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.
This 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: