#388: Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926) by Freeman Wills Crofts

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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?

~

Current and forthcoming Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event:

The Cask (1920)
The Ponson Case (1921)
The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922)
The Groote Park Murder (1923)
Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924)
Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926)
Inspector French and the Starvel 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)
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)
Crime at Guildford, a.k.a. The Crime at Nornes (1935)
The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936)
Found Floating (1937)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Fatal Venture, a.k.a. Tragedy in the Hollow (1939)
Golden Ashes (1940)
Enemy Unseen (1945)
Death of a Train (1946)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)

Well, these and everything else he’s published, too, I hope; these are merely the ones I own at present and so can guarantee.

~

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!!

25 thoughts on “#388: Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. I got off to a very bad start with Crofts years ago. The Cask ground me down and my lasting of impression of that book was of one so painstaking as to evolve into pure tedium. I decided then that he and I would have to part company – but, I found myself wondering in the last 18 months or so whether I shouldn’t have another look at the man’s material. I took gamble on The Groote Park Murder and found it moderately entertaining – not a word beater but still a fairly pleasant experience.

    I now have a few more Crofts books on the shelves for future reading and, while I wouln’t say I’m anything like a convert, I’m feeling a lot more open-minded about him. I don’t have this particular book, despite the fact it’s easy enough to obtain and that’s mainly because i was unsure (from a comments I’d read) whether or not I’d appreciate the adventure aspects – that kind of material needs to be handled right or I can switch off very easily. It’s encouraging to see you felt this worked.

    • Having The Cask spoiled for me in The Sea Mystery made me put that book off a little while longer, and I’m sort of working backwards to it (my next Crofts will likely be one of the books either side of this one). There is quite a deviation from TSM here, so I can very easily believe this was a period of experimentation for him, as he sought the best way to develop the principles of his debut into something a little more readable. Might turn out to be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this cluster represented a range of tones and structures. I’ll tell you for certain in a year or so!

    • My opinion is that the best Crofts are around 1924-1935. I found the early ones rather stodgy in a sensation novel way (Our love can never be!, etc). I just don’t believe Crofts handles emotional stuff too well, he turns it into melodrama. Besides being on the melodramatic side (It’s set in France, home of melodrama for British readers), The Cask is too long and too mirco-detailed for a lot of modern readers. And I think it’s in the Groote Park Murder that there’s all this folderol about whether the heroine should have to break off her engagement with the accused hero (murder rap). “Daddy” is rather putting his foot down on the poor dear. It’s certainly not what I expected from Crofts when I started reading him, nearly 20 years ago, but I like Crofts better when he is dry and technical than when he is trying to convey emotional states. But his early ones made an impression with their attention to detail and he hit his stride and rode a great wave imo for about ten years, when he was one of the biggest names in British detection. By the late 30s critics were tending to see him as an old duffer compared to Marsh, Allingham, Sayers, Christie, Blake, Innes, etc., but he was a dog who had his day and he kept the loyalty of detection traditionalists.

      • There’s definitely a sense of him settling on his angle of approach in the stark contrast of this with The Sea Mystery from two years later, so it definitely makes sense that he’d work it out and then mine a rich seam. Good to know that he didn’t front load his career with good stuff and then burn out after seven books. And, of course, with all the young Turks cropping up as GAD took hold he’d always look like someone holding on to older, less fashionable ideals… Man, I cannot wait to see the shape his career takes.

    • Well, I thought the later books get too bogged in Crofts’ moral schemata, but you may well see things differently from me. I must say you have emerged as the greatest Crofts enthusiast on the internet, at least of whom I’m aware anyway. You’re more like how I felt about John Street when I did Masters. Some people have commented that I prefer Street and I think that’s fair to say. You make me want to read some of the Crofts books I didn’t like and see if I want to reassess them.

      • I’ll give you an example. When I read Fatal Venture I was bored with all the moralizing about “gambling hells” and perhaps gave short shrift to the actual mystery plot. Perhaps I did the same thing as well with Antidote to Venom, but for me I found the human element just not very well done, even though Crofts obviously was making a real effort. But then when BL reprinted Venom some people found the human drama compelling, so there it is, to each his own!

        I wish Crofts, one of the most sincerely pious of the GA detective novelists, had indulged his sense of fun more, it pops up for example in Enemy Unseen, one of the later Crofts I liked better, a wartime village mystery story. Still too moralizing for me, but some amusing moments.

        • I suppose a lot of the moralising goes over my head, because thus far it’s not really seemed to swamp the other writing (yup, even AtV). There’s a bit in the finale of Cheyne where I see some reviews have pulled out a sentence or two as an example of his moralising, but I’m just…I mean, the guy’s just making a point to explain some element of how things fall out. That doesn’t really feel like the same sort of thing to me. But then perhaps a) I’m incredibly dense, or b) I have a high threshold for this sort of thing 🙂

          • Oh, I think Cheyne is much more boy’s own adventure stuff. It’s Crofts letting his hair down, had he hair to let down. But moralism can be a thing with Crofts. His inspector in the Ponson Case decides the nice genteel women aren’t guilty because, well, they’re nice genteel women. He’s a “reader of hearts” we’re told. Well that’s all very well, but not really satisfactory in a true detective story! In Christie there’s always the chance, indeed the likelihood, that the nice well bred girl will turn out to be the mad poisoning fiend whose killed three people already.

      • I enjoyed the human element of Antidote to Venom, which is the latest of Crofts’ adult novels that I’ve read — perhaps it’s just that I appreciate something different having attention paid to it without feeling like other aspects are being sacrificed (for me, it made the inevitability of the murder more compelling, and it’s not as if that book also lacks for mystery).

        I’ve only read the Crofts parts of Masters of the Humdrum Mystery sparingly, as I wish to preserve the books before I read them, so I can’t comment on your potential preference of Street just yet…give me 15 ears to find and read more of both and I’ll let you know!

        • I can’t think of where he really moves me with his characters. I lost my sympathy for the murderer in Croydon over the whole Una situation. I just don’t think Crofts can really pull off sexual passion. He’s much better at the classic Puritan vice, greed.

      • I must say you have emerged as the greatest Crofts enthusiast on the internet, at least of whom I’m aware anyway

        Very kind of you, but it has only been six books… I hope to still feel this way in ten books’ time — I could do with another John Dickson Carr in my life — but we’re certainly off to a good start, Freeman and I.

        • It’s intrestesting, because the fan who tends to love Carr doesn’t like Crofts and vice versa, at least in my experience. Of course I’m an exception to that rule myself.

          I argue in Masters that Crofts gets dissed because “literary” aka manners mystery has long been the fashion in British classic mystery, and science and math, the strengths of Street, Crofts, Connington, Freeman and other Humdrums (though they are the key ones), gets disrespected. Personally it’s not my own educational background (I loathed chemistry and physics and advanced math), but I was fascinated to read about it in Humdrum mysteries. I should have hated a book like The Hogs Back Mystery, but I found it fascinating, maps and all. I prefer it to the constant quotation dropping in Sayers, Innes, etc.

          • What especially interests me is the at-times narrowness in the perception of what a GAD mystery “should” be. I almost wrote a post on it a little while back, but felt i lacked the coverage to really make the point as thoroughly as I should. It strikes me as one of the few genres in which the rules can be fully understood before going in, and so long as those rules are adhered to…anything goes. There’s no info-dumping about magic societies or fictional technology central to the schemes, so as long as you were working within the real(ish) world in the circles of crime detection and/or prevention it should be fine.

            Of course fashions come and go, but something about GAD seems rarefied above mere concerns to me, partly because we’ve yet to have a return to such a wide-scale appropriation of the tenets of detection in fiction. Quibbling over what “should” be the fashion in GAD is very much wasting time to me: it’s a broad church, read what interests you and live and let live. Alas, not everyone sees it this way…

  2. Great review JJ – I wasn’t aware that this was a hybrid adventure story and you certainly make the premise sound intriguing. I look forward to meeting this standout minor character!

    • It’s very enlightening to see Crofts as more than simply a tedium and routine man, and he does a very strong job of keeping this light and fun while also building a decent detection plot in the final third. The denouement, as I say, has a slightly tricky job balancing both tones, but it’s very well-wrought in the idiom of the book up to that point (to say any more would risk spoilers, so I’ll leave it vague).

      • One of the things that I am finding most intriguing about Crofts is his experimentalism. Even among his four inverted novels none of them are paced or structured the same and here we see him doing more of an adventure tale which is similar to Box Office Murders yet paced quite differently. Certainly not a formulaic or predictable writer!

        • On the evidence I’ve seen so far, it’s difficult to disagree. An exciting prospect, not necessarily knowing exactly what type of book you’re going to get…

          • It certainly makes me hopeful about other titles. I just wish that some of the more obscure ones would work their way back into print or at least as digital books!

  3. Gracious, you are smitten. When “endearingly clumsy” becomes a genuine compliment….

    Personally I wanted Cheyne to get incapacitated for the rest of the novel, he was such a dunderhead, and the reins handed over to his more interesting (and intelligent) lady friend, but so such luck. Naturally “girls” are there to get kidnapped and rescued, no matter how bright. I did like it better than (in my view pretty dire) The Pit-Prop Syndicate, however. Have you read that one? If you like that as much as this one I would say the enchantment is complete. Probably his best thrillerish book is The Box Office Murders, which gets fairly sinister, although I didn’t find any of the thrillers on par with his pure best pure detective novels.

    I don’t even remember “Dickensian” Mr. Speedwell, I’ll have to look that up! Comparing Crofts to Dickens in terms of characterization skills is definitely something new on the Crofts scene.

    • I’ve not yet read Pit Prop, no, but I have the impression that’s regarded as a pretty weak one. I remember Puzzle Doctor hating it, but I remain hopeful!

      Speedwell, to my eye, has something of the oleaginous quality of Uriah Heep…I mean, sure, with about 8% of the words ladled on that ‘orrible, ‘umble man, but I saw similarities there, and loved it.

      • I’ll have to take a look, it bothers me I don’t recall him. I remember poor Max Cheyne’s mother getting dismissed as the “old woman” even though she’s what 60? And I recall the bit with the flask, after which I just had had it with young Cheyne! That lad should have died nine times before French ever showed up. But had he been competent, there would have been no need for Inspector French and his intense detection.

  4. After your suggestion about trying Crofts,I looked up some books and I found a decent copy of The Sea Mystery.
    However,I also found some reasonably priced copies of The Loss of the Jane Vosper and 12:30 from Croydon from the House of Stratus imprint.
    So what is public/your opinion on those two novels? The House of Startus editions seem beautiful and I’m extremely tempted to get both books.

    • I have not read jane Vosper or 12:30 from Croydon, so I’m afraid I can’t help there. The House of Stratus editions are beautiful, though, so probably worth getting for their quality and rarity alone.

  5. My problem with Croydon is I think the love element is so weakly done. Would anybody really be dumb enough to risk it all for Una the horrific? Just couldnt buy it. Liked Jane Vosper, it’s got all the business corruption and police detail I like in Crofts. No love story!

    • Liked Jane Vesper, it’s got all the business corruption and police detail I like in Crofts. No love story!

      Yep, I’m a big fan of The Loss of the Jane Vosper as well. It’s very very Croftsian. It’s Crofts concentrating on the things he did wel

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