#417: The Ponson Case (1921) by Freeman Wills Crofts

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Freeman Wills Crofts’ second novel The Ponson Case (1921) recently enjoyed a reissue thanks to the superlative efforts of HarperCollins and their revived Detective Club imprint.  Nevertheless, I’m not passing up the opportunity to flaunt my pristine House of Stratus edition, with a cover so fabulous that it was recently reused for Martin Edwards’ genre-sweeping study The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017).  Since Crofts himself spoiled his debut The Cask (1920) in The Sea Mystery (1928), I’m skipping that for now but shall otherwise read him chronologically until I run out of books, and hope HarperCollins seize the chance for a full reprint in the meantime…

Good heavens, they don’t write ’em like this any more.  Although that’s partly because most people don’t possess the patience for either the construction or the steady unpicking of this kind of plot.  In the century since this was published the taste has developed for pyrotechnics, for cliffhangers, for prologues that hint at impending danger to the protagonist (usually resolved at about the 90% mark), for an unreliable narrator with a mysterious new friend in their life.  Crofts, in writing a steady, painstakingly-detailed, and rigorous piece of extended detection is very much of the old school, but, as noted, this was almost a century ago.

The context of this fascinates me.  Sherlock Holmes was still commanding a certain, albeit decrepit, fascination, and the Genius Amateur had been met, pastiche’d, parodied, recycled, and generally worn so thin that entire plots were falling through the gaps.  Those godlike proclamations of staggering intellect are not only difficult to maintain (even Conan Doyle stopped trying after the first two collections) but also difficult to believe, and it was becoming clear that the jig was up.  You can look at a man’s shoes and pronounce that he’s an inveterate womaniser, a smoker, has recently hired a new valet, and was sat nearest the window on the 12:15 from Epsom yesterday when it started to hail…but there was a declining amount of substance behind any of that, and that reading public was beginning to cry “Bullshit!” (or some post-Victorian snipe possessed of infinitely more repression and tact).

The Humdrums, I suggest, simply wished to explore the actual process of detection, not the showy results, vouchsafing a dose of reality and paying homage to the complexities of such an undertaking.  Yes, some of the revelations and developments employed by Crofts herein are a little mouldy round the edges — once again, this is nearly a century old.  Put the rigour employed herein by Inspector Tanner against “You know my methods, Watson — I typically just pull something out of the air and happen to be correct” and it’s actually pretty heroic, as much a revelation in the annuls of crime and detective fiction as was Holmes when he first deduced that a doctor had recently been in Afghanistan.  I’m aware I haven’t even gotten to the book itself yet, but this appreciation of context is key to my enjoyment; I’m furious with myself that I spent so long shying away from Crofts because of how dull the received wisdom made him out to be, but I’m more than delighted that time spent reading other GAD authors has enabled me a perspective (possibly and entirely flawed one…) that makes me appreciate him this much.

The book, then, concerns the vanishing of the nouveau riche Sir William Ponson from his home one evening and the subsequent discovery of his body in the river that backs onto his property.  Accident is suspected:

Almost he could visualise the tossing, spinning boat disappear under the bridge, emerge, hang poised as if breathless for a fraction of a second above the fall, then with an unhurried, remorseless swoop, plunge into the cauldron below…

…but a brief diversion into medico-detection suggests murder, and everyone who seems a likely suspect is alibi’d up to the eyeballs.  Cue the “stormy petrel” of Scotland Yard man Inspector Tanner to untangle the skein.

31288181This is an age where a motor car — if pushed — might manage speeds of up to forty miles and hour (which “was, of course, breaking the law”) and a train leaving Paddington station in London wouldn’t make its first stop until Plymouth some 220 miles away (oh happy day!).  There are fascinating implications about the restrictions of means of travel, from a man entering a train station at 10:30 definitely getting the 10:32 train (the! Singular!), or the railway porter as a walking Bradshaw, able to recite times, locations, and connections with a rapidity that underlies the importance of such information: miss one train, and your entire plan is sunk.  During a chase after one suspect, Tanner finds himself stymied by the restriction on availability (and capabilities) of trains, cars, and boats, and watching the odds tick ever lower and lower is as gripping a sequence as anything I’ve read in years.

Tanner may seem a bit of a dull stick, but there’s a pleasing glint of the rapscallion in the succession of false cards he presents in order to gain access to certain premises, and a wry twist in the way he keeps up a patient acquaintanceship with a disliked old school chum “because of the invaluable information he frequently [provided] on matters connected with tobacco”. He has, yes, the DNA of Joseph French in him, but he plays fewer chances than French and is prone to some oversights that may or may not prove fatal (because, of course, only one person could ever wear a particular pair of shoes…).  The other characters might be rather stock, but I’d wager there’s significantly more agency to Lois Drew than the typical Determined Fiancée of this era, who is pleasingly unmercurial in her approach to the problem at hand.

Crofts, too, emerges as a fine writer at this early stage in his career — not just constructing everything so tightly you’ll wonder if anyone has space to breathe, but also bestowing upon the British countryside a fittingly breathless joy of descriptive celebration (Tanner is “wearied by the monotony of the flat lands” when he visits the continent, though we’re told he “literally held his breath with amazement” at his first sight of the “splendid vista” of Lisbon).  And moments of descriptive treasure shine through in the minor characters, too, from Tanner’s regrettable tobacconist to the proprietor of a guest house as “a tall, weedy individual, dilapidated looking as his own hotel”.  This edition is some 291 pages long, and I could find you a sentence or allusion I loved on every single page, and it offers some well-motivated multiple-alibi shenanigans, rich contemporary details, and rigorous, rich, detail-obsessed detection.

Now, sure, you may argue that I’ve taken the stars Crofts has put in my eyes and added them to the rating here, giving this undue credit.  I can see there’s an argument there, depending on one’s tastes and the interest one has in historical context as applied to detective fiction, but we shall agree to disagree that this is anything other than a delightful and hugely important novel in both GAD and the career of Crofts.  People, I think it’s love.

~

Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event:

The Ponson Case (1921)
Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926)
The Sea Mystery (1928)
Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930)
The Hog’s Back Mystery, a.k.a. The Strange Case of Dr. Earle (1933)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Four Defences from last week since both these authors are held up as examples of the ‘Humdrum’ school.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category…hmmm, nothing that I haven’t already ticked off.  Dammit.  In that case, allow me to offer one final warning that this Saturday will see the unveiling of my spoiler-heavy chapter-by-chapter look at Fog of Doubt, a.k.a. London Particular (1952) by Christianna Brand.  Prepare thyself!

28 thoughts on “#417: The Ponson Case (1921) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. “Crofts, in writing a steady, painstakingly-detailed, and rigorous piece of extended detection is very much of the old school, but, as noted, this was almost a century ago.”

    I confess my experience of Crofts started on a strong note, with ‘Hog’s Back Mystery’, but never quite scaled the same heights after that. I agree that Crofts does plot his novels meticulously, with scrupulous detection . But the clues in the subsequent novels I read seem to want to tumble out in the style of a procedural, as opposed to a puzzle. I suppose this would be true as well for ‘Ponson Case’?

    • Arguably The Ponson Case has elements of a puzzle, since you’re in possession of all the information before the solution is revealed and it’ just a question of whether you can fit it into the correct pattern. For instance, there’s a good piece of “these footprints have appeared in this place, but how and why?” which is very nicely resolved, given that there’s all manner of different ways to look at what they mean in the grand scheme of things.

      But it is primarily a proccedural, yes, with pains taken to establish every piece of meaningful evidence, and a lot of shoes-to-footprints comparison and the like.

  2. I was curious what you were going to make of this since you teased the review. I am glad that my fears that you were hinting at a flop were quite unfounded.

    • I originally wrote a lot more, since the context of this is a huge part of why I enjoyed it so much, but a lot was simply me talking about detail vs. intuition in detection schools and could be edited out without (hopefully…!) occluding my point. It’s difficult to imagine now that someone could come up with a new way of telling, say, a crime story that wasn’t simply narrative trickery or some Emperor’s New Clothes shenanigans, but this must have been a huge deal at the time, and probably very exciting to see other pick up on. The nearest, recent example i could guess at would be the shin honkaku school in Japan, but I’m equally at sea there as here in terms of making such a claim with any authority!

  3. Having enjoyed The Sea Mystery, there are a lot of elements in your review that suggest that I should seek this one out. It’s funny because it all sounds so boring on the surface, but I know that Crofts delivers in such a way that I’d end up drinking it all up. I think the fascinating question is what Crofts is doing differently than his peers. I can’t answer this, having a sample size of one, but I sense that it’s somewhere in how he utilizes the detective and the role that they play as a guide to the reader.

    • One of the things I especially like is how Crofts doesn’t hide anthing. Not just a clever and well-phrased piece of misdirection when declaring a clue, but the simple, plain statement of something the detective thinks or sees or overhears. Every single time.

      The Realist School — and I’d wager that a lot more GAD falls into this category than might otherwise be assumed — lives and dies by how much you’re shown and told and know. Of course you come in with the information disadvantage of the detective, that’s practially always the case (unless, of course, it’s an Inverted mystery), but the fastidiousness of Crofts’ detective working through every grain of sand and gradually swinging the balance is mesmerising. It helps that I like his writing style, too, since I’m sure many authors could do this and make it horribly dull (and this is most likely what has contrbuted to Crofts’ reputation as a dullard). Compare this to The Four Defences from last week, and they’re just…they’re not even playing the same game, never mind being in the same league as each other.

      In terms of how he stands among his contemporaries, I don’t know. I’ve read seven Crofts novels, a handful of Rhode/Burtons, two Conningtons, and probably a smattering of others who would qualify as Humdrums, and so I’m not yet possessed of an appropriate overview. But Crofts will be subjected to quite searching examination over the years to come, so I’m sure I’ll be able to explain it better at some point… 🙂

    • But that I was that witty, Ronald. Alas, that’s simply a mistake. I shall half the rations for my team of proof-readers this week to teach them a lesson.

  4. My, My another for the Crofts wish list.
    That House of Stratus cover is simply gorgeous. There seems to be a copy of it floating around for about 20 dollars and I’m very tempted.

    • Your call, obviously, but there are some cheaper reprints easily available, right? Perhaps try there before committing to something more expensive purely on my account… 🙂

  5. Well, there are only thirty-four novels, but there are a ton of short stories. So, knowing you, this could be dragged out for the rest of my lifetime!

    It’s funny that we take differ by views of Halter, but the writing is breezy enough that I can read them all and even – occasionally – find something to enjoy. But everything you praise about Crofts is what drives me crazy about the Humdrums. I plan to give Wade other tries, but I’ve poured through the dozen or so Crofts at my library, and they do not excite. 😦

    • For me, I guess they both represent different types of creativity (obviously it couldn’t be the same type of creativity, JJ, because then whoever did it second wouldn’t be being creative… 🙄). Halter is trying to find a new niche or two in the impossible crime genre, and Crofts was working upstream against a very strong prevailing current in terms of the public affections and interest for ‘detective’ stories. That’s all I ask really — that someone take this sort of thing on, and not just ape everything that’s come before (hence, I think, my disdain for a majority of modern crime/detective-thrillers).

      Of cours, it’s also a bit more complex than that — I love the way Crofts writes, and enjoy the little moments of levity that sparkle in the coalface of the detail which seems to overwhelm everyone else. That Connington book I read before this was so damn po-faced, except when it attempted to lever in some awful and lazy jokes about the guy wearing loud tweed suits; that might be funny once (it might be, but it rarely is), but leaning on that for our comedy on, like, ten or more occasions is simply overdoing the one attempt at humour you can muster.

      Additionally, as I started discussing over at Aidan’s place recently, I have an extra fascination with a problem in these types of novels where there’s simply nowhere to begin: the impossible crime seems insoluble at first, the crime scene prevents zero clues (Crofts’ own The Sea Mystery is utterly masterful in this regard — I’ll wager that if you’ve read and did not enjoy that one, Brad, then nothing Crofts wrote will be to your liking), or if it’s an inverted mystery then there’s simply no mistake the killer has made and so no way the unassuming detective can possibly catch them mwah-ha-ha-ha-ha-haaaa. In short, it’s all manner of an unholy brew, so I think it’s equally plausible for someone to dislike them for as intangible a reason as I enjoy them.

      Hell, I even stumbled oever a review in which someone slams The Problem of the Green Capsule — now, if you want to talk about things that seem unfathomable…

      • I don’t think Kate liked TPotGC much . . . but I still like her. Hey, I still like the wonk who slammed Death on the Nile, lo these many months ago. (“Why don’t they just cut the first chapter?” you said. Cut The first chapter!!! 😩)

        Granted, I haven’t given Crofts a try, so I have no business commenting on these posts. But it’s like holidays at the parents, when everyone wants to watch football or basketball or baseball or what have you, and Bradley is sitting in the corner with The Poisoned Chocolates Case, trying to concentrate over the familial din.

        I’m not emotionally scarred.

        • Granted, I haven’t given Crofts a try

          Hang on, didn’t you say above that you’d poured through a dozen or so at your library? Or is “poured through” an Americanism meaning “looked at”?

          It wasn’t Kate’s review of TPotGC that i was referring to, she was positively ebulliant in comparison to the one I have in mind — I’m not being reticent in naming it, either, I just can’t remember where I saw it. As for Death on the Nile — that book has a first chapter? Hmm, weird, mine just starts at chapter 2, so I had assumed it was some sort of narrative conceit on Christie’s part about never knowing the full story behind a mystery or something.

          • Could it be this review?
            Though I must admit that I agree with most of it. I too dislike the “Investigator falling in love with the chief suspect” trope. Not only does it show the incompetency of the detective, but also immediately knocks out a suspect. It was fairly unnecessary in this case and all it did was make the killer obvious.

            I still like The problem of the green capsule but I just don’t think it is as great as you (and few other bloggers) make it out to be. It isn’t even my favorite Carr and I haven’t read many of them. I know I might get banned from here for voicing such an opinion, but I strongly believe that Death on the Nile was a significantly better book.

            • If that’s how you feel, Neil, you are invited to my place. I’ll feed you and we’ll talk about the magnificent first chapter of DotN that JJ refuses to acknowledge! I love Green Capsule, but Nile is epic!

            • Again, what’s this first chaptr you keep talking about!?!?! Mine begins at chapter 6 now, I’ve just checked again — what’s happening?! This is ‘The Mezzotint’ come to life…

            • Jeepers, Neil, you’ll have to work much harder than that if you wish to be banned from here! How dull a world it would be if someone voiced an opinion and everyone else simply had to fall in line with it or get booted 🙂

              Oddly it wasn’t that review of TPotGC, or at least I don’t think it was. But I see no controversy here — people like different things. Though I can certainly tell you a good handful or two of GAD works in which the suspect-exonerated-because-love-interest trope most certainly does not come to pass…

              I hold some unconventional views on Carr — don’t believe everyone who says Death Watch is terrible, I say, which often causes people to choke on their soup — but then my reading is informed by all manner of stuff that I don’t even try to understand. I’d be interested to know how you rank the ones you have read: I have another Carr ranking post planned at some future point that I think will make for some interesting disagreements…!

  6. This one I had a lot of fun with in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. The relentlessness of the alibi investigation impressed people at the time, but I have to admit I found it rather dull here. And the character and writing struck me as so stodgy. Crofts’ prose has at its best been seen as serviceable (no sin in a detective novel). This is the one with the “reader of hearts” as I recollect? But all authors should be so lucky to have such a passionate advocate as you. I had some of your excitement first reading Rhode/Burton that you have for Crofts. That struck people as strange as well. 😉

    • I tried to make the case that Street had a sense of humor in his writing, something which hadn’t seem to have struck many people before! To me though Crofts just seems so darned *earnest.” Did you review The Pit-Prop Syndicate, I’d be interested to see your take on that one.

      • The Pit-Prop Synidcate is the next Crofts and so, since I’m tackling him chronologically with the titles I own, it will be my next review of his, sometime later this year. I know Puzzle Doctor disliked it quite intensely, so I’m intrigued to see how I, a fully-fledged Crofts apologist in the making, respond to it. Watch this space!

        As to humour, I do feel sometimes that unless a writer packs their books with Crispin-level absurdities it’s often seen as misguided to see them as witty or humorous. Considering that Crofts and Rhode were very much in the realist, everyay school, its much more likely their humour would come in almost lightning-fast flashes, becaus that’s typically how people express themselves in their day-to-day dealings. A 5 page diversion in which Joseph French fails to put on his trousers properly and is thus bitten in the behind pats by his landlady’s dog wouldn’t quite be in keeping with the tone elsewhere (ahemMerrivalecough).

    • Gotta be honest, I actually don’t remember the “reader of hearts” bit, but there’s a lot going on here (it’s over 300 pages — how unfashionable!) and I may have read it, disagreed with whatever it was, and happily carried on. Crofts isn’t one for deep and meaningful character, and amidst such a complex switchbac of a plot there’s not really the time for it, s I’ll take what I can get in the little flashes of French’s cosy domesticity or Tanner’s impish glee in always being able to present one of a number of false calling card when dropping in on suspects. I much prefer some sort of charactersation over none — the book I’ve just finished reading is so bland in its whos who that I got to the Big Reveal without any idea who the guilty party had actually been for the preceding 200+ pages — but I’ll more than settle for “distincitiveness in context” over “is believable as a human being in real life”. I have enough friends as it is 🙂

  7. Replying to your above comment, I have read only about fifteen Carrs and the best till now is definitely The Hollow Man. I don’t think it is overrated at all, the solutions to both the impossibilities are just amazing and even without the famous locked room lecture, it truly deserves it’s reputation. Even Till Death Do Us Part didn’t strike me as a Classic, though it was a decent book.

    I am reading Merrivale Novels chronologically and next up is The Judas Window; nor have I yet read He Who Whispers, so that opinion might change soon, though I inwardly doubt if either could match the sheer brilliance of The Hollow Man. In fact , I haven’t read a Carr so far that hasn’t been good (Though that is probably because I have deliberately been avoiding his works post 1950), but I won’t call any of them great expect THM.

    By the way, the last line of your comment has four typing errors in less than twenty words! Surely, that is deliberate?

    • Forgot to mention the trope; there may be a few exceptions but in most of the GAD books I have read, detective falling in love with a suspect has not just resulted in her exoneration but also the convenient disposal of her husband or fiance by turning out to be the murderer or becoming a murder victim.

      It annoys me so much that I sort of agree with Van Dine’s ridiculous sounding rule that there must be no love interest in a detective story.

      • I don’t disagree that it’s difficult to believe anyone really gave too much of a damn about the love story; in a few cases it’s used as the motivating factor, in a few cases (once authors wised up, feel) the bject of such affections was the killer, and the rest of the time it’s just…there.

        And — ha! — yes, I completely agree with the convenient disposal of the husband who stands in the way of true love. Much better to have been married to a killer than to have anything as unsightly as a divorce in one’s past…*shudder*

    • If those typos are deliberate, youre welcome to try to find a purpose for them. Merely a combination of insomnia and predictive text. My apologies, I shall go back and correct them in due course.

      Everyone has their own perspective on any author they read, of course, so I’m not going to argue with your assessment of Carr’s works though it’s not one I fully share. You’re a lucky man indeed if your reading has encompassed so many brilliant books that Till Death Do Us Part strikes you as merely decent 😛 Would you have, say, a top ten of the Carr you’ve read to date?

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