Back in 2015, before I’d ever opened any of Freeman Wills Crofts’ works, Puzzle Doctor reviewed The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) at his place and ended by saying “I could go on, but I’ll just keep writing euphemisms for BORING BOOK over and over again. Absolutely, 100%, NOT RECOMMENDED. I’d go so far as Actively Avoid”. Shortly after reading that I broke my first bread with Crofts and, almost exactly three years later, I’ve read and loved seven Crofts novels and — in a move some might consider hasty — have tracked down all but four of his oeuvre. Still, I picked this one up with the Doc’s warning echoing in the back of my skull. Gulp.
I’ll happily concede that this is the weakest Crofts title I’ve read, though a long way from the disaster you may have heard. But with two such well-read reviewers and the Doc above and Nick Fuller — whose 0/5 rating on the GADetection wiki brands it “A thoroughly awful book” — sandbagging it so effectively, how do I hope to convince you of its merits? Mike Grost’s review at the above link admits the merits and flaws in the book, and I agree that it has both, but I suppose my perspective can be summed up by a question that remains almost impossible to answer to the satisfaction of any quorum: When did the Golden Age begin?
The tempting answer is 1920, because that’s when Agatha Christie’s debut was published, and Christie came to symbolise the Golden Age of Detection. But one swallow does not a summer make, and so others might push for a later date when a greater proportion of the genre’s shining lights were writing contemporaneously. For my money, 1920 is probably a bit early: the first stirrings can be found then, no doubt, but you need a lot of good work being done by a raft of people for it to be a Golden Age. In 1920 there is still evidence of the late Victorian tendency for melodrama to linger around plots that were decidedly more thriller than detection, in much that same way that the domestic suspense scene which shifts so many units today is merely a hangover from the works of Harlan Coben, T. Jefferson Parker, and others just before the turn of the century.
Like it or not, Crofts is bridging that stream here — yes, he galumphs over it and ends up immured betwixt a Buchanesque travelogue that wants to be more rigorous and a detective story that does not wish to abandon itself to a surfeit of exuberance, meaning both miss their mark, but it’s fascinating to see innovation being forged on the page. The first 11 chapters, under the heading ‘The Amateurs’, are in that late Victorian style: young Seymour Merriman on a picturesque work jaunt through southern France, witnessing the same lorry with different number plates and finding it unusual, which turns out to be the key to a bigger puzzle. Observe that Crofts isn’t under the impression this makes a gripping setup — “You must not hold back material evidence,” Merriman is mocked when he relates the story back in London, “You haven’t told us yet what you had at lunch” — but this trifle nevertheless draws Merriman and associate Claud Hilliard into intrigue and conspiracy (with an appropriately imperiled lady to provide additional motivation). Suspicious boat captains, mysterious henchmen, more than a few night-time sorties will follow, all spun from a melodramatic cloth that is overwrought a century later but hoons closer to the works of Wilkie Collins than John Rhode.
But always there was the enveloping cloak of ignorance baffling him at every turn. He did not know what was wrong, and any step he attempted might just precipitate the calamity he most desired to avoid.
With our amateurs as Young Adventurers in the comfortably middle class set — “How better could a country be seen than by slowly motoring through its waterways?” — their investigations show some ingenuity and a tendency to leap to conclusions. The use to which a barrel just outside Hull is put doesn’t feel like your typical Golden Age excursion, but there wasn’t a “typical Golden Age excursion” at this point in history, this is simply an early step away from the intuitionism of Holmes, Brown, and their imitators. And it’s quite fabulously written at times:
Once again they were lucky in their weather. A sun of molten glory poured down from the clearest of blue skies, burnishing a track of intolerable brilliance across the water,
The final nine chapters — ‘The Professionals’ — bring Inspector George Willis in where our amateurs can go no further. Willis’ role in this Croftian bridge is to bring some structure and sobriety to events, to show the reach of the Arm of the Law and posit the benefits of such over the limited freedoms of a lone operator (a frequent touchstone in Crofts’ work, it seems). Aside from his possessing a piece of wire that can open seemingly any lock going, there’s really nothing to know about Willis — he’s a bit of a cipher, happy to sleep on the bare floorboards of an abandoned cottage that provides a good vantage point of his quarry, and never met a felonious search he didn’t like. He’s also pleasingly fallible, gets caught out on two key occasions here, and is curiously fixated on the impact such a case could have on his prospects at work (can anyone help with the acronym u.p., as in the gloomy reflection that “it was all u.p. with his career at the Yard”?). Process is stressed over emotion in Willis’ dealings, and his steady erosion of possibilities is less fascinating than Crofts managed elsewhere but still interesting to see the genre-shift emerge from it.
The central scheme is actually based on a couple of quite ingenious conceits, and while it takes a lot of getting to — there’s a good 40-50 pages that could be trimmed — we must also remember that a lot of the ideas in here were not as commonly appreciated in 1922 as they are now: tapping a phone line, for one. Equally, there is a raft of contemporary detail to delight those of us who learn so much from the past in these endeavours: casual references to shell-shock and a tommy digging himself in offer hints to the way the common experience had altered in the previous decade, Willis hoping a car can maintain a steady 30 miles an hour, and said line-tapping revealing that the government held the monopoly on installing phone lines and so any phone installed by an “outside” agency was illegal.
To me, not least given the investigative nature of preceding book The Ponson Case (1921), The Pit-Prop Syndicate feels rather like Crofts making a few concessions to expectations of the time, not this time circumventing the trappings of the last several decades, in order to secure himself something of an audience. Is it a bit dossier-dry? Absolutely. Could it do with a dram more mayhem to liven it up? No doubt. But to dismiss it as entirely without merit is, I feel, to do a tremendous disservice to the emerging face of a genre that needed someone to show the way. The observation of rigour, of logic, of reasoning, of intelligence, of construction, of misdirection, of intelligent adversaries engaged in cunning counter-manoeuvres, of puzzle pieces refusing to fit, of investigation to bring a whole picture into focus, and of complex schemes that stand up to scrutiny…well, that’s the ingredients of the Golden Age right there, eh? Your mileage will vary, but it’ll be a cold day in Hell before you convince me there’s nothing in these pages to commend them.
This Harper Collins Detective Club reissue from 2018 boasts not just an introduction from Dr. John Curran but also the sequel to Crofts’ lone YA novel, Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947) in the form of the previously-uncollected short story ‘Danger in Shroude Valley’ (1950). This brief shot coming at the end of the book gives you the chance to appreciate how Crofts’ prose developed in the intervening years, and — while the story itself is perhaps a little too dense and reliant on period detail for younger minds — it’s a quite thrilling juvenile adventure which makes good use of esoteric railway knowledge to create an exciting situation with impressive brevity. There’s no detection, just Robin Brand and Jack Carr happening upon what sounds like a criminal conspiracy and then happening (again!) upon one of the members of that syndicate as they’re about to commit the crime, but it’s a pleasant read and an enjoyable contrast to the routine and rigour of the novel it appends.
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)
Crime at Guildford, a.k.a. The Crime at Nornes (1935)
The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)
The 9.50 Up Express and Other Stories [ss] (2020) ed. Tony Medawar