A mere nine books into the 37-strong output of Freeman Wills Crofts (soon to be 38 thanks to the excellent work of Tony Medawar and Crippen & Landru), I’m going to make a bold assertion: Crofts, I suggest, went out of his way to never write the same type of book twice. Oh, I know, you’ve heard they’re all just a boring man in a boring office poring over boring train timetables and talking boringly about boring tides on the way to solving a boring murder (to be honest, the only truly boring thing about Crofts is being told how boring he’s supposed to be)…but first read nine books by the man before telling me I’m wrong.
The Groote Park Murder (1923) employs the same essential structure of The Cask (1920) and The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) in splitting the action between two distinct locales — here, the South African city of Middledorp and the Scottish Highlands — and echoes the latter (and maybe the former, I’m yet to read it) in the second section being told from a different perspective to the first. But structurally we have some very different things going on: both parts this time around follow professional policeman in their investigations of a crime, and the first half would appear to finish with a conclusion of its own, there’s a court case and everything, before the second half pick up two years later with a few carried over characters but no hint of the events being related (though, of course, they are — else why would they be halves of the same book?).
For me it’s the first half, from the perspective of Inspector Vandam (first name presumably not Jeanclaude), which is the least successful. While the investigation into a body that’s been hit by a train is not without moments of brilliance — the swept floor and burnt newspapers coming into focus, say, or the surprising ease with which Crofts is able to overturn what was fast looking like a promising line in the investigation — it’s a curiously airless section that serves only to cumulate evidence and events for its superb tenth and final chapter. It seems doubtful Crofts had been anywhere near South Africa at the time of writing, and it’s telling the number of Cockneys and Scotch persons Vandam meets in the execution of his duties. The few settings that feel genuine — a cinema, a boarding house, the courtroom — could be anywhere, and South Africa itself is rendered almost through prose brought into English by the utilitarian algorithms of Google Translate®.
Not that it’s completely without merit: Vandam comes in for something of a kicking by the end, but his character is caught in spare observations like “the interest of a new mystery stimulated him to an enthusiasm which rendered him careless of rest or even food” even while at times he’s flying by the seat of his pants. Called in front of his superior to give an update on a situation which has not played out as predicted and fervently “hoping it would not occur to the Chief to ask awkward questions thereon” reveals a human side to the man, even if our sympathies are up-ended when he’s imbued with the British class consciousness at a later stage. And, good heavens, doesn’t he ever like to eat. For all his enthusiasm regarding the investigation of crime, he never met a case that would actually interrupt his victual rituals — knocking-off time is dinner time, and the hell with murder until the morning.
Some interesting twists on contemporary expectations round out this half of the book, such as a lawyer engaged to work for the accused in that courtroom who has no sympathy for, and apparently little belief in, his client and is only there for personal reasons. And the casual mention of I.D.B. laws being “more strictly enforced” in reference to diamond sales sent me down an internet research hole of quite staggering depth that will doubtless form the backbone of a post on here at some future point. Also, if you’re bothered, Crofts thoroughly spoils the working’s of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844), but it’s such an overhyped story with such a disappointing resolution that, really, he’s doing you a favour.
In Scotland, things bloom to glorious life, with Crofts already demonstrating that breathless love of the outdoors which would become evident in Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930):
The stretch of road of Luss to Crianlarich is surely the most beautiful in the British Isles. On a clear day it unfolds a gorgeous pageant of mountain and valley, of wood and water, of spray-clad waterfall, of lonely moor. At night the light of even a thin crescent of moon is sufficient to reveal something of its startling grandeur…
Two years on, and a liaison between two of the players in that previous drama leads us to a murderous plot of fairly decent complexity. Crofts has the wherewithal to wrangle some excellent imbrications here, and if he doesn’t always make it work — more than a few spontaneous confessions are required to join together the seams of his ploy — there are at least flashes of the organ-grinder working full-tilt towards the doyen of the complex he would become. At one point, the top of page 200 in this HarperCollins Detective Club reissue, Inspector Ross reflects on one aspect of events as being a “stroke of genius”, and I was tempted to agree with him…until it transpired about 40 pages later that the plan he is thus-bestowing is in fact simply half of an even bigger plan which is far more deserving of the term (seriously, when you realise than both men are on the same road…perfection). The entire imbroglio is rather easy to see through in terms of its eventual resolution — indeed, it seemed to me that this was the exact reason for the stilted South African setting opening the book (though, in the manner I expected, I turned out to be wrong) — but Crofts is growing as an author, and devising new levels of gearing in his machine.
And again we get some superb writing — yup, I stand by that — such as Marion Hope subtly urging a conversation in a direction of her choosing by “pursuing the methods formerly adopted by Red Indians who, simulating the innocuous sheep, moved in a decreasing spiral around their victim until near enough to leap on him and cleave his skull with a tomahawk”. And great contemporary language, such as the pages of a well-thumbed book being referred to as “somewhat dog’s-eared”, and the phrase “on the q.t.” significantly before I would have assumed it to be in usage. And rearing its head also is that Croftian touchstone of intricately-planned criminal enterprises undone by the tiniest of oversights: here the criminal neglecting to “soap his socks” being pretty much the exact moment Ross is put onto the correct line of thinking. Additionally, anyone sharing my interest in the development of engineering as learned through GAD novels will be interested to learn that a car maintaining an average speed of 40 miles per hour for 11 hours would be “an utter impossibility over so long a stretch”.
For the curious Croftian not sure if they’re able to take him at his most brilliantly substantive, this may well be the perfect place to start: the alibi trick is simple, the plot overall shows pieces clicking into Crofts’ brain as the possibilities of such an undertaking occur to him (that Magill Mystery seven years hence no doubt has its roots here, mark my words), but the casual reader can play along at home and treat it all as lightly as they wish. Good fun, and another beautiful edition from HarperCollins, with the Crofts essay ‘The Writing of a Detective Novel’ (1937) an inconsequential but very enjoyable inclusion. More, more!
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Excellent early Crofts. The first part is set in South Africa, but isn’t Boer-ing; and the second two years later in Scotland. Detection throughout is excellent—lots of detail, particularly of suspects’ movements. … Crofts’s detective technique: instead of spreading suspicion among half a dozen people, the police follow leads and investigate each suspect in turn.
Richard Wells @ GADetection wiki: Those who dislike train times may be assured that in The Groote Park Murder the occasional references to them are only incidental, not an essential part of the plot. And there are none of the author’s other specialities. The false alibi tricks in this book are quite simple. … Unfortunately there is little local colour in the South African part of the story; probably Crofts had never been there. But he knew his Scottish Highlands, and obviously enjoyed describing an exciting race to Crianlarich and a later expedition to Glencoe and Ballachulish.
Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event: