If I asked you to name the debut novel of a hugely influential detective fiction author that was originally written in 1916, published four years later, featured a character called Hastings, and had its ending rewritten at the publisher’s request to remove a courtroom/trial sequence…you’d no doubt be surprised just how much The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie and The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts had in common. The intervening century has been kinder to Christie than to Crofts in both literary reputation and availability, and their divergence from these surface-level similarities is no doubt a part of that.
On paper, The Cask is the exact kind of puzzle that the prevailing literary trend at the time would have served up: a ship is unloaded at dock, an especially heavy cask overbalances things and falls to the ground, splitting open. Out fall gold sovereigns…and upon inspection a human hand is viewed within. Crofts’ frank genius — yes, genius — was to take the narrative here by the scruff of the neck and, instead of letting it meander down a well-trodden path of International Gangs, Kidnappings, and Peril, to turn it into a microscopic investigation of near-fractal detail and event. Everything you can look into is looked into, and from each event spins more and more possibilities and occurrences. As a narrative is does occasionally falter, but more often than not these stumbling efforts at detail and rigour are then paid off tenfold: chapter 6, ‘The Art of Detection’, is after ten decades now a little hoary and tedious, but its effect on the relevant person when their precise actions are repeated to them is salutary for what the genre was to become.
That microscopic detail has dogged Crofts ever since, and not unfairly, but this is also much more than simply combinatorics as applied to detection. The first section, in which Inspector Burnley is summoned to the docks to investigate, has about it the incident and invention of a pre-forensics 24: men and casks appear and disappear, motives and implications shift and are reframed, and the steady unravelling of what appears and what actually is could not be better marshalled. It’s whirligig stuff, all the more brilliant for how thoroughly each development is worked into the narrative — at each stage of circumspection, someone finds a way to mislead and achieve their aim. That Crofts’ criminals are assiduous in their schemes is old hat now, but at the time, when a genius amateur could point a finger with virtually nothing in the way of reasoning, seeing someone making their bread by so careful a plan laid out so openly would have been a revelation. No wonder it sold by the barrow-load.
Crofts would never top anyone’s list of the genre’s most nuanced stylists, but little flashes of fabulous writing are always there to be found, with wry gems like:
Palmer’s statement, divested of its Cockney slang and picturesque embellishments, was as follows.
Equally, the grief of one character is given more than adequate voice with a simple pathos that never seeks to outstay its welcome:
The sun shone gaily in with never a hint of tragedy, lighting up the bent figure in the armchair and bringing into pitiless prominence the details that should have been cloaked decently in shadow, from the drops of moisture on the drawn brown to the hands clenched white beneath the edge of the desk.
And if you can find a more steel-edged moment in fiction from this — or possibly any — era than the line “Keep them” from the denouement, well, good luck to you. Sure, we don’t get to indulge in the same breathless love of the outdoors that enriches the likes of The Groote Park Murder (1923), but when things do eventually move to France you at least get the feeling that Crofts has been there to see it himself, and tiny details speckle the further investigations of Burnley and the Sûreté’s Lefarge.
Tonally, you can feel the genre beginning to take shape with the way these two are able to apply some brilliant logic at times and yet jump to (or avoid) startlingly obvious conclusions at others: sawdust on a carpet, interior monologues about motive, automatic assumptions about shipping routes…jeepers, these two never miss a chance to leap over the obvious. And yet those deductions from chapter 6, or the suspicions about the provenance of a letter, or the refusal to accept that there is a body in the cask when it was clearly marked ‘Statuary’ and their witnesses only saw a hand…when this sort of detail was unexplored, there will inevitably be some unevenness. It’s also hilarious how freely they’re able to just pay people for information and then trust that what they’ve received is the real deal. The yen to believe is strong in these two.
The tenacious nature of Burnley and Lefarge is something that would betoken every Crofts protagonist, and two distinct lines in this narrative typify Crofts minutely: “Many and many a thorny problem had been solved with far less to go on” and “The oversights of criminals were notorious”. Yet they would — to employ the argot of the era — have pulled a massive boner but for private investigator Georges La Touche sweeping in to save their reputations come the final section (no spoiler; the fact that B&L have a watertight case with 100 pages to go will be a gigantic clue after all these years…), where come the final summation it’s fascinating to see the pattern finally drop into place — the essential idea is staggeringly simple once you get down to it, and dressed up beautifully — along with deliberate errors made by our criminal that were, as far as we know, entirely overlooked (a wonderful touch, that; a piece of utter beauty). Yes, some luck is involved — thank heavens that typist is so attractive, or that Constable Walker had read his “masters of detective fiction” — but the brains behind calling those footprints, say, are undeniable and account for the vast majority of the progress made.
In summation, it’s possible even after a hundred years to see how the confidence of detail here would cause a revolution in detective fiction. The measured, deliberate action of our protagonists, the intelligence of (most of) their deductions, the infernal brilliance of the villain in concocting what is, after all, a very practicable and believable ruse to cover their tracks, and the hugely satisfying ways the complexity builds without ever seeking to confound simply by weight of incident (Look at this! And this! And this! And these!) deserves so much credit for how it changed what had been until then a far messier, looser set of expectations. That Crofts and Christie, starting their careers as close together as they did, completely altered the face of detective fiction is surely undeniable. And that there’s still so much to enjoy in the texts that contributed so much to this volte face is a testament to the enduring alternatives they offered. Not always an easy read, not always a thrilling one, but a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant game-changing novel that still has the power to surprise even after all this time.
Martin Edwards: One of the suspects has an apparently unbreakable alibi, and much of the story is devoted to attempts to crack it. This was to become a trade mark device for Crofts. I was impressed by the way he maintained my interest in the story from start to finish. Yes, by modern standards, it is slow, but the elaborations of the puzzle are very well done. Much of the book is set in France, and the fact that many Golden Age novels had a rather cosmopolitan feel is rather under-estimated by their detractors. All in all, this is a book that is still definitely worth reading today.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: It’s an enormous work (400 pages), but never boring—I was reminded of Heine’s famous comparison of Meyerbeer’s Huguenots to a Gothic cathedral, built by ‘a giant in the conception and design of the whole, a dwarf in the exhaustive execution of detail’. A rich and solid plot, with many leads to follow (the various investigators continually find new information) and the reader knowing as much as (and deducing less than) the police, make it a fascinating work.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The Cask is, at it’s core, a fairly simple case and the murderer successfully muddled the waters, which is probably when Crofts realized he had plotted himself in a corner and this resulted in a rushed, somewhat forced ending … I think the book would’ve had genuine status as a classic today if the murderer had laughed in La Touche’s face and wished him luck with proving his case in court, especially as an ending to an old-fashioned, almost charming story, but would such darkness have gone over well at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties?
Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event: