#472: The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) by Freeman Wills Crofts

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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:

The Cask (1920)
The Ponson Case (1921)
The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922)
The Groote Park Murder (1923)
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 Man Who Loved Clouds from last week because both partially revolve around funny goings-on in some woodland.

46 thoughts on “#472: The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this early Crofts which is sat somewhere midway down my TBR pile. Your review isn’t pushing it higher but it does make me feel a little better spending the cash on the reprint as it sounds like there are some bright spots in the story!

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    • If I’d read this earlier in my Croftian wanderings — or if I wasn’t so interested in the emergence of the GAD staples — I think I’d’ve gotten on less well with this, but it’s certainly an interesting (and no doubt influential) read for the above reasons. I’d love to love it more, but the flawed nature of it really brings home how new this detection undertaking was, and I think that’s worth remembering.

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  2. I think you make an excellent case here JJ, well played. What one of my old tutors at Uni would have classed as a defence in the “Yes, but ….” category. If
    I were still blogging I would pick up a copy right away 😀

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    • It’s always tempting to see someone like a Christie or a Carr and imagine that they always wrote in the idiom for which they’re best known. Even Brad, the ne plus ultra of Christiedom, has demurred on the quality of her work in the 1920s, and we have the luxury of forgetting that someone had to go there first and kick the whole thing off. Yes, we now know that 30 or so years of devious trickery and brilliance followed, but at the time this was very much running against the grain of the Intuitionist Genius Amateur, and so some concessions needed to be made. That will result in a bit of a lumpy stew, but the menu was now on the evolving path to becoming world-beating!

      Liked by 1 person

      • A few years ago I heard a radio station that played the “background noise” of early rock and roll, the stuff from 1956 that got to 47 on the charts for a week. I had a similar reaction. You could see where Jerry Lee Lewis comes from, but it wasn’t Jerry Lee Lewis.

        (Google and Youtube my quasi millennial friend)

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  3. I’ve been looking forward to this review so thanks for putting it up. This is one of those books where the largely negative response I”d seen has been discouraging me from trying it. As I said before, I’ve been gradually getting into Crofts after a poor start and was curious about this. I think it sounds like it’s worth a look, I may even end up liking it more than you. Mind you, I have a number of other books by Crofts on the shelf so it’s probably going to be a while before I get round to it.

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    • I’d suggest that this might be a better read for when one has security on their feelings about Crofts. If you read it early it’ll probably put you off, and so knowing that what comes later is to your liking — and seeing the roots of some of the later brilliance herein — is a definite advantage.

      I know I’m turning into the current generation’s Croftian apologist, but I think the man did some marvellous work and deserves to be celebrated for that. He was in at the blood of the formation of GAD, for pity’s sake — have some patience, people!

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      • The years have seen my patience develop so I’m prepared to indulge the man. I do think I’ll leave this particular book aside for a bit though – there’s no shortage of his other stuff available to me and I’d like to get a bit deeper into of some of his more highly regarded material first.

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    • I can see this being one I return to once I’ve read everything by Crofts because it really does feel like it contains the seeds of what he wanted his plots and his writing to become. Emotion and character are not his strengths, no, and this whole thing is written with everyone expressing themselves like people whose only emotional development as a child came from reading Enid Blyton’s books over and over, but this takes a dual approach that was refined in the likes of Antidote to Venom and plays it with a keen (if not always successful) intent. In many ways, I can see it becoming his most fascinating book, if a long way off his best.

      You doubtless won’t remember, Dolores, but we had a very enjoyable chat at Bodies from the Library earlier this year about the merits and pitfalls of Crofts.

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      • I do remember! Bodies is great, isn’t it?
        And personal taste is just that. I really like Crofts but aren’t that fussed about Carr or Crispin. But they certainly have many merits, and are well loved.

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        • Bodies is fabulous — always fun to get together with like-minded nerds, and I’ve picked up more than a few recommendations over the years. Got my ticket for 2019 already.

          I hem and haw on Crispin; he started a bit weak, got weaker, then produced two belters, then tailed off horribly. For all the promise of Moving Toyshop and Swan Song, he never quite captured the same lightning in a bottle for me elsewhere.

          But then I’m a huge Rupert Penny fan, so what do I know? 🙂

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  4. I’m calling it now: Crofts is going to overtake Carr and Halter as your favorite mystery writer. Your approach and response to this one exactly describes my own experience with Carr’s Behind the Crimson Blinds. The book was trashed on the GAD group, particularly by Nick Fuller, but found it to be a long way from the absolute disaster I was warned about. And that’s how it begins.

    I’ll give you a year, or two, before you officially make Crofts your favorite mystery writer.

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    • You could well be right — in the eight books of his I’ve read to date there’s been plenty of variation, plenty of playing with how far the detective novel can be stretched, and a keen sense of innovation (see the non/inverted mashup of Antidote to Venom, or the thrillerish detection of The Cheyne Mystery) that I very much enjoy. If the next six or eight books I read by Crofts continue in this vein, you will probably be correct in your surmise., Let’s all gather back here at the end of 2020 and see where I’m at…!

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  5. I’d agree with you that this is entertaining, if imperfect. Anyone think the influence of this book is noticeable in John Bude’s “The Lake District Murder”?
    BTW, u.p. isn’t really an acronym, just a facetious version of the word up. (I think Dickens used it similarly in Nicholas Nickleby.)

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    • Huh, well there you go –thanks for clearing that u.p. 😀

      As for TPPS…yes, “entertaining, if imperfect” is fair. Context is helpful, but even in context there are obvious shortfalls (not least that it’s too long, as I said above — the final few pages seem like even Crofts got bored of it). But, well, no-one is claiming it’s his best work, and I’d wager it was an important one for him to get a bit wrong so that he could improve on this essential idea as his career progressed.

      Man, I’m looking forward to unpicking this in the context of his later works. Expect The Groote Park Murder fairly soonish.

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        • I have the reissue of Groote Park in this same series, which contains the essay by Crfots ‘On the Writing of a Detective Story’. Sorta fascinated to see what he has to say about it, since I believe (I’m too lazy to check right now) that it antedates the book by more than a few years, by which time he would have known a lot whereof he spoke.

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    • My advice: read at least a couple of his other titles before this. It’s a captivating picture of the emergence of GAD, but as a narrative it has problems which I think he was ironing out as he played more with innovative and exploratory approaches to detection (and certainly I didn’t find in The Ponson Case…which means this reads like a deliberate attempt to bridge two islands).

      But, yeah, I’d be very keen to learn what you make of it when you get to it.

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  6. I am truly happy that you seem to have found the literary love of your life, JJ. Nothing you have said here or elsewhere makes me want to read FWC, but “Never say never” . . . er, I say. Tastes change.

    In fact, I think you especially will get a kick out of the final line of my review on Saturday. It astonished and amused even me, but it was heartfelt and utterly true.

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    • I’ve rue’d enough the old “Crofts is awful and you shouldn’t read him” received wisdom that kept me from discovering him earlier…and maybe I wouldn’t have liked him seven, eight years ago…but I’m phenomenally grateful that the British Library and HarperCollins reprints have enabled me to finally experience him and come to a decision on my own. TomCat could be onto something with me coming to love Crofts more than Carr, but at present I’m simply enjoying the level of exerimentation that he brings to his books, and how he seems to want to tell these stories from a variety of perspectives — to not simply chug through the same process and give us n iterations of a country house murder or a village poisoning. In no way to denigrate those fine GAD traditions, but seeing the ambition in Crofts’ work is…eye-opening, to say the least.

      As for that final line, I’m assumign something of the ilk “JJ was right all along, and I bow to his handsomeness, and will heretofore give him any spare money I have leftover at the end of the month”. Awesome.

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  7. Despite the strong condemnation by Puzzle Doctor of this fine book and subsequent rather weak recommendations, I’ve always loved Freeman Wills Crofts’s books and yes, I enjoyed this one.   They can be a bit tedious and heavy on detail but they are methodical, logical, and well plotted. They are very much of their time.   I notice a comparison (not particularly favorable) to John Buchan and he isa very similar writer though his books are technically (I suppose) not mysteries.   These are so much better and so much more interesting than the fluff mystery books featuring someone’s Maine coon cat as the main protagonist (I’m making this up but it isn’t far off), or a book about someone getting poisoned in a yarn shop/book shop/B & B by chocolate chip cookies!   These books have substance and require some thinking, as well as a good deal of thinking by the original author.    They are not light weight books and I am so glad that they aren’t!

    Virginia C. Jones (obsessive reader of Golden Age Mysteries)

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    • Oh, Virginia, don’t misunderstand me — I’m not trying to denigrate Buchan’s work. It’s more a statement on how the chase/thriller/suspense novel was much more in vogue at this time and so Pit-Prop feels like Crofts trying to write in that idiom to appease expectations…all the while wanting to offer something more rigorously constructed, so he curbs the tendency of that sort of story and keeps it decidedly more procedural.

      We most certainly agree on the merits of Crofts’ works — and it’s lovely to find a like-minded soul!

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  8. Have you ever read R Austin Freeman? This discussion makes me think you would appreciate him, especially as he invented the inverted. He is more a short story guy,but try Pottermack. And the collection of early inverteds, The Singing Bone, is now easily available (St Julian called it one of the rarest books :))

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    • I’ve not yet read The other Freeman, no — for some reason (and in, I cannot recall the provenance of the recommendation or the reasoning beind the choice) I have A Siltent Witness on my TBB as a place to start…however, I’ll put Pottermac and The Singing Bone on there and you can expect to see it crop up here at some point in 2019. Thanks, Ken!

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  9. Not sure I’d suggest A Silent Witness as the first Austin Freeman you read – it’s a bit overlong, in my view (and I’m a pretty big RAF fan in general). Perhaps The Mystery of 31 New Inn or one of the short story collections (inverted or otherwise) would be a better choice?

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    • Cool, thank-you. As I said, I’m not even sure where A Silent Witness came from as a rec, so I’m grateful for experience RAF readers to point me in the appropriate directions. Much appreciated.

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            • Hey, The Eye of Osiris is a pretty good detective story and reads like an early precursor of the Japanese shin honkaku school of detective fiction. Only thing baffling me to this day is that the story never mentioned the myth behind Osiris. I mean, the plot deals with body parts that were scattered across the land.

              And by posting this comment, I have probably guaranteed we’ll be getting a review from JJ of The Eye of Osiris in 2019. You’re welcome, Ken.

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            • It’s been so many years – at least 15 anyway – since I read Eye that it may well be far better than my comment of OK suggests. I really remember next to nothing beyond the fact I read it and wasn’t displeased.

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  10. I’m probably lucky that my introduction to Crofts was The Groote Park Murder. Which is an early-ish title but after reading so many of his later books I can see that it was already a full-blown Croftsian novel. With some great alibi work!

    I will eventually get around to The Pit-Prop Syndicate.

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    • Groote Park is coming as my next Crofts, so I’m looking forward to that since I get the impression it’s more in the Ponson Case shape (and I loved The Ponson Case). You make it sound like exactly my kind of thing…so in my contrarian way I’ll probably end up hating it now…

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      • Groote Park is excellent! I’ve got the really nice Collins Crime Club reprint. The South Africa background is ever so interesting and (as it’s railways) Croft’s is playing to his strengths

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