#655: Mystery in the Channel, a.k.a. Mystery in the English Channel (1931) by Freeman Wills Crofts

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Since the British Library’s reissues of The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) and Antidote to Venom (1938) are what got me reading Freeman Wills Crofts in the first place, it was with some excitement that I, now a fully signed-up Croftian reading his work chronologically, approached another of his titles selected for the BL’s Crime Classics range.  Possibly on account of a certain perturbation at current world events, I’ve been really struggling of late to persevere with books I’ve not been enjoying, so I suspect that a dive into some comfort reading is what’s needed.  And Crofts fits that bill like a glove…if you’ll forgive my, er, mixing of metaphors.

The discovery of a yacht adrift on a shipping lane in the English Channel leads to a grim discovery regarding its occupants, and Crofts sets these opening scenes very atmospherically without needing to overdo any element of drama or histrionics:

There was indeed something dramatic in the situation which stirred the imagination of even the most prosaic. The little yacht, with its fine lines and finish, its white deck and gleaming brasswork, its fresh paint and brightly coloured club flag, looked what it so obviously was, a rich man’s toy, a craft given over to pleasure. On such the tragic and the sordid were out of place. Yet now they reigned supreme. The space which should fittingly have resounded with the laughs of pretty women and the voices of immaculately clad men, was empty, empty save for that hunched figure and that sinister stain with its hideous suggestion.

Indeed, the underplaying of almost every element is one of the strongest features of this book — I’m guilty of falling into the trap laid for me in accusing Crofts’ writing of being characterless when I first starting reading him, but he is a remarkably subtle writer who sets tone with a minimum of show and fuss.  See crowds gathering to meet the yacht on its return “who had sensed a thrill as the vulture senses carrion”, a suspect identified by a confrère with “more conviction than grammar”, or the sensation-heavy but information light regaling of the tragedy in the newspaper where “the editor had seen a good thing and bit on to it for all he was worth”.  A light touch is certainly the order of the day, and Crofts never disappoints.

Scotland Yard, in the personage of Inspector Joseph French, are brought on board to find a killer, and it’s among the seemingly endless reach of the British police that Crofts is at his most comfortable.  The re-emergence of Inspectors Tanner from The Ponson Case (1921) and Willis from The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) put in another appearance, the former now firm friends with French having been through “the greatest test which could have been imposed on [a friendship], a walking tour in the Scottish highlands lasting for ten days, nine of which were wet”, and the cameo from Howells of The Sea Mystery (1928) makes this a proper Avengers-style team-up that delighted the Crofts nerd in me.  Again circumlocution is in effect at times here, such as Willis and French taking time to “[call] each other insulting names and [explain] how little they thought of each other” when they first meet up, but time spent humanising these coppers is never wasted.  See the Assistant Commissioner’s sympathy for certain types of criminal, or French still not having quite hardened his heart against giving bad news:

It was a job French hated. An intimate acquaintance with human misery had not blunted his feelings, and he found it a real effort to tell this poor woman that her husband was dead. Of other possible sorrows he said nothing. These would come soon enough.

The complex scheme unreels along relatively clean and clear lines, as you’d expect, and while this lacks the multi-layered brilliance of Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) it’s also a notable step up from the easy predictability of The Sweepstake Murders (1931) by J.J. Connington from last week.  There’s more than enough ingenuity to go around for Constable Carter and Inspector Barnes to enjoy their moments in the spotlight, and even when French thinks he has it solved there’s still a complication to be thrown in (with good measure) by the A.C. near the close, and the only false link in the entire thing seems to me to be the certainty with which French views two witnesses picking out pictures of the key suspects in the case, failing to consider that their photos will have been in most of the newspapers in Europe for the preceding week.  A trifle, however, and one that sticks in the memory only because of the rigour otherwise on display throughout.

The financial difficulties faced by many in the 1930s are touched upon lightly, too, with not just the Wall Street Crash but also Clarence Hatry getting a nodding mention.  At couple of junctures concern is expressed for people being bound to suffer as a result of the big business shenanigans that occur herein.  Not that French has ever really needed a personal angle to motivate him in his pursuit of criminals, but you perhaps sense Crofts talking to his audience at such times, and a certain comfort being offered up in the face of such irredeemable wrongdoing:

“This is no longer a job for one man.  Neither you nor I nor any one else, working alone, could find your man. It’s a case for the organisation. Hundreds of men are required, thousands in fact, and through the organisation is the only way you can get them.”

Some interesting contemporary details for the curious: ‘It never rains but it pours’ seems to be a Northern Irish idiom (though French “could not recall the phrase”), a car can now routinely reach speeds of 50 miles per hour without it being considered notable, and, while Connington painted an intriguing background picture last week of betting in the UK being verboten, the French appear untrammelled in such regards, since Soapy Joe and his liaison Fiquet spend an evening in the casino.  While the story doesn’t quite have the drive of the best of Crofts — c.f. The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927), The Sea Mystery (1928) — it’s another strong show from an author I’m delighted to have had the chance to get to know.  In our own uncertain times, being able to rely on quality like this is to be greatly appreciated.

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See also

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The devilish clever and twisted plot here was unraveled by slow, determined police work, but carries all the hallmarks of a vintage detective novel and a notable aspect of this was the pool of blood aboard the yacht. French’s first conclusion proved to be not entirely correct and emerging evidence showed there was a second explanation for what, initially, seemed fairly straightforward. Just what you’d expect from a classic mystery novel from the early 1930s!

D for Doom @ Vintage Pop Fictions: This novel has everything that fans of this series could wish for. It has unbreakable alibis. It has railway timetables. The timing of event is absolutely critical and subject to painstaking experiments by Inspector French. It has numerous false leads that French has to pursue. It is totally plot-driven

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Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event:

The Standalones

The Cask (1920)
The Ponson Case
(1921)
The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922)
The Groote Park Murder (1923)

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)
The Hog’s Back Mystery, a.k.a. The Strange Case of Dr. Earle (1933)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)

16 thoughts on “#655: Mystery in the Channel, a.k.a. Mystery in the English Channel (1931) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. I am glad that this one mostly delivered for you. Like you, I find myself losing my patience with books more quickly than usual and plan to dive into some comfort reading soon.

    I will say that I have seen that line about the walking holiday quoted several times now and I am amazed that it still provokes a proper laugh from me every time.

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    • Hell, if FWC hadn’t worked for me then I’d’ve just packed up the blog and sat things out until I felt sane again. It’s at times like these that I’m very glad to have such a good grasp on the sorts of authors I’m likely to enjoy…because, man, I have given up on a lot of books in the past few weeks…

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      • So you have begun to social distance yourself from writers like Steve Levi, Daniel Cole and Chris McGeorge? 😀 Hopefully, Nicholas Wilde’s Death Knell was not among the books you have recently abandoned, because I highly recommend that one, as a comfort read, to everyone who likes Carr, Halter and Talbot.

        Anyway, I’m glad you found some distraction in Crofts and, while my reading of him has been very limited to date, Mystery on the Channel will likely always be one of my personal favorites. Such as a clever and nicely balanced detective story!

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        • It’s gotten to the point that I’m considering giving Andrew Mayne a second try just to clear the palate 😆 Rest assured, Nicholas Wilde’s Death Knell is my next read, with a review hopefully on Tuesday, and I shall persevere no matter how wrong you turn out to be about that one 🙂

          What I especially enjoyed about MotC is how the opening situation seems to offer so little, and as soon as the boat is dragged back to port and French turns up, you realise just how much information can be gleaned from the situation. French and (in my limited experience) John Thorndyke really are masters at taking those miniscule leads and believably spinning them into the most lethal of webs for their prey.

          Liked by 1 person

          • So you’ll be eating crow on Tuesday!

            Crofts certainly was a meticulous plotter and the part you mentioned is one of the reasons why I liked this one so much. I fully intend to make up for lost time with Crofts when the new reprints are released in June and September, no matter what Dean Street Press might be releasing at the time.

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  2. This was the first Crofts ever I read and it remains one of my comfort books. I too enjoy the subtle nature of Crofts writing. It’s unfortunate that so many can’t get past the railway timetables.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s unfortunate that so much is made of the train timetables…because in 14 books I’m yet to encounter these supposed tedious diversions into them. The most timetable-y book of his I’ve read is Sir John Magill’s Last Journey, and that’s mostly the genius spinning of possibilities from where a train was at certain times…but I wouldn’t have come away from it thinking “Well, Crofts bloody loves a timetable, eh?”.

      I think the obsession with that sort of thing is another lazy way for people to dismiss his writing, and to excuse themselves for not reading it — the same truism that makes people say “Oh, well, Carr is always about the how and never the who” as a way of not reading his impossible crimes, or that Christie’s characters were always stock and therefore easy to see through. Anyone who actually reads this stuff knows not to listen to anyone who comes out with it 🙂

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      • I know I’ve not read as much Crofts as you, but I’ve yet to find him tedious as some do. I’m not sure that many readers understand that it’s the details that make a “police procedural” work. I value and enjoy Crofts because the details always have a point to them, whether it results in a final solution or a dead-end, with a glimpse at French’s reaction as well as how he moves on and his formulation of a new plan. But then I also knit my own socks…which some find the ultimate in tedious 🤣

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        • The more I read in the genre, the more I appreciate the intelligence of a “normal” man over the unreachable, unknowable brilliance of the Genius Detective. Seeing French spin out the possibilities based on time, distance, top speed of automobiles, and other considerations isn’t everyone’s idea of a god time, I know, but — as you say — knowing that there is a point to it, that it contributes in a meaningful way to the answer, I can’t understand how anyone can object to it. “You want to know how the criminal is caught, don’t you? Then pay attention!”

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  3. While I’ve not got round to this yet myself, I’m pleased to hear it gets a thumbs up.
    Just to pick up on the comment in the opening paragraph, which was also echoed by Aidan, I’ve been feeling less patient than might be the case with some books – I’m struggling a bit with Mignon G Eberhart’s The White Cockatoo just now – I’ll finish it but do wish it weren’t quite so overwrought.

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  4. Glad you enjoyed it. I always assumed ‘it never rains but it pours’ was a north of England expression, but that’s simply because I heard it so many times when I was growing up, often in the context of football results…

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  5. I always enjoy a Crofts review from you, but today what resonated most was the comment about the comfort read. I have a feeling I’m going to be reading a lot of the likes of Paul Halter, Agatha Christie, Herbert Brean (wait, what? You don’t have a big stack?), Carr, and Brand, rather than dabbling in the more risky fringes. I just finished an excellent Christie novel, and it was pure escapism.

    Perhaps if I had more opportunity to read it would be different, but as I only get the chance on the weekend, I’m looking for something to really take me out of the grind right now. I hate to dry up my supply, but I have to think I’m going to be digging into that stash of reads that I’m pretty sure I’ll like – Welcome to Paddington Fair, Invisible Green, Murder on the Way, Death Turns the Tables (was saving it for my final Carr), Heir Presumptive, They Can’t Hang Me, Death in High Heels, Heads You Lose, Sealed Room Murder, The Bishop’s Sword, anything by Locked Room International…

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    • The advantage of this philosophy is that you’ll soon have read some excellent books, and will have more time in your life to get excited about them with fellow fans…AND you’ll”ve been happier for knowing that you’re reading high quality fiction — honestly, I can’t see a flaw in this anywhere.

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