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.
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.
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!
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.
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!