#724: The 12.30 from Croydon, a.k.a. Wilful and Premeditated (1934) by Freeman Wills Crofts

12.30 from Croydon

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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.

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See also

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.

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22 thoughts on “#724: The 12.30 from Croydon, a.k.a. Wilful and Premeditated (1934) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Thanks for the review. Sounds like this is one to skip for me as it’s an inverted mystery. You’ve reviewed enough Crofts titles to put together a top 5 ranking! 😏

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  2. I actually had this slated as my next Crofts read, maybe I’ll switch to Hog’s Back or Antidote instead. I’ve had a devil of a time getting back to Crofts simply because I keep coming across yet another book that I desperately want to read next. I’m pretty impressed by how many you’ve managed to add to the list over the past year or so.

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    • I’m intrigued how much I could have added to someone’s wishlist, mainly because I look back over my own reading for this year and feel as if it’s been a little underwhelming. There have been some great books, some great authors, and some wonderful discoveries…but on the whole I feel a little disappointed in my 2020 reading at present.

      Or maybe that’s just how I feel about 2020 🙂

      I also know what you mean about wanting to get back to an author and then just finding more and more to read. My own bookshelves are a distracting nightmare on that front — need to get to Herbert Brean, but there’s Carr and Connington and Crofts and Rice and Halter and Yokomizo and Kemelman and Freeman and Lanteaume and White and Lejeune and McGerr and… all tripping over each other Three Stooges-style every time I walk into the room. Plus Boucher and Woolrich and Hughes and Carr reprints on the horizon. At this rate, I’ll never read another book again for all the books I have to read.

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      • I just read my first Carr novel since… I think… May? I haven’t read a Norman Berrow book in a year, which is crazy given how much I loved The Footprints of Satan. And then I have all of these winter mysteries that I want to read, and of course that’s getting in the way of both Freemans, Penny, Boucher, Brean…

        I’ve had a fun variety of reads this year though. In some cases there were books that I was really looking forward to that didn’t turn out to be what I had hoped for (About the Murder of a Startled Lady, The Owner Lies Dead, Deadman’s Gift, Death of a Ghost), but then there were gems like Heir Presumptive, The Red Right Hand, Four Corners, Murder at Hazelmoor, and Cottage Sinister. Plus I got to play around with some new authors like Hugh Holman. Oh yeah, and I did a bit of a gluttonous binge back at the beginning of the lockdown with Invisible Green, There is a Tide, Come to Paddington Fair, and Murder on the Way. But yeah, I’ve had a difficult time progressing with any one author.

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        • For my part, this is the year that I started R. Austin Freeman and began to see the appeal of J.J. Connington, but there’s also a lot of dreck that was cleared from my TBR in the couple of months I didn’t blog, plus a bunch of self-published reading which I wasn’t going to sully the blog with…so it’s a mixed bag.

          Some great titles leap out — A Kiss Before Dying, Hardly a Man is Now Alive, The Honjin Murders, The Heel of Achilles, The Three Tiers of Fantasy, This Way Out, The Thursday Murder Club — but, man, I dunno. It’s a weird mix.

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  3. I was excited to see this crop up on my list of new posts as this is probably the book that sold me on Crofts as a writer and came right at the start of my interest in inverted mysteries. I think you make some very fair points about the last third of the novel, though I appreciated the way French lurks in the background. I also think you make some good points about the contradictions inherent in Charles’ character.
    Southampton is definitely in an inverted style though it does feel quite different structurally. I will look forward to reading what you make of it.

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    • I find it interesting that, as Martin Edwards notes in his introduction, Dorothy L. Sayers felt Sudden Death was a novel where Crofts was groping for a new formula, because it’s this title which — having read all his preceding works — feels far more exploratory. The fact that the final third just repeats what was already stated, and that he would go on to improve the sense of mystery in Antidote to Venom, actually make this feel far more uncertain: though it could be argued that he’s simply trying out new clothes here (he’s certainly not dismissive of that final third, going into all the necessary detail) and then soon after found a cut that’s more to his liking.

      Death on the Way — the book between Sudden Death and this — is far thinner a prospect anyway, stretching out a minimum of plot to a somehow novel-length undertaking. So maybe he was just delighted at being able to throw in the additional complications of an inverted mystery to fill out a longer narrative. I guess we’ll never know!

      Either way, I can see how this — being pretty much a prototype for the inverted mystery, to which many wrinkles would be added over the years — might get someone interested in the form…or might equally convince someone to never pick up another of its type ever again 😄

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  4. JJ – Based on your recommendations, I have begun to read Crofts. I am not an inverted mystery fan so have to pick carefully … but Sea, Starvel and Sudden Death were excellent.

    Whether it is yours, Ben’s, Kate’s, Aidan’s, Tomcat’s, PuzzleDoctor’s, Nick’s, Christian’s, Laurie’s, John’s, Curtis’, etc. blogs, you continue to highlight great books that I otherwise would never know. Thanks for that.

    P.S. Good to hear though that it is not just my TBR pile that resembles an avalanche. It seems you, Tomcat and many others suffer the same (a good problem to have!).

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    • Scott, I’m delighted to think that someone else has found some joy in the reading of Crofts. It obviously helps that he’s being more widely reprinted now, but with the glut of reprints we’re experiencing I suppose there’s always the risk that people now might not get to him for having too much choice 😄 And, yes, our tastes seem to align: Sea, Starvel, Sudden Death are great books. I can recommend John Magill to you, too, on those grounds, as well as The Cask and The Ponson Case.

      And, if the urge to try something inverted does ever creep up on you, Antidote to Venom might be a good halfway house: you know who the killers are, but since you only follow one of them around you’re kept in the dark regarding the means of execution. It’s a good balancing act, and I can see how it came out of Crofts’ dissatisfaction with the form as he experienced it here.

      I hope your reading continues to be enjoyable, and your TBR mountainous…!

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  5. hmm…I was so much with Charles that while reading it did not once feel that the last third is a repetition of facts stated earlier . Probably because I did not spot the loopholes in Charles planning until they were exposed in court .Till then I thought that Charles is as good as the Jackal (Forsyth) when it comes to meticulous planning .

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    • Oh, Victor you’re most assuredly the lucky one here, and doubtless got out of this book what Crofts would have intended. I have a tendency to over-think — and over-read — in the genre, and so it’s rare that I get too caught up in the immediate “now” of the story, as I’m always looking ahead to the events that will result. It’s a blessing and a curse 🙂

      However, when I do get caught up only in the present, I experience that exact sense of engagement and involvement you talk about, and I know how much more i enjoy a book when it’s able to do this to me. Plus, I was hoping — given Crofts’ ingenious mind — that something clever would have eluded me for all my looking ahead…alas, not to be.

      And, the even better news from your perspective is that you have all Crofts’ even more ingenious titles to hopefully experience even greater enjoyment with. If you haven’t read Sir John Magill’s last Journey, for instance, then you have some true delights ahead of you.

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      • True.. I read for pleasure only ,even after reading about 150 of these GAD mysteries in past 4 years . I sometimes can see whats going to happen next or catch on to the who or how but not very frequently.
        I have read Magill ..it is indeed deviously complex and thoroughly satisfying.I also adored Hogs back and Channel,which were my first 2 crofts. Till now ,except the greatest case ,I have not been able to see through crofts plotting entirely.I deduced the “who and why” in sudden death but not the “how”.
        For meticulous plotting , Crofts is just unbeatable.Unlike Christie almost nothing is hidden from the reader but still its mighty difficult to see through .I hope they print all the Crofts…I intend to collect as many as I can..

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        • I’m keeping everything crossed for more Crofts reprints — I guess we have to hope that COVID hasn’t hit the sales of this sort of thing too hard and so there are still the people in jobs to continue such excellent work.

          And, of course, what we now need is someone possessed of similar talent to deceive with a similarly large output to also get excited about. 2020 was, among other things, the year I discovered the joy of R. Austin Freeman and gave up on liking Christopher bush…so that’s 2021 going to bring in their place?

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          • I have read a few short stories and novellas by Austin Freeman and liked them..but somehow he is very scarce on print and I do not like reading his novels on Kindle .I have not yet read a Christopher Bush..please suggest a couple of books .
            Although I dont quite understand why John Rhode and the Radfords are not reprinted en masse while Bush and Flynn gets the full treatment.

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            • I can’t in all good conscience recommend Bush, as I’ve read two of what I’m reliably informed are his best books — Cut-Throat and The Case of the April Fools — and found them both wanting in quite significant ways. Practically everyone else disagrees with me, so I’m not saying he’s without merit…you’ll just have to look elsewhere for recommendations.

              Are you in the UK? Because the House of Stratus editions of RAF’s books are available in paperback through Amazon — and are quite sensibly priced, too. They don’t float to the top when you search, but (whatever your local Amazon franchise) if you search “Austin Freeman House of Stratus” they may make themselves known. That’s how I’ve bought all but one of mine, because I’m also struggling with ebook reading (I blame my eyes).

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  6. I am in India and those house of stratus editions are not listed.There are some independent publishers edition and on demand prints but they look like some technical books for college use.I will wait a while for RAF …till some actual books becomes available..

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