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…
Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event:
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)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)
The 9.50 Up Express and other Stories [ss] (2020) ed. Tony Medawar