I wasn’t sure I wanted to dive into another complex alibi problem so soon after Cut Throat (1932) by Christopher Bush. But if anyone can convince me of the joys of alibi-breaking it’s Freeman Wills Crofts, and so off I went in hope of some fiendish minutiae to get the brain cogitating with possibilities. As it happens, I need not have worried — there is no complex alibi-breaking here. Sure, there’s a grand mix of ratiocination and weighing the odds on the way to intelligent deductive work, but this is decidedly a ‘wrong man on the run’-style thriller before it’s a novel of routine. Were pithiness my forte, I’d probably make an ‘Alfred Hitchcrofts’ reference.
This time around, Roger Thornhill is played by Maxwell Cheyne: in his late 20s, of independent means, who in the opening chapters must deal with the dual confusions of being drugged without being beaten up or robbed and of having his house broken into but nothing stolen. It’s an intriguing hook — made all the more so for me by the apparent impossibility of the drugging — and all comes quickly into focus when he is consulted on the development of a nascent GPS system, as a result of which he finds the Macguffin dangled in front of him.
From here, it’s something of a race to the 60% mark. There are chases, there is skullduggery, there is breaking and entering and theft and discovery and flight, then violence, a fortuitous meeting with a beautiful woman who becomes Cheyne’s confidant and co-conspirator, and then a fresh round of the above while Cheyne makes bad decision after bad decision and races around generally doing all the wrong things, in the style of the best thriller protagonists.
Whether he was wise in this decision was another matter, but with Maxwell Cheyne impulse ruled rather than colder reason, the desire of the moment rather than adherence to calculated plan. Therefore a way directly in which he could begin the struggle occurred to him, he was all eagerness to set about carrying it out.
He’s reminded of the unlikelihood of a lone individual succeeding where a larger organisation has greater resources to work with, but nevertheless wishes proceedings to “take on instead that of a personal struggle between himself and these unknown men”. This smaller playing out is beautiful — from the personal wartime background that brings Cheyne into this mess to begin with, to revelations like the one that opens chapter 6 — and makes for a gripping, enticing narrative where you find yourself caring for this impetuous idiot. The naiveté of the moment he teams up with the above-mentioned damsel because she wants to “be in on all the fun” is endearingly clumsy, as is the moment he is apparently reassured by the quality of a cigar he is given to smoke. There’s an air of Agatha Christie’s Young Adventures Thomas Beresford and Prudence Cowley, who made their debut some four years earlier, and these two charm in very much the same way.
And so, inevitably, it goes wrong, and Inspector Joseph French is called in from chapter 13 onwards, and brings with him some much-needed balance to proceedings. Now, yes, you’ve been told French is dull and Crofts is dull and the books are dull and it’s all so dull, but French really does exemplify the intelligence at the heart of the emerging GAD trend, and pulls what has ostensibly been an Adventure novel back onto much more considered grounds. The extended ratiocination with the hotel bill, for instance: it ain’t showy, but if you can’t admire the brilliance of it then what the hell are you doing reading detective fiction? Seriously, I want to know. The investigation is superbly-reasoned, doesn’t always go to plan, and draws on a series of inferences and intelligent questioning in the way that the best of these plots should. I will spend the rest of my life trying to clear the cobwebs of accusation from Crofts’ name, but in all honesty I do feel that anyone unwilling to even entertain trying this deserves to miss out on such refined construction.
The writing, too, is superb: crisp, fast-paced, full of detail enough to enrich without resorting to repetition simply to fill. And if there was a better minor character than the Dickensian Mr. Speedwell written in 1926 then frankly I want to know about them. You don’t stand a hope in hell of solving it, and the finale might leave a few of you feeling a little deflated even if I’d argue that it’s perfectly in keeping with what came before, but these quibbles aside this was a fresh and invigorating blast of fun and intelligent plotting. If you’re looking for a “less heavy” Crofts to start with, you could do a damn sight worse than this, and it’s equally as fascinating a glimpse of the artist as a young man as it is of GAD as a young art. But, sure, you heard — once, somewhere, vaguely, you think — that Crofts is awful and unreadable, so why should you listen to me?
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Cut Throat from last week since both divide their time between London and Devon. Yes, that’s the same link as I used last week; I can do that, right?
And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Retired from or in the Armed Services.
I will also point out here that there’s a pun in the above review that I am so smugly proud of I simply cannot let it pass unaddressed; alas, unless you read the book, it will mean nothing to you. To those of you who have read the book: high five, yeah?! Woo!!
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