The writing of an inverted mystery must surely bring with it a certain amount of release. Your typical detective novel, after all, keeps the villain, their motives, their opportunity, and oftentimes their method occluded from the reader whilst ideally also dropping all manner of subtle hints about them, where the inverted mystery — in which we know the criminal and their motivation from the off, see the crime committed, and must then watch the detective figure it out — removes every single one of these difficulties, requiring only the investigation which would have happened in a ‘straight’ novel of detection anyway.
Freeman Wills Crofts’ first inverted mystery novel The 12.30 from Croydon (1934) shows both a confident and a faltering hand at work. There’s confidence in the departure that it represents from his previous 14 books — though his killers weren’t always the most successfully occluded, let’s be honest — with the sheer absence of any obfuscation, as well as in the tones he adopts throughout: the joyful delight of a young girl taking an aeroplane ride in the opening chapter, the gradual approach of financial difficulties of our murderer Charles Swinburn, and the darkening of his outlook as murder becomes his only out. Additionally, it’s surely quite a coup in this genre during this era to encourage so much sympathy for a murderer: no swivel-eyed loon he, but a fundamentally decent man pulled down by his own pathetic lusts and hubris — not commendable attributes, but undeniably and recognisably human ones.
This humanity extends, too, to the conception of murder as the way out of his difficulties. The perseverations could feel a little tiresome given that our opening chapter provided the corpse we know he’s responsible for creating, but it’s worth taking the time to gradually demolish the abhorrence any normal person would feel when undertaking these actions.
He was not a murderer. Charles shivered at the very idea. Murder! And what lay behind murder! No, no, he could never think of such a thing.
There’s an element of the ludicrous to be found in the contradiction at the heart of Charles, too, who will happily throw his personal savings into a failing business to help secure the livelihoods of his workforce — Crofts’ writing from this era never ignores the difficulties people had in finding and keeping paying work — and then run himself to financial ruin after Una Mellor, a woman who is only lukewarm on him at best (the description of their meetings as “a somewhat chequered slice of heaven” is simply divine, and Una’s “tantalizing and unsatisfactory” conduct throughout is a wonderful horror to observe). There’s a conscience in him, as evinced by his inability to sit and chat amiably with his uncle once murder becomes his course, but his bad decisions in personal matters are what bring him down.
It doesn’t hurt that our intended victim is far from sympathetic — “You want to get something for nothing, don’t you?” he goads Charles, who has already ruined himself financially keeping the business afloat — and would surely be a candidate for offing even without Una’s influence. The process of enacting his plan taught me a lot about the signing of a poison book (“[W]e have to know the purchaser personally, or he has to be vouched for to us by someone we know personally”) but, that point of interest aside, the entire undertaking is somewhat sedate and entirely unsurprising given what we’ve read elsewhere. Some of the historical detail that fascinates me creeps through — for those of you keeping score, cars are able to achieve the unimaginable speeds of seventy miles an hour now — but, if you’ve read more than one of these, there are no surprises in the offing.
When the police investigation begins, things get trickier — Charles’ “fatal gift for imagination” creating yet more problems while Inspector Joseph French flits wraith-like in and out of the narrative at intervals (Inspector Appleby of the local force is given, thankfully, insufficient opportunity to start pouring forth the literary quotations). Charles dismisses French on account of the apparent disinterest he takes in the salient details (“[he] might be called actually inept” — famous last words), but even as a minor character ‘Soapy Joe’ (man, am I not sorry to see the back of that sobriquet…) still has moments to compel him, like the compassion shown when Charles is eventually arrested and Crofts is able to exult in some good, old-fashioned Catholic doubt pouring forth:
Somehow, alone there in the semi-darkness, the excellence of his own plans seemed less convincing than ever before. Stories he had read recurred to him in which the guilty had made perfect plans, but in all cases they had broken down. Those double tales of Austin Freeman’s! All the criminals had been so sure of their safety and the perfection of their schemes, and in every case these watertight schemes had been like sieves; just honeycombed with errors and oversights and clues.
It’s in these closing stages that the faltering of Crofts’ handling shows most tellingly. The case French outlines on the implications of cumulative evidence is compelling, no doubt, but it’s a real bugbear of mine when inverted mysteries are resolved in this way. The joy of the ‘howcatchem’ is in those honeycombed errors and oversights and clues, and — while it’s amusing to reflect on how certain steps that Charles took to ensure his security are in fact the very things that damn him — the final hundred or so pages contain nothing that isn’t just a restatement of what we already know in the exact light which we saw it first time around. French’s clean statement of facts is great reading (the discussion of the envelope is a lovely era-appropriate touch, especially as I remember being taught out of that habit at primary school) but redundant, and because there’s no twist, no devastating surprise, it feels like an author unsure of what else to do with his setup.
In this context, it’s easy to see why Crofts — never one to repeat himself — tweaked his approach for the similarly-inverted Antidote to Venom (1938) and maintained a far sharper narrative tension as a result. My understanding is that his next book, Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), also tells its story in an inverted manner, and I’m interested to see what lessons from this he felt needed to be addressed immediately in that (don’t tell me in the comments, I’ll get to it soon). As it stands, The 12.30 from Croydon is an interesting point in the history of GAD, and contains some of the fine minor character work that marks out Crofts’ legitimate interest in the people who fill out his stories (“Gairns seated himself gingerly on the edge of the chair and sat waiting for what was to come. Here was a difficulty, and it was Charles’s part to meet it and his, Gairns’s, to assist by doing what he was told.”). It won’t make you a devotee of Crofts or the inverted mystery if you have misgivings about either, but it’s also hard to dismiss completely on any particular account.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: A rather interesting, if not entirely successful, experiment… The murderer is well-drawn—which is necessary, because this is a psychological thriller heavily influenced by Francis Iles, rather than an inverted story in the R. Austin Freeman manner, and so the emphasis is on the murderer as character rather than as quarry.
Jason Half: [A] well-paced tale with an admirable amount of intrigue, character psychology, and even pathos. I will be very curious to learn whether this 1934 inverted mystery is an anomaly among Crofts’ many other works or if I have breezily underestimated a writer I never really explored. But Croydon, at least, is quite winning in its construction and execution, and while puzzle and whodunit fans may feel cheated to view proceedings from the perspective of the killer, I found that the approach gave the story an immediacy and humanity that I hadn’t expected from the author.
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