#701: Death on the Way, a.k.a. Double Death (1932) by Freeman Wills Crofts

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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.

Inspector French 2020

~

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)
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)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)

36 thoughts on “#701: Death on the Way, a.k.a. Double Death (1932) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. 1. I’m glad I’m not the only one vexed by the new WordPress editor. Granted, I put time into figuring the old one out the first time round and haven’t bothered with the new one yet. I get the sense it’s going to be more easy to control, but man, it’s like they hid everything. I suddenly feel very set in my ways.
    2. It’s amazing how many of these Crofts novels that we have republished at this point and you have me pining to return to him.
    3. You’re not getting away without reviewing The Sleeping Sphinx.

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    • 1. I feel astonishingly stuck in my ways, but then I’ve also spent 5 years using very specific and deliberate layouts (not, I’m sure, that anyone else really notices or cares) and having that disrupted is rather vexing. In time I may come to love the blocks editor, but I really do hate change. I’m getting too old to be the audience any sort of platform is chasing, and things like this only serve to make me increasingly aware of my irrelevance…!

      2. You absolutely should return to Crofts, as should everyone. I’ll admit that my feelings for him are somewhat towards the “Frankly Obsessed” end of the scale, but he does so much that’s great — and is so conscientious about trying new things inside the genre with each book — that I think it would take a very hard or stubborn heart not to be able to admire what he’s contributing to the overall GADsphere.

      3. I did review The Sleeping Sphinx, just not on this blog… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “The extended periods where interchangeable engineers discuss concrete and excavations without any context or explanation…”
    What fun!

    Seriously, though, this sounds rather disappointing. I bought it with Sudden Death (Crofts’s feminine HIBK novel) and Man Overboard!, the three ‘new’ releases I haven’t read.

    Barzun & Taylor called it one of their favourites (with reservations – technically admirable, human side poor). The New York Times, though, loathed it: “Inspector French of Scotland Yard, the Crofts perennial, is perhaps the dullest performer in contemporary crime fiction, and his plodding labours are frequently more of a bore than a pleasure to follow.”

    Oh, and “ballads amatory and declamatory” ‘(Gilbert & Sullivan).

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    • I’ll have to confess here a compete working ignorance of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s not that I’ve avoided them, I’ve just never encountered them.

      French’s dullness really does seem to get a lot of backs up, eh? And yet there is, I’d suggest, a lot more to the man than such (ahem) declamatory castigations would allow. But, no, he’s not a character detective, and more power to him for that, says I!

      And, yes, overall this one doesn’t hit the heights of all the French novels since his inception, and in the context of those works that is a bit of a shame, but he’s allowed one duff every ten books, right? A 90% success rate is, y’know, okay I suppose…

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      • Yes, French is quietly human without being ostentatious – an intelligent, competent professional man interested in the world around him. He is, after all, the model for every naturalistic police hero from Poole to Wexford. But his life is blessedly free from trauma, angst, ulcers, and wayward daughters.

        Yes, I suppose – oh – The Cask, The Groote Park Murder, The Starvel Tragedy, The Sea Mystery, and Sir John Magill’s Last Journey entitle Crofts to a duff book. That said, his ’30s books do decline; there are good ones like Southampton Water and Found Floating, but Jane Vosper is pretty damn tedious, and his ’40s books even more so; Death of a Train is a killer.

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  3. Welcome back briefly, JJ – you’ve been missed. 🙂 Coincidentally, I’ve just purchased ‘The Cask’ off my Kindle, which I plan to make my next read.

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    • I hope you didn’t buy the thoroughly unofficial Abridged Version of The Cask that some dude decided he’d put out on Kindle — one of the oddest exploitations of copyright law I’ve yet encountered in GAD.

      The Cask is a fascinating book — famously too long, of course, but so rich in detail, and so fully imagined in how it seeks to explore this new concept of fictional detection. I wonder if that style of story ever caught on 🤔

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      • There are quite a few cheap versions of “The Cask” on my local Kindle store, excluding the abridged version – which wasn’t even the cheapest. 😅 I wasn’t sure sure what to make of them, and eventually settled for what I was certain was a legitimate edition: the Collins Detective Crime Club reprint. Which took some effort hunting down, as the dodgy versions kept surfacing at the top of my searches on the Amazon website. In any case its legitimacy was certainly guaranteed by the fact that it was almost 14 times more expensive than the cheapest edition available!

        Now that you tell me “The Cask” is famously too long, perhaps the abridged edition makes some sense… 😑

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        • I say it’s “famously” too long because Crofts himself admitted that he thought he’d get a bigger advance for a longer book, and so wrote a more complex conclusion that he would have otherwise. Personally, I wouldn’t excise a single word from it.

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          • Nor would I; it’s magisterial. The scope of the book is extraordinary; it combines the ampleur of a Victorian novel with the focused investigation and ingenuity of the Golden Age. A landmark.

            (The Coles’ Death of a Millionaire arguably outdoes The Cask; there are flashbacks to the Russian Revolution and a condemnation of the Establishment.)

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            • Not a single one — no-one has reprinted them, and I have yet to run across anything in my GAD-hunting. I am, of course, aware of their politics, but that’s as far as it goes.

              Any suggestions to watch out for?

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            • Death of a Millionaire is probably their best book, but I also recommend The Brooklyn Murders, The Man from the River, Dead Man’s Watch, and Death in the Quarry.

              “In a Telephone Cabinet” has a brilliant method. You’ll find it in Sayers’ Detection, Mystery & Horror Vol. II (one of the essentials).

              Liked by 1 person

            • I didn’t love ‘In a Telephone Cabinet’ — it’s also in the Otto Penzler impossible crime collection — but it as entertainingly written.

              Thanks for the recommendations; I’ve been having a book-sort over the last few days, and quite by chance today discovered that I do in fact own Death of a Millionaire in green Penguin. What are the odds?! Sure as hell don’t remember buying it, so I’ve no idea how long I’ve had it.

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          • I think The Cask being famously too long is what prevented it from being a genuine classic, but it’s still great and deserving to be the landmark where the road to the Golden Age began.

            Crofts himself admitted that he thought he’d get a bigger advance for a longer book, and so wrote a more complex conclusion that he would have otherwise.

            This is why I think Crofts wrote The Sea Mystery, complete with references to The Cask, to make good on his mistake. Crofts strikes me as someone who would do that. He would have seen it as a technical imperfection and be annoyed by it.

            Anyway, I look forward to reading Sudden Death! I guess you all figured that one out some time ago.

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            • Don’t tell me you want the “abridged” version of The Cask!

              No, Crofts justifies his length – even if he didn’t think so. Authors are seldom the best judges of their own work.

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            • Don’t tell me you want the “abridged” version of The Cask!

              Never! I want my detective fiction unabridged, uncensored and judged by what it intended to do. The Cask is, as you said, magisterial and extraordinary in scope, but the rushed ending with the convenient confession and off-page suicide was unworthy of a genuine classic. It showed Crofts had gone on too long and hurled the story to the last page.

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  4. Truly of day to celebrate…Three Crofts reprints and The Invisible Event comes out of hiatus! Thanks for, instead of false hope of a perfect read, an honest review which details the good and the not so good. I will of course be reading this, because for me, any Crofts is worth the read.

    And now the interminable wait for the next set of reprints…and another post on TIE 🙄.

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    • I’m aware of the slightly self-defeating purpose behind a review timed to encourage people to buy an author’s books that is in itself not a ringing endorsement for that very author…but I also can’t help it if the book I read ain’t a classic 😄 Dolores Gordon-Smith has said on Facebook that this was for her a notably less enjoyable title, implying that pretty much the remainder of FWC’s output is worth the time of the average reader, and I’d agree that almost anything else I’ve read to this point shows him off to better ends. So I’m hoping that’s the message that others take away from this, too…

      Excitingly, my next Crofts is his first inverted mystery, The 12:30 from Croydon, a.k.a. Wilful and Premeditated (1934) which the British Library reprinted waaaaaay back when. I’m excited for two reasons, both implied above: Crofts’ inverted mysteries are generally what he seems to be remembered for (in terms of specific contributions to the genre, I mean, rather than the formless and tedious malaise of complaint about how timetable-obsessed he is) and the BL titles are what got me into him in the first place, so I have high hopes their excellent selection criteria continue here, too 🙂

      As for more TIE: October. Probably.

      Liked by 1 person

        • AtV was my second Crofts, after Hog’s Back Mystery, and it landed superbly for me — I loved the inverted elements, and thought the investigation was extremely well-juggled. Bodes well for future inverteds from this source, I agree 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t know who this Friedman Wills Crofts is that you speak of – judging by the name, probably some Humdrum hack – but I need to talk about this @%#(*@#U!! WordPress “improvement!” Accompanying your post in my inbox were THREE e-mails from WP, the first telling me how wonderful the new block layout system was, the second asking me if I’m ready to switch or too old and decrepit to leave the Old Ways behind, and number three asking me if I had read e-mail #1. I hate change, too, particularly of a technological kind (I think Zoom has “improved” itself three times since the lockdown!), and I don’t know whether I should push the Doomsday button and kiss my easy time with WP goodbye. Frankly, I don’t see a bit of difference in the look of your latest post than before.

    So before you return to Books 1 – 10 of Ken Lozito’s Genesis: First Colony saga, please advise!!

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    • I’m on Book 17 of the First Colony saga, I’ll have you know. But, anyway…

      I dunno what to suggest, since I’ve not yet made peace with it myself. The machinations involved in making this post look like the old ones were simply too labyrinthine to want to complete every single time — seriously, it’ll take me about as long to format everything as it does to type it up in the first place — and so I need to either find a better way to do this or find a new layout…and I don’t like either option. I’m busy, and I hate learning new things, but I have no choice but to persevere and see.

      Though the folks at WordPress, I must say, gave exceptionally personalised and detailed feedback when I emailed them with my general displeasure at this new setup — I imagine they’re getting bored of explaining this again and again, but the guy had clearly paid attention to the most pressing of my issues and tried to provide sufficient detail in his explanations on what to do. I am just being very slow in reading and acting on it because a) it’s not urgent yet and b) I’m really, really hoping that they reinstate the user interface they’ve retired so I don’t have to learn this New Stuff. But I know they’re not going to, so I should really get on with it, eh?

      God, I hate feeling old and redundant.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I read Death On The Way in this modern reprint recently, and I agree that it’s rather unsatisfactory – particularly because of the way the murderer behaves at the very end, which is just ridiculously self-defeating. Also, I can’t see what the motive is for the last (attempted) crime. Still, I like it enough that I’ll be rereading it sooner or later.

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  7. JJ – thanks for the review. I haven’t read any Crofts yet and want to start with a good one. Which do you recommend (e.g., Sudden Death, Box Office, Sea Mystery, something else)? I would like the first experience to be a strong one.

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    • If I were to rank these first 14 books (which is not what you asked, but bear with me), I’d go:

      14. Pit-Prop
      13. Way
      12. Groote
      11. Greatest Case
      10. Cheyne
      9. Channel
      8. Cask
      7. Box Office
      6. Sudden Death
      5. Hog’s Back
      4. Magill
      3. Ponson
      2. Starvel
      1. Sea

      With the possible exception of The Box Office Murders, any of the top 11 there would make a good starting point — they’re all different (Cheyne has an adventurous aspect, Ponson is The Red House Mystery if it was written with any rigour, etc) so it depends what you like, but all show Crofts doing things very well indeed and would make for superb starting points.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Sea Mystery is very good, although it does have a (for me, dreadful) passage where French calculates how and when a crate got into the sea. This was the Crofts book that got me into him, four years after I’d dismissed him as unreadable.

        That was due to the triple whammy of Fatal Venture (a very slow look at the menace of gambling, with French in mufti), The Loss of the Jane Vosper (a too technical techno-thriller about exploding ships at sea), and “The Mystery of the Sleeping-Car Express” (a short story which, as Mike Grost said, needs a 3D model to follow the solution). I was a teenager used to Doyle, Christie, and Chesterton, and who worshipped Carr.

        Starvel is superb; three dead bodies in a burnt-out house, in a case that gets steadily more and more involved, with a dazzling series of false (or are they?) solutions and reversals. This is perhaps Crofts’s most Thorndykey book. Adapted for BBC radio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCXsirIbbBQ&t=2567s.

        Sir John Magill’s Last Journey is Crofts’s ultimate alibi novel, involving tricky manoeuvres with trains, boats, and horse-drawn zeppelin on both sides of the Irish Sea. A tour de force.

        Cask is (as I say above) a landmark in the genre, and perhaps even better than the other landmark of 1920, Agatha Christie’s Styles. And one alibi is provided by a performance of Berlioz’s Troyens at La Monnaie in Brussels, my old home. (Jacques Barzun – a Berlioz enthusiast – was delighted.)

        I’d swap The Groote Park Murder for The Ponson Case. Groote involves murders in South Africa and Scotland, lovingly detailed but swift investigation, and a clever twist; perhaps rather Edwardian in ambience. Ponson isn’t at all bad; I remember some clever stuff about footprints, but was underwhelmed by the solution – a bit too much early Doyle avenger.

        I’d also place Channel and Greatest Case above Hog’s Back, Box Office, or Cheyne. The Pit-Prop Syndicate is very dull.

        A couple that JJ didn’t mention: Mystery on Southampton Water combines the inverted story with a whodunnit to great effect.

        Found Floating is Crofts’s most Agatha Christie-ish mystery: murder on a Greek cruise, with more character interest and a deft surprise! solution. Since this is Crofts, he spends a chapter making love to the ship’s engines.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. JJ and Nick – thanks for the great suggestions. There seems to be a number of good choices, but I will make Starvel my first experience with Crofts given you both like it and it has been reprinted.

    Found Floating also sounds like my type of GAD fiction but hasn’t been reprinted yet and used copies are too expensive after searching for it. Hopefully it will get reprinted in the future.

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  9. I think I enjoyed this a bit more than you did, while agreeing it was flawed. Possibly some of the office politics and boarding house background resonated more for me. In addition (INDIRECT SPOILER WARNING) it was interesting for me seeing him playing (albeit in a less proficient way) with some of Christie’s misdirection tricks.
    I have commented elsewhere that it is entertaining to think that such an allegedly boring detective was regularly in danger of being killed by suspects and played fast and loose with the legality of investigation.
    I wonder what you make of the Bellairs’s Littlejohn books – for me they are surprisingly good at invoking small town corruption.

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    • Re; Bellairs, I have the Dead Shall be Raised/Murder of a Quack twofer from the British Library but it, like everything, is on the hellscape of Mount TBR and will see the light of day…at some point. Not read anything by him yet, and these two were recommended as a god place to start — so stay tuned 🙂

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