the illustration of this post — there are four colour plates of exquisitely-crafted and specially-commissioned paintings of (admittedly, rather random) moments in the text.  one of these can be seen on the cover, and I replicate two below (one has been held back due to spoilers) that you can click to see in the full resplendence.  I can’t decrypt the artist’s signature and they are not credited in the book itself, so if anyone knows who did these please do tell:

There are inevitably a few issues with some of this presentation — Robin and his friend Jack seem to so all their holiday investigating wearing a formal blazer and trousers — but at least it adds to the notion of the undertaking being committed to.  I don’t think I’ve been this delighted with the clear effort going into presenting a book for a long time.

Though, of course, the physical book counts for very little if the contents are dashed-off nonsense.  So, let’s get into that…

The plot concerns the eponymous Robin Brand, some twelve or thirteen years old, who for his school holidays is staying with his friend Jack Carr in the town of Ryemouth “on the south-west coast” (quick GAD nerdery question: Robin’s parents are in India — where Christianna Brand grew up — and Jack’s father is called John…deliberate references, do we think?).  Out exploring a hidden cave that Jack has found not too far from his engineer father’s railway-expansion job they discover recent footprints and, swiftly thereafter, evidence of thefts at Mr. Carr’s workplace.

From hereon, we get a plot that begins unfolding against the backdrop of Carr’s job overseeing the creation of a new railway line, giving Crofts plenty of time to indulge in his passion for trains, their timings, the engineering that surround them (there’s a great demonstration of the physical property of tension and compression in bridge beams…what?), and their precise operation within a work setting (there is both land being dug out and a viaduct being built to admit the new track).  Robin and Jack must move amongst the men working at both sites to identify the thief, and Crofts clearly delights in the explanations required not just of the operations but also the landscape — GAD delight #42, there are several maps:

Robin fancies himself as quite the amateur detective, and is shown using his knowledge of the minutiae of evidence collection to aid their search — there’s a brief technical explanation on the best way to take a mould of a footprint, and he’s able to use his smarts in the identification of the source of a sinister letter (about which more in a bit)…far from simply finding detection exciting for the chasing of criminals, he’s very much engaged in the process and its rewards for steady and careful diligence.  Crofts, though, knows that this is hardly narrative manna from heaven for the average 12 year-old and had jack as far and away the more impetuous half of the duo, reflecting at one point that…

If the truth be told he was anxious enough that their scoop should come off, but Robin’s slow plodding ways sometimes drove him nearly frantic.

This is all shot through with that youthful catnip of complete autonomy, plus Famous Five-esque refection of sandwiches and lemonade.  The adults — John Carr in particular — treat Robin and Jack’s suggestions and ideas seriously, and congratulate them when Robin’s ideas hit paydirt, but also draw them up when the risk of danger becomes too great.  It’s a good balancing act, getting this freedom and adventure in the correct proportion to the threat escalation so that it will be exciting without ever being unpleasant.  The thieves are identified by about a third of the way through, thanks to the efforts of the two boys, and then we take a sharp right turn into a very different type of story.

It’s important to highlight how well Crofts balances the notion of threat prior to this, because here we veer into potentially much more disturbing territory: the Carrs’ three year-old daughter is kidnapped, and the remainder of the book is dedicated to the task of finding those responsible.  The change in tone is subtle but marked: clearly this is a serious crime and the Real Police are called in, though Robin and Jack still wish to be involved in the investigation.  Indeed, as things progress (and I’ll lessen the details from this point on) we see the boys involved in the sort of intelligent dissection of available facts that feel both true to their characters while also being constructive in the clarification of the central problem: figuring out likely bolt-holes for the criminals based on timings, or using perceptions of the boyish innocence to wangle potentially damning information from people who might well be part of the criminous enterprise…it’s again a fine line, very well walked.

And, of course, it enables Crofts to bring in his series character Chief Inspector Joseph French for a two-chapter cameo.  This, for we oldies, is probably the highlight of the whole thing: we’re assured that “he’s no great shakes to meet” and that he’ll go on “with detail to the nth degree” if asked about his work.  Robin is quite a fan of the Inspector — having read all about his cases, which implies that in this universe someone was writing about the various felonious searches French has committed as part of his investigations…a bit problematic, that — but his excitement at being able to consult the great man in no way comes across as self-satisfied on Crofts’ part.  It’s a crossover he no doubt enjoyed, but Robin’s the one in the title and Robin’ll be the one to…if not solve it exactly then at least make the most meaningful progress.

Good heavens, I’m going on.

Look, it’s not the most thrilling time you’ll spend between the pages of a book, but Crofts has the various ingredients down very nicely, complete with workings of the kidnap plot, a failed attempt at reasoning (it’s lovely to see some of the boys’ ideas not pay off as with some of French’s notions in Crofts’ other books — failure has to be a very real prospect, even though we know things will be resolved happily), and the old standby of phonetic speech.  In keeping with the presentation, it is a little stuffy, but at the same time it works both hard and believably to give appropriate credit to the teens who were the intended market without veering into lazy Mary-Sue territory.  Any concerns that this might be a dashed-off piece of fluff can well and truly be put to rest: Crofts was a pro, and even on these slightly unfamiliar grounds he applies himself laudably.

For a start, the writing is wonderfully full of the sort of dry humour that I’m increasingly convinced has passed a lot of people by in their reading of Crofts:

For once, politeness and interest coincided.  Robin said he would very much like to hear.

There are also some lovely contemporary touches in the language, such as…

“Don’t be an absolute outsider,” Robin retorted in the most forceful phrase he knew.

Aaah, Young Robin Brand, how much today’s youth could teach you…

There’s also a sly twinkle in the moment Mr. Carr tells the boys “I remember one of our engineers left us and took up the writing of mystery stories, and he told me that in essentials there was little to choose between the jobs” — an aspect that may be lost on the young people reading this, but still a moment of light-heartedness all the same.  Sure, it may well be a little dry for today’s youth raised on wizards and world-ending catastrophes that only a plucky individual special outsider can solve, but as an examination on how the detective fiction genre can realistically extend to become accessible to younger readers this is actually very successful.

Its lack of a reprint is therefore understandable, because it doesn’t fulfil the current YA niche and will only really strike a chord with GAD nuts like ourselves, but the curious amongst you could do so much worse for a novel of youthful detective endeavours if it’s actual detection you want.  Sadly Crofts never wrote another YA novel, because a second attempt at the same might well have yielded real gold.  Aaaah, what might have been, the eternal cry of the GAD fan…

38 thoughts on “#356: Minor Felonies – Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Awesome stuff! I have to say that I would rather like to see a noir-style Famous Five investigation. Perhaps there’s an outline for one lurking somewhere in some obscure tome in the British Library?

    I have been interested in reading this since I first learned about it so I enjoyed your description of the book. It certainly sounds like the sort of thing I’d have loved when I was the appropriate age and it is surprising to hear that this was an example of a book marketed at teens where you do get a serious adult crime taking place.

    A little bit of me does expect that you may find that all of the GADYA books you’ll be reading this month will include an explanation of how to make an impression of a footprint. I certainly have memories of encountering such scenes in several of the mysteries I was reading.

    Looking forward to seeing which titles will form the remainder of this series. I have a few guesses but I will be happy to be surprised!


    • I have to say that I would rather like to see a noir-style Famous Five investigation.

      I know of something that might fit the bill, but it’s not really a juvenile mystery/YA novel and have not read it myself. So no idea if it’s as good as everyone says. Anyway, Fredric Brown’s The Fabulous Clipjoint has been described as a noir-ish coming-of-age story about one of his series-detectives, Ed Hunter, who’s a teenage boy in this book looking for the mugger who killed his father. It’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but, based on the plot-description, it might come close.

      Oh, and JJ, damn you for tempting me with this one! Unquestionably, the juvenile mystery is an overlooked playground of the genre, but even the contribution of genuine GAD writers were just as easily forgotten. And this one even had Inspector French in it. Makes you wonder what else is out there waiting to be rediscovered.

      By the way, did you find an impossible crime among these juvenile GADs?

      Liked by 1 person

      • There’s one impossibility due in this series of posts this month, yes, and possibly a second which I’ve not read yet (so it may be one an it may not) . But, for various reasons that will become clear when I get to that impossibility in a couple of weeks, you shouldn’t get your hopes up…

        However, it may hearten you to know that I should have a couple of modern YA impossibilities when I look at contemporary YA mystery fiction in a couple of months. Assuming they live up to what they promise, of course… 🙂


    • Oh, I dunno, I doubt anyone else would go to the care that Crofts/Brand does here. I’d love to be proven wrong, but my YA reading this far reveals this to contain a higher degree of detail than I’ve yet seen elsewhere.

      The seriousness of the crime and the seriousness with which everything is treated is definitely to the book’s credit. The police characters walk the line between taking Robin and Jack seriously and then excluding them when things get too risky perfectly. As a way to show adults treating junior characters with realism and respect, I’d virtually recommend this as a textbook.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. haha Crofts inflicted on teenagers! I did nearly shudder when first reading that Crofts had done a book for younger readers. I think the line ‘it’s not the most thrilling time you’ll spend between the pages of a book’ – is probably my cue to not follow up on getting a copy of it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I wish that regular GAD books came with a handful of illustrations like the ones above, in particular when it comes to the mansions or some of the more impressive sets. The imagination can do great things, but sometimes I think that my imagination fails to capture the true grandeur of it all.

    On another topic, is there a distinct lack of children in GAD novels? I’m currently reading a Carter Dickson novel which features a child character, and it struck me that I don’t really recall Carr including any substantial children in his book. Yeah, Merrivale might hand out cigars to cheering children, or some such rubbish, but you never really have a kid playing a standard role.

    Skimming back through my memory, I can only recall a few examples where children really played a role. Crooked House features a young girl and a teenage boy, Fog of Doubt features a baby in a role more substantial than a mere mention, and…? I’m sure many of you could crank out additional examples, but is my overall point valid? Perhaps it was against some code to include an adolescent in a book featuring murder?

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are several children in Christie, Ben. The best example is Cat Among the Pigeons, set in a girls’ school. The young ladies in that cast are actually marvelous characters. There’s a nice child witness in the otherwise bland The Clocks, and quite a few women characters are doting mothers to young, often ungrateful, children. But I don’t remember a single child in Carr and only a couple in Queen.


      • Queen’s The Tragedy of Y features a couple of horrible children … and Siamese Twin Mystery contains two teenagers (albeit conjoined). It’s true, though, there don’t seem to be a lot of children in the Queen oeuvre. Stout’s The Golden Spiders has a child in a very prominent role.


        • A child figures prominently – albeit in retrospect – in Queen’s The Murderer Is a Fox. Ditto in Christie’s Five Little Pigs.


    • N or M features a baby fairly prominently, erm…there’s a key I’ll child in The Clocks… Wow, we’re already scraping the barrel.


    • Children seem to feature a fair bit in Gladys Mitchell’s books I think.
      Hallow’een party by Christie has a teenage/child victim.
      School based mysteries such as A Question of Proof, tend to be the best books for spotting children in GAD fiction unsurprisingly.


        • And you know, I think that’s a good point — I found the children in Love Lies Bleeding to be very well portrayed. I’m sure something must have stopped JJ from adding a mention of Rupert Penny’s Sweet Poison, which contains a number of odious children apparently addicted to marzipan and insolence. 😉


        • The only thing stopping me from mentioning Sweet Poison is that I’ve not yet read it — I know, I know, excuses, excuses… 🙂


    • Regarding Carr, I seem to remember reading that “Tommy” in The Cavalier’s Cup was based on his own grandson. He had three daughters and no sons; maybe the fact that there are no significant kid characters in his earlier books is due to his being less interested in writing about girls than about boys?


  4. JJ, I have not read Crofts at all yet, and it’s fascinating reading your growing love affair with the guy, especially since all your rave reviews include language about how dry and stuffy he is. I fear I’m with Kate on this, but I think I should give him ONE try before I get all judgmental.

    Incidentally, I’m shocked that you did not know this, but Enid Blyton DID write a series of hard-hitting noirs featuring a grown-up Fatty, now morbidly obese and alcoholic, who must return to his childhood home to take care of his mother, now in the throes of dementia, still trying to solve mysteries with the help of his 34 year old dog. They’re sadly out of print, but keep a lookout for these titles:

    Farewell My Lovely Spoons: Mother’s wedding service is stolen, and Fatty detects. The sad twist is that Fatty himself pawned the service to pay for booze.

    The Big Sleeper: Mother reports the murder of her son, and an embarrassed Fatty awakens in the morgue after a terrific bender.

    The Hi Window: Mother locks Fatty in the attic in an attempt to dry him out, and he spends the rest of the book waving to the people below.

    The Laddie in the Lake: Fatty and Mother go swimming. Only Fatty returns . . .

    Liked by 4 people

    • haha Blyton certainly had a wide range in her writing!
      Personally I think if you want to give Crofts a try, I’d try one of his inverted mysteries. Antidote to Venom is probably the book I’d enjoyed by Crofts the most, mainly because Inspector French doesn’t turn up until the final third of the book.


      • There was a nice used copy sitting in my local bookstore, Kate, but I didn’t buy it due to my antipathy toward inverted mysteries. But as I recall, you all liked that one very much. Didn’t you feel it held some surprises?


        • Gotta be honest, I really enjoyed that book — it was the one that convinced me that Crofts was goin to become something of a feature in my life — and I don’t think it’s your kind of thing. I can’t recommend anything in its place since I’ve only read five of his books, but I’d hate to see you going Full Halter again (that is, picking up book after book by an author I hugely enjoy and castigating each and every one). Give Crofts three or four years until I can recommend one you’re going to get the most from, eh?

          Liked by 1 person

        • The reasons I enjoyed that book was, that without French gumming up the narrative, Crofts could reveal much better characterisation skills and I enjoyed seeing how George, the Zoo keeper, ends up on the path he takes and equally how the murder he gets involved in begins to soon unravel. The zoo setting did help a bit as well. So I think I was recommending this one to you for Crofts’ writing at its least dry.


    • In fairness, my references to Crofts’ dryness and stuffiness are simply me addressing the inevitable “But he’s so dry and stuffy!” comments in advance. Maybe it’s my age catching up with me, but I’ll reap far more fascination from a methodical and precise investigation than all the Egyptian Cross Mysteries the world can throw at me.

      Heavens, I might be on the way to becoming a Simenon fan *shudder*…

      Liked by 3 people

      • You jest, but the new George is a’coming, and she clocks in at 704 pages! The title, fittingly, is The Punishment She Deserves!

        You can’t make this stuff up . . .


  5. In “La Toile de Penelope” by Paul Halter, there is a 12 year old boy James, who is so astute that he is able to figure out the impossible escape of the murderer from a locked room even before the detectives Twist and Hurst !


  6. Crofts may not have written any more GAD novels but Wikipedia does list an uncollected story titled Danger In Shroude Valley (A Robin Brand story). I have no idea where it might be found.

    Liked by 1 person

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