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.
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
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