As his seventh published novel, Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) shows Freeman Wills Crofts again subtly altering his approach to take us through the minutiae of crime and detection, introducing a structural change which addresses the issue of “whodunnit” that these early GAD trendsetters sometimes struggled with. While you may well be aware of the guilty party from about chapter 4, rest assured that Inspector Joseph French eventually cottons onto his target at around the halfway stage, and the final third of the book is then devoted to tracing the criminal. And a lot of fun is to be had along the way.
In many regards, I can see why Curtis places this among his ten favourite Crofts novels: the conflagration that consumes Starvel, the lonely Yorkshire pile where young orphan Ruth Averill has been placed in the care of her miserly uncle Simon, and the subsequent suspicions of foul play that bring French onto the scene, is so packed with incident that Crofts barely has time to stop and indulge in his customary enjoyment of the scenery. Yes, we start out a bit HIBK with Ruth receiving an invite to visit an old family friend:
She did not know then, though she realised it afterwards, that the message he was bringing her was to be the herald of a series of terrible and tragic happenings, so dark and sinister and awful that had she foreseen them she might well have cried out in horror and dismay
…but after a fire destroys the house, trapping Simon and his servants the Ropers inside, we’re on in quick succession through Ruth’s financial ruin, the spoiling of her romance with the, er, unusually-named Pierce Whymper, and the eventual dispatch of French, a man who never met a piece of evidence he wasn’t willing to back up three different ways if he can help it.
I know the meticulous nature of French enrages some people beyond words, but the steady, intelligent, piece-by-piece accrual of evidence through methodology is something that makes my soul sing (anyone keeping track of my War on Americanisms will be interested in the sheer number of “inquiries” French makes herein). Where any number of GAD sleuths (and their authors) would be more than willing to jump to a conclusion and hold onto it until the evidence emerges to support it, the genius of French/Crofts is that even as something seems watertight there’s still intelligent space to doubt it: “absence of evidence of guilt [is not] proof of innocence” we’re reminded, and the heartening way that French acknowledges how the criminal he seeks could still step out of the shadows without a reasonable stain against their character is a salutary piece of GADing. Crofts has also invested certain events with an increased brevity here, showing a keen eye where the need for detail lies, paving the way for the devious brilliance of Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) and the beautiful simplicity of its reversals a few years hence.
Plot-wise, French needs to be at the top of his game, too, especially as he is seemingly constantly aware of how his actions and conclusions may count either for or against him where promotion is concerned. Most people, faced with a confession of an hitherto-unsuspected murder, or with £500 in previously-assumed-missing bank notes, would jump in feet first, but for French it’s all part of a jigsaw comprising mysterious late-night visits, obdurate taciturnity in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt, and many other late-Victorian holdovers which show how the genre hadn’t quite escaped its 19th century roots: it’s amusing to reflect that chapter 12 is entitled ‘A Somewhat Gruesome Chapter’ and yet the most outright gruesome event — in the same vein, and described in far greater detail — is relayed quite some pages later, almost as if an earlier warning was needed so as to let the later shenanigans pass unnoticed.
Some good character notes replace the sense of delight the outdoors usually engenders in Crofts’ work: local busybodies frequently ‘happening’ to run into French so that they can pump him for the most recent gossip, the pub landlord who never trusted Mr. Roper on account of his having a squint, Ruth’s willingness to make friends with local folk despite their low social standing, a casual mention of wartime shell-shock and gas ruining the health of a local entomologist — it’s not Dickens, but each little drop adds to the water in the glass and makes the community feel rather more rounded. It’s a tough heart indeed that doesn’t feel for Dr. Philpott’s incipient financial ruin, or couldn’t understand why a safe manufacturer would be willing to lie about the efficacy of their product for fear of lost trade. Add to this some minor contemporary touches — cocaine going out of favour as the anaesthetic of choice for dentists, say, or the police planning what information to withhold from a public inquest — and you’ve got a delightful, swift, and very enjoyable tale on your hands.
Anyone invested in the Croftsiverse, too, will enjoy the nodding reference to Mrs. Chauncey S. Root of Pittsburg from Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924), as well as a late appearance of Inspectors Tanner and Willis who, we’re given no reason not to assume, are surely the same characters from The Ponson Case (1921) and The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) respectively. Though, even as a fan of such things, the most enjoyable moment for me was the Carr-esque brilliance of a quite wonderful surprise dropped very casually in, oh, let’s say the second half, which knocked this up a full rating-star all on its own merit: sure, you’ll doubtless see many of the other developments coming, but to pick up a book that’s edging on to a century in age and tear through it and glean from it such enjoyment as I did is a thrilling experience, and all part of the delight of this genre for me. Another Crofts winner, though — let’s face it — you’re not really surprised to see me say so, are you?
Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: French feels driven not so much by the intellectual challenge of the puzzle but out of a desire for promotion. He is looking to prove himself and excel, making him that bit more driven in his efforts to seek out answers. He doesn’t skirt the law quite so dangerously as he does in some other early stories to achieve that end but he is certainly results-driven…. His method [of] thoroughly questioning everyone, checking every detail and comparing information is certainly present however. This can sometimes be a little frustrating such as when we follow French around comparing bank serial numbers as Crofts provides us with far too much detail of each interaction. While I understand that this allows Crofts to sometimes conceal a clue within one of those many interactions, it also makes the investigative phase feel a little slow and repetitive.
Mike Grost @ A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection: After a pleasant opening (Chapters 1-3), I didn’t enjoy the rest of Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy. It was dull and boring, because it lacked a clever mystery puzzle, and because its settings were generic and un-detailed. And much time was spent with some unlikable suspects – which was positively unpleasant.
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)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)
The 9.50 Up Express and other Stories [ss] (2020) ed. Tony Medawar