Cometh the hour, cometh the man. After a debut that laid the cornerstone of a new genre and three succeeding works exploring the principles of that genre from varying perspectives, now begins Freeman Wills Crofts’ 30-novel (plus however-many short stories) relationship with Inspector Joseph French. At this stage it’s difficult to judge how French differs from his antecedents Burnley, Lafarge, Tanner, Willis, Vandam, and Ross, but I guess we’ll never know whether French was ever initially conceived as more than a one-book man like those others. The title certainly suggests so, but history shows otherwise.
We begin French’s career in atmospheric if not exactly cheery terms:
The back streets surrounding Hatton Garden, in the City of London, do not form at the best of times a cheerful or inspiring prospect. Narrow and mean, and flanked with ugly, sordid-looking buildings grimy from exposure to the smoke and fogs of the town and drab from the want of fresh paint, they can hardly fail to strike discouragement into the heart of any one eager for the uplift of our twentieth century civilisation.
Swift succession sees a murder and theft discovered at a diamond merchant’s, before French make the scene and begins to untangle the quite circuitous and tortuous series of events that has resulted in this crime. We’re clearly at the beginnings of the genre still — witness how the use of fingerprint powder must be explained to a readership presumably unfamiliar with such things — but the essential complexity with simplicity at its heart is superbly marshalled throughout in the way that truly commends Crofts. Modern writers of twisty thrillers should study this technique, because it has rarely been bettered than when first employed.
My main problem with the narrative is how episodic it is, which could be forgiven on the callowness of the genre as a whole but for the fact that Crofts had already done better with a similar style earlier in his career. This seems a little more exploratory and unsure than the more innovative The Cask (1920) and lacks the simple lines of the gorgeous complexity of The Ponson Case (1921), and it’s almost like Crofts was relieved to get to the end in order to info-dump a final chapter filling in all the gaps so he could wipe his hands of the whole shebang (he didn’t publish a book the following year, and then published at least one every year until 1943 — so maybe an element of forward-planning kicked in here…). Given the care take over the various separate lanes of the narrative, it’s an odd ending, and one that doesn’t quite sit right with me…but, then, I’ve learned to be picky where Crofts is concerned.
That gripe aside, this revels once again in the bizarro details of forensic detection, chasing down leads, coming up against frequent dead ends, and poring over each detail until it fits. I’m aware that many among you think I tend to lionise Crofts, but such is the beauty of individual opinion. Much like finding in John Dickson Carr an author whose writing acumen matches the ingenuity of their plots, for me Crofts is the perfect balance of puzzle-complexity and perfect clarity — as each gain is made, or each hope lost, you never lose track of how it factors into the plot or intent of the detective; if French comes away chastened after missing a lead, we understand why and can, to a degree, feel it. Sure, it may reek a little of Inkhorn Detection, but it’s an eau de cologne I quite enjoy.
It’s also rather witty in places, such as the “garrulous little old lady who had but little English, and upon whom [French’s] questions acted as a push-button does on an electric bell”, French’s frustration at having to start over yet again in search of his elusive quarry (“he used another adjective in his mind”), or the long-suffering Emily French listening to her husband hold forth and pace their living room when he reaches one of his many dead ends “invariably [wishing] he would walk on the less worn parts of the carpet”. Up against this are also some of the little period oddnesses that crop up in this type of book — the assertion that sisters apparently have very similar handwriting, the frank bafflement that afflicts everyone regarding how someone could appear to be English to some people and yet have an American accent when talking to others, and the confusing-to-me prospect of a “midday train to the capital” that departs at 12:40 — so there’s plenty here for the engaged reader.
We also get to see Crofts’ love of the outdoors and of travel evince themselves at times, with French taking a train across Europe and viewing his continental surroundings with “true British disapproval of all that he saw” and yet the journey “across southwest France opened up a conception of the size of the globe whereon he moved and had his being, which left him slightly awestruck” and his delight as “the panorama…of the vast mass of the Mont Blanc massif hanging in the sky above the valley, literally took away his breath, and he swore that his next holidays would certainly be spent in the overwhelming scenery of these tremendous mountains” is very difficult not to enjoy. While personal aspects of ‘Soapy Joe’ — a sobriquet I’m unfamiliar with having read five subsequent French novels — would fall away, such as the revelation that the Frenchs’ eldest son was killed in the War, this wonderment at the glory of nature is something that Crofts returns to again and again, and it’s always delightful to see.
Another motif picked up here and returned to again and again is that of the police force as a gigantic, tireless, inexorable beast powered by vast swathes of men with a vast range of skills at their disposal. The more I read of this sort of stuff, the more I like it: from the Don Juan-ish detective-sergeant Patrick Nolan to the endless, nameless constables and plainclothes men who can chase down every small detail, often employing their own savvy and insight to do so — intelligent and resilient people working together intelligently and resiliently in the spirit of a common endeavour…er, it sounds a little like Communism, but as a model for detective fiction I am much more drawn these days to the Efforts of the Common Man than to the lightning-quick gnomic ingenuity of some aloof intellectual epicure. Maybe there’s an element of projection in there — I’m old enough now to know I’ll never be a genius, so I identify with my dim-witted brethren — but, whatever it is, I am always grateful to spend time indulging.
A good start to the career of one of the genre’s titans, then, though certainly not his greatest endeavour on the page. Creation and author both would go on to some brilliant stuff after this, but to be able to see them get started is a pleasure I would not have had a couple of years ago and something I’m glad I got to experience here. It is to be hoped that the forthcoming TV series of Inspector French cases does these books justice and raises their popularity, because for those who like their detectives honest, hard-working, and intelligent there are wonders aplenty to be found.
Separate mention must be made of the introduction included in this 2016 HarperCollins paperback reissue, a glorious article of unknown provenance written by Crofts in 1935 entitled ‘Meet Chief-Inspector French’. In part, this is Crofts offering a genuine explanation for the choices made around his characterisation of French:
I have to admit that he’s not very brilliant: in fact, many people call him dull. And here I’ll let you into secret history. Anyone about to perpetrate a detective novel must first decide whether his detective is to be brilliant and a ‘character,’ or a mere ordinary humdrum personality. When French came into being there seemed two good reasons for making him the second of these. One was that it represented a new departure; there were already plenty of ‘character’ detectives, the lineal descendants, most of them, of the great Sherlock. The other reason was much more important. Striking characteristics, consistently depicted, are very hard to do.
And then, at times, a charmingly impish humour comes out, as with:
French has at times done things which would make a real inspector of the Yard shudder. He has consistently travelled first-class on railways, particularly in sleeping-cars. He has borrowed bicycles from local police-officers without paying for their hire. He has undertaken country inquiries without his attendant sergeant.
His promotion was decided on for a somewhat unusual reason. It was not because of his work or of what his superiors thought of him, but because so many people mentioned in letters that his promotion was long overdue. The customer, of course, is always right.
And then we get into a seriously bizarre meta-detection discussion about the fact that French will always find the clues he needs to find because he has to solve his cases “not later than about page three hundred” and, of course, the external-observer understanding that he must have Captain Scarlet-like invulnerability because he is, after all, the main character in a series. Be warned that the final stages of this article appear to go into specifics for what I believe is the recently-republished Mystery in the Channel (1931) — I skipped it once details started emerging, but have done a little research based on what I did read — but, either way, it’s worth a read on its own. Whoever opted to include this little treatise made a very, very smart decision indeed.
D for Doom @ Vintage Pop Fictions: This attention to detail might sound as if it has the potential to become dull. It’s to the author’s credit that this book is never in danger of that fate. French’s patient stalking of the criminal is always fascinating. This book is in many ways a precursor of the “police procedural” sub-genre of crime fiction, and Crofts shows himself to be a master of this type of story.
Martin Edwards: The plot is convoluted, and the planning of the crime turns out to have been as meticulous as French’s investigation of it. French manages to pack in quite a lot of overseas travel, and Crofts’ handling of the travelogue-type scenes suggest he was a seasoned and enthusiastic traveller. I very much enjoyed this book, and I’m glad that its recent reissue in paperback makes it widely available once again.
Mike Grost @ GADetection wiki: This book is just plain terrible. It is not in any way offensive, but it is remarkably mediocre. The endless travels around Europe tracking down suspects are pointless and boring, the puzzle plot is nearly non-existent, and the characters are ciphers. French himself comes across as the least interesting sleuth in mystery history. He is a deliberately personalityless character, perhaps intended as a corrective against The Eccentric Sleuth, but one which has gone way too far.
Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event: