No, I’m not back from hiatus. But if you think I’m going to let today’s reissue of three more Freeman Wills Crofts novels — Sudden Death (1932), Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), and Crime at Guildford (1935) — pass without comment, you’re mad. Plus, in my absence WordPress has foisted a new post-writing setup upon us all, and I need some practice because I hate change. But the world’s a negative enough place right now, so let’s dwell on the exemplary work done by HarperCollins in bringing Crofts back for us to enjoy; some people have been waiting years to be able to afford some of these titles, and it’s a wonderful thing to have them in general circulation.
Death on the Way, a.k.a. Double Death (1932) represents the first time that Crofts published two novels in a year, and it’s difficult not to wonder if this was an earlier manuscript he had sitting around half-completed. Not only is the milieu of an engineering works for the widening of a stretch of Dorset railroad straight out of Crofts’ own pre-authorial career, but the mystery itself is oddly muted for large chunks, with Inspector Joseph French a somewhat occasional presence in a setting that’s explained with nothing like the usual clarity and precision of Crofts’ best work. No doubt our author is familiar with the oddly-named professions and functionaries that pepper the place, and the extended periods where interchangeable engineers discuss concrete and excavations without any context or explanation probably rolled off his typewriter with nary a pause, but it lacks the pin-sharp precision that was Crofts’ forte. He was never the most exciting prose stylist the genre ever produced, but throughout the machinations of even his most tortuous plots Crofts always kept you well aware of how each person featured and what each development represented.
Let’s not, however, pretend that it’s wholly a lost cause. The engineers and their roles may blur into one faceless mass at times, but Crofts is also a delight in how he effortlessly jinks between sly pieces of characterisation: Sergeant Hart’s blank resentment upon credit being taken for his work at the first inquest, French’s (internal) frustrations with the “pompous little ass” who is keen to make much hay from a useful disclosure, the attempts to curtail the loquacity of Mr. Bradstreet…in this and more, Crofts displays his typical light touch, making some of his somewhat bland cast breathe for the brief period they contribute to the story. And French himself is again filled out by the little frustrations that pepper the unglamorous task of unmasking a murderer…
…the sort of slow, patient investigation which French hated, but of which he had to do so much… he would have to learn where all the [suspects] were at the time of the crime; who had alibis and who hadn’t; also a tedious and wearisome process and as often as not unproductive.
And the man’s vanity is not neglected, either, such as the report to his superiors in which “being human he made the most of the portion which he had solved” seeking to minimise the opportunity for anyone to dwell on the larger questions he has yet to penetrate. Plus, see his (again, entirely internal) delight when making arguably the key discovery of the book:
No imagination, that was what was wrong with these local police! It was no wonder they had to send for help to the Yard.
A more kindred spirit one could perhaps not hope to find.
The detection here, while limited, is good — patiently and realistically uncovering the subterfuge at the heart of the plot by the contributions of people doing their jobs conscientiously, without it becoming risible how Earnest and Noble everyone is. The declaration of evidence isn’t great, it must be said, with a distinctly Late Victorian air to the revelations that come in the closing stages, and I’m in two minds as to whether this is Crofts simply trying out something he hasn’t done for a while (I remain a firm believer in each of his novels being a very deliberate attempt to try something new) or simply a hangover from this being an early manuscript readdressed. The villain is uncovered in a way that feels both obvious and unprepared-for, which is never a satisfying sensation, and the sheer quantity of noblesse oblige swilling around — even in the face of, like, the death penalty — is sufficient to drown a horse. The reader will, however, draw their own conclusions.
As ever, there are some lovely contemporary details to pick up on, too: a casual early mention of shell shock, one character attending a social event referred to only as a “bun worry”, or the fact that the handles of the steps of a steam train would require wiping down before someone would use them to climb aboard. I learned a new word — “amatory” — and also got a good giggle out of the character who on more than one occasion refers to his family as “my wife and the child” as if he’s unsure of his own swain’s gender. Only in the 1930s, eh? Well, and all of human history before that, of course.
So, this is a bit of a mixed bag. When it gets going it’s great, as Crofts was the ne plus ultra of this kind of mystery, but it’s far from the purest demonstration of his talents. I shall not exhort you against buying it — I need you to buy the reprints so that more follow, hopefully bringing the majority of Croft’s works to a bookshop near you over time — but do start elsewhere if you’re new to the man. There’s something reassuring about this style of mystery that seems oddly suited to these dwindling estival days, and so the timing of these new reprints couldn’t be better. Go and get ’em, and I’ll see you here for more FWC before too long.
Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event: