#647: Spoiler Warning 13 – The Box Office Murders, a.k.a. The Purple Sickle Murders (1929) by Freeman Wills Crofts

spoiler-warning

Well, c’mon — lucky number 13.  Something had to go wrong, didn’t it?

Firstly the delay, due to factors outside of our control, meaning this was due to go up in January and, no, it’s not January any more.  Secondly, Curtis Evans and I were unable to collaborate on this as hoped, again due to factors outside of our control, but there is good news:  you are getting a spoiler-rich discussion — er, a very one-sided discussion, it must be said — about The Box Office Murders, a.k.a. The Purple Sickle Murders (1929) the fifth novel by Freeman Wills Crofts to feature Inspector Joseph French, and Curt has been able to write up his own thoughts and post them here.  So you get to read about this twice, which will hopefully be some consolation.

A brief recap of the plot, since it’s been a while:

Inspector Joseph French is approached by Thurza Darke, who works in the box office of a large cinema and has doubts over the death of a friend of hers, Eileen Tucker, who was employed in the same line.  Intrigued by the actions of a possible gang of thieves with some as-yet-undetermined plan in mind, French is moved to investigate the apparent murders that follow these girls as they’re snared one-by-one by an apparently remorseless enemy…

My thoughts, rich in spoilers, follow the image below, and so you’re going to get the most out of reading this book if you don’t read that below first — and equally will get the most out of the below having read the book.  The reader, as always, is warned.

Box Office Purple Sickle

The Box Office Murders was, I believe, the last book Crofts wrote while still working as a railway engineer — certainly the complexity of his succeeding novel Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) speaks of a plan that had a lot more time spent upon its mechanics than any of Crofts’ not-exactly-uncomplicated earlier works.  As with The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) Crofts has his detective tumble to the essential purpose of the mysterious happenings — here, the passing of counterfeit coins by box-office girls — but has doubt thrown upon the scheme by simple means.  First the presumption that the gang at the centre of things is pushing “snow” — or illicit drugs — and secondly, once the unworkability of that has been established, the small matter of the half-crown coins that are being passed bearing no sign of any fraud.

I love the idea that the component metals needed to make the coins are actually cheaper than the value bestowed upon the coin itself (the same is, of course, also true of paper money — a fact that formed the basis of two currency-counterfeiting novels published by ‘big name’ authors in 1997).  It’s so simple, and obviously has to be the case when you think about it, because otherwise there’s no point to currency, but the idea itself is still easy to overlook.  The real genius ides for me here, though is how the counterfeiting is disguised by wearing the coins in subtle ways to make them appear genuine and used:

“Our engineers imagine that they turned them with very fine sand in some kind of a rotary churn, for the microscope shows that the wear is really caused by numbers of very fine scores and cuts. Ordinary wear from circulation, while it shows occasional cuts and scratches, leaves a comparatively smooth surface on the higher parts of the design. But even so, what I might call this counterfeiting of wear was uncommonly well done. Here again only the microscope could have told the difference…That had the effect of blurring the design so that minor defects became invisible and also lightening it so that the weight test became inoperative.”

The Assistant Commissioner might sniff that this is “rather an obvious precaution”, but i reckon this is the core idea from which Crofts grew the entire book.  The lecture on numismatics seals it for me, and this is yet another great way that detective fiction builds up upon core ideas: throw all the science you like at a problem — and once resolved we’re still told it would be a “virtual impossibility” too separate out the ingeniously-forged coins — you still require the insight of an intelligently inquiring mind to be able to unpick the heart of this type of skulduggery.

cinema ticket

It’s interesting that Crofts takes the time to introduce Thurza Darke to us as a living person before her murder – no such grace was admitted in earlier novels, with the corpse itself being sufficient for French to get involved.  And yet here, he seems to want us to fee the true horror of the crime, almost as a way of justifying French’s relentlessness:

The remains lay on a table in a room off the yard of the police station. The moment that French raised the sheet with which the head was covered he recognised the features of the girl he sought. Poor pretty little Thurza lay there still and peaceful, her small peccadilloes and troubles, her hopes and her joys, over and done with. As French gazed upon her pathetic features, he grew hot with rage against the people whose selfish interests had led to the snuffing out of this young life. That she had been deliberately murdered there could be little doubt.

It’s rare enough in GAD, and lovely to see in light of the the accusations of characterless writing frequently levelled at Crofts.  He’d go on to do the same thing with his murderer in Antidote to Venom (1938), of course, and the small glimpses of Thurza Darke’s character that show both her naivete (French “could almost have told” her the tale of her ensnarement by the gang, so many of the typical boxes does it tick) and her own natural caution and morals (she is eager to point out that the plan of Mr Style’s that she agrees to “was nothing immoral or connected with sex”).  I like to think this shows a sort of evolution of Soapy Joe’s own estimation of her, given that her reasons for believe Eileen Tucker’s death to be a murder are initially addressed a little condescendingly as “a subtle point for a girl of the apparent mentality of this Miss Darke to evolve from her own unaided consciousness”.  In due course, French will even push his own accepted behaviour — small beer by our less rigidly old-fashioned and fusty standards — because “anything was good enough for the murderers of Thurza Darke” and I think this is another watershed moment for the good inspector.

And, of course, this investment in an early victim heightens our fear for Molly Moran when she falls into the criminal’s clutches towards the end of the books, providing the thrillerish close to proceedings.  Lulled into proceedings precisely because French warns her away, there’s something refreshingly human about her  curiosity and the ways she is able to mislead herself that all is well — disdaining the filthy dusty appearance of the office from which the conspiracy is organised, and dismissing the youth at the front desk on account of his apparent simplicity:

It was impossible, she felt instinctively, that anyone as stupid looking as he could be a party to a plot. The sight through the window of the stream of passers-by and the sound of their feet on the pavement still further eased her mind. Reassured, she set herself with a growing and wholly delicious excitement to await Style’s return.

The female characters are given a bit more room and agency that would typically be expected, too.  Not only does Molly Moran have the invention and chutzpah to get messages out of the safe house where she’s incarcerated, there’s also Gwen Lestrange berating Style when he starts to lay of the Evil Villain shtick a bit thick towards the end “‘Oh, for heaven’s sake dry up and leave the girl till we’re ready for her. You’ve something else to do than stand here spouting like a bum actor in a dime circus!”.  And it’s Molly’s actions in the finale that save French’s life, knocking the gun fired at him so that he “felt a bullet pass my head” — leading French to declare her “a plucked one” in an idiom that I honestly don’t know how to interpret.  Merriam-Webster have it meaning “to rob by the use of trickery or threats“…but I don’t see that interpretation applying in these circumstances.  Could it instead be taken from the same root as the term “plucky”?  Any insights below would be appreciated!

cinema ticket

We have a far less felonious Inspector French here than in previous outings, too: actually taking the time to secure warrants long in advance, and even an acknowledgement that it was “a dangerous and prohibited thing” to execute searches without due process, or “his conscience prick[ing] him slightly” when he bluffs with the threat to take Molly Moran into custody to reveal what she knows of the scheme she’s caught up in.  Crofts himself said in ‘Meet inspector French’ (1935) “he is seeing the error of at least some of his ways, and being more careful to live up to his great traditions”.

Indeed, there’s a sense of the fiction and factual aspects of crime coming together to form the backbone of the emerging GAD form, with references (on the factual side) to George Joseph Smith and the “brides in the bath” murders and (on the fictional) French longing “for the skill of [R. Austin Freeman’s character] Dr Thorndyke, who might have been able with his vacuum extractor to secure microscopic dust from its fibres which would have solved the problem”.  There’s an easy mix here in how the conduct of these fictional investigators might well be used to reflect upon their real world counterparts, which in turn roots the actions of these fictional creations in the real world.  Thus when we’re taken through French’s deductions on how far a car could have travelled in 80 minutes (30 miles!) there’s an element of genuine involvement in his reasoning that makes his deductions easier to accept.

This, I think, was key in the acceptance of GAD by readers — to be able to see intelligent application of reasoning applied in the real world, or at least a recognisable version of the world that the reader themself occupied.  We distance ourselves from the profound declarations of Holmes and his various kin by making these men and women work inside of realistic constraints and, in the case of Molly Moran, enjoy their successes when they’re hard won through difficulties we can appreciate.  It also makes someone like Sergeant Ormsby more enjoyable as a character, when you place their obvious joy and skill against this background: the various felonious searches of premises done by Ormsby and French are surely among the most purely enjoyable writing Crofts had done by this point of his career.

I get the impression Crofts enjoyed writing this — after all, you don’t throw around words like ‘saponaceous’ and ‘promulgated’ if you’re grinding out a work for sheer contractual obligation.  Yes, it gets a little generically thrillery by the end (“French had no delusions as to the possibility that neither he nor Carter might ever see another sunrise.”)but it’s largely ground and hard-won in a manner that feels like the principles of GAD are pretty solidified after a decade of light thriller antics with some detection stirred in holus bolus.

Box Office Purple Sickle

Right, that’ll probably do it.  If you stuck with the above, my thanks for your patience in awaiting its arrival.  Next month is the spoiler-rich discussion about The Eye of Osiris (1911) by the above-referenced R. Austin Freeman, and I’ll promise now that it will appear on this site on Saturday 18th April 2020.  In the meantime, don’t forget that HarperCollins are due to reissue six more Crofts books this summer, always assuming publishers’ schedules aren’t being screwed around with too heavily by COVID-19, and that the below, previously hen’s-teeth-rare books should be in a bookshops near you in the coming months.  Exciting times!

Crofts 2020

14 thoughts on “#647: Spoiler Warning 13 – The Box Office Murders, a.k.a. The Purple Sickle Murders (1929) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Good point that the actual material value of a coin or note must be less than its face value. I can’t remember all the details, but I thought the bit about moving coins between the two garages was a bit over the top.

    I always like the distance calculations for cars which seem to take ages to get anywhere and then remember that there are no motorways in GAD days.

    It seems strange to me that after the painstaking process that French uses to identify the criminal, that in most of the early cases, the actual arrest normally takes a much more melodramatic turn. Be interesting to see if that changes with the next 6 due to be re-released.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that the shifting of coins between the garages was a little hokey, but I think there was still a certain concession to be made to the lingering “adventure serial” attitude where these sorts of events are concerned. Considering how much logical detection French does in the handful of later titles I’ve read — without the need to feloniously break into places to see things first hand — and how much of that sort of thin is contained in his opening tranche of books, I think it’s an element the early GAD pioneers still felt the need to include.

      Same with the endings, I suppose. There’s a certain expected “payoff” as a reward for working through all that turgid detection — The Cask does this, trapping someone in a burning house, The Pit-Prop Syndicate is pretty much just a series of protracted incidents of this ilk, The Cheyne Mystery builds to an “adventure on the high seas” denouement (though I think that ending also serves a second, larger purpose). The subtle days of the criminal led away in shame had come, but was perhaps still not as accepted a trope at this stage as we may think.

      I will never tire of road, rial, and water distance calculations in these old-time detective novels. Other people find them dull, but the contemporary details they reveal are simply divine, and my soul delights a little whenever I come across a plot point that is able to rely absolutely on such limits and regular trains, etc. It really is logical deduction at its most pure.

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    • I’m hoping to be able to review a few of the six upcoming titles to raise awareness — and Sudden Death is the next-but-one Crofts on my TBR, wooooo! To be honest, I’m mainly just excited to read any FWC these days, but I’ll be extra excited for that impossible crime. So let’s hope it lives up to my massively unreasonable expectations 😄

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  2. Fantastic – I enjoyed reading both of your posts. I think you make some interesting points – particularly about getting to know the victim prior to the murder.

    My strongest memory though is French breaking and entering which I recall you dubbed him Felonious French for. 😁

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    • When authors who have usually simply provided a corpse, or at best a set of broad tropes soon to become a corpse, take the time to let you know a victim, it’s often worth paying attention to. Rupert Penny does the same thing in The Lucky Policeman and it works just as well in making murder land that bit harder.

      And, let’s face it, anything is a better nickname than “Soapy Joe” 😆

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  3. When French calls Molly “a plucked one” he is calling her brave – it is related to plucky, and I have seen it used in boys’ stories of the time; “a well-plucked young ‘un” = a brave lad.

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    • Thank-you, Elspeth — I wondered if it was a typo, but both of my editions contain it (though that doesn’t necessarily prove anything, of course). It’s not a turn of phrase I’ve encountered before, so I’m sure it will now turn up in the next eight books I read 😀

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  4. I’m afraid I’ll have to return and read this when I’ve actually read the book itself. All I can contribute here in terms of FWC commentary is to say I just recently finished The Sea Mystery and had a very good time.
    I’ll definitely be picking up three of those new titles – Sudden Death, Man Overboard and The Mystery on Southampton Water – when they are released later this year – in fact, I’ve already pre-ordered them.

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    • Good work, Colin — if we want these books republished, we have to buy them! This is why the Detective Club reissues dried up, I believe, since not enough of them sold. I really like the styling of these HarperCollins reissues, and have all of them so far — they’ll make quite a nice set if all of them get reprinted 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I have acceptable editions of the other three so can’t really justify picking them up just now, but I am tempted. The editions are very nicely put together – they feel good to read, if that makes sense. It’s a pity we seem unlikely to get more Rhode as I have warmed to him too. Ah well. I do hope they continue and put out more Crofts as I’ve become quite a fan now. What with those guys and my recent pleasurable experience with Connington’s writing, I seem to be a bit of a convert to the cause of humdrummery.

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        • Yay! Welcome to the Humdrummers! Your membership pack is in the post.

          Always consider that if Crofts sells, Rhode might well be resurrected — indeed, there are so many Rhode/Burton books, any publisher with the rights would be crazy not to try to build on some interest generated in that camp.

          Connington I need to get onto — very much enjoyed Case with Nine Solutions, very mush did not enjoy, er, another one I read (and think I reviewed here). I believe The Sweepstake Murders was a recommendation made to me, so I should get to that before too long. And since I have plenty of time on my hands now, maybe this will finally be the shove I need.

          Liked by 1 person

          • With Rhode, I do keep hoping that at least a few of the better regarded titles might get reprinted. And I think you have a valid point when you say that if we the readers show an interest in related material, that might just help the process along.

            While the lockdown (and here in Greece it’s pretty extensive) is a pain, albeit a very necessary and entirely justifiable one, it does mean there’s lots of time to catch up on our reading.

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