#755: Mystery on Southampton Water, a.k.a. Crime on the Solent (1934) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Mystery on Southampton Water

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For evidence of the restless enthusiasm Freeman Wills Crofts brought to the writing of detective fiction, look no further than the two books he published in 1934. The first — The 12.30 from Croydon, a.k.a. Wilful and Premeditated — was his first inverted mystery, a fairly standard affair in which we are wise to the killer’s reasons, actions, and thoughts from the beginning and which Inspector Joseph French then unpicks quickly in the closing chapters. No doubt Crofts was interested in this new form, but simply repeating a formula which, if we’re honest, gets a little bit long-winded in the closing stages did not appeal. And so changes were wrought for a second stab.

Mystery on Southampton Water, a.k.a. Crime on the Solent (1934) starts in the same manner of its predecessor in that a business concern — here the Joymount Rapid Hardening Cement Manufacturing Company, Limited located just outside Southampton on the English south coast — faces financial ruin if things don’t improve quickly. Their nearest competition — Messrs. Haviland & Mairs, Ltd., of Chayle, Isle of Wight, located a mere handful of miles away across the water of the Solent — have been taking business away from Joymount at an alarming rate. Suspicions are raised, rumours of some improved, cheaper manufacturing process abound. Investigation is encouraged.

In this regard, Croydon and Southampton Water have the same DNA. Crofts’ novels of the 1930s so far seem to be acutely aware of the straitened times brought about by the crash of the financial markets, and his motives spring more from a desire to improve the situation of those who are struggling than an avaricious and rapacious need of money for money’s sake. “I suppose you know that thousands of clerks are walking the streets today because they can’t get jobs?” young Walter Brand is asked when he initially balks at the suggestion of some industrial espionage — the desperate need for security eventually convincing him that “if it wasn’t quite straight, it wasn’t so very crooked…And it wouldn’t hurt the Chayle people: there was ample room for both firms.” So Brand and company chemist Frederick King engage in some nighttime reconnaissance to “pick the brains” of the Chayle works and see if Joymount can deduce the money-saving process that might save them.

Enter, after some misfortune occurs during that reconnaissance, the newly-promoted Chief Inspector Joseph French, in an uncommonly reflective mood at first — finding his long-desired escalation in position not quite all he had hoped, his “rise in position mean[ing] a corresponding increase in loneliness” as he is now “a little further from his former colleagues” and must focus now more with internal issues than the solving of complex crimes. In a genre — and from a writer — not exactly exalted for the subtler observations of character, there’s a lovely sense of French rediscovering some joy in the freedom the Chayle Case brings him:

French looked with a thrill on these historic sheets of water, whose names he had known since he was a boy. Far away to the south-east he could see on the horizon two of the three old forts that he knew were there, looking like the tops of round postal pillar boxes projecting from the sea. It brought back tales he had read as a child, of ships of the line, frigates and corvettes, lying in Spithead, waiting for the wind that would take them out to meet the French or the Spanish or the Dutch.

Not only does this reinvigoration contribute to French’s characteristically speedy cutting to the heart of the matter, it contrasts superbly with Brand having “got[ten] over his scruples and…looking forward like a boy to the adventure” prior to the disaster that presaged French’s appearance. The two sides of the coin balance expertly in this regard: the ingeniously foresighted King and meticulously insightful French locked, ere they know it, in combat over the puzzle. For all King’s affected insouciance as he reassures the increasingly unsettled Brand — who, frankly, emotes like someone out of a telenovella and is the last person I’d enter into a criminal enterprise with — the criminals would be thoroughly shaken to see how neatly French is able to peel back the layers of their obfuscation; indeed, at the halfway stage of the book French has the problem all but solved…the twist being that he doesn’t know it.

Of the plot from this point I shall say very little, and advise caution in consulting the chapter titles ahead of reading the book. And this is where the growth from Crofts’ previous book comes in: another crime occurs, but now the reader is unaware of how it was done and who is guilty — though, naturally, a fairly informed guess can be made on the latter point. The final section then sees French in pure detection mode, bringing the full force of his meticulous nature to bear on an increasingly puzzling problem that is disappointing only in a) how technical the (very clever) answer proves to be and b) that no map is provided for the key piece of reasoning (describing physical space is not Crofts’ metier, it must be said). You see him plough through false starts, dead ends, the works — damn, I find this steady testing and gradual optimisation of a theory so joyful. There are leaps of intuition, sure, but they come after many hours spent following up the wrong trails and, crucially, French’s hunches don’t always prove correct.

French saw that he was skating on extraordinarily thin ice, and yet thin ice was better than no support at all. Suppose one of his possibilities were the truth? Was there any test as to which it might be?

Crofts doesn’t always write the most invigorating prose (“He turned this over in his mind like a cow chewing the cud.” — hmmmm), but his love of the outdoors breathes through every single trip over the Solent (“They were floating on an illimitable extent of black water, surrounded with a faintly luminous haze, and apparently alone in the universe.”) and he throws in some lovely moments: the name of the steamship used in the final phase, say, and this dry reflection on the perils of public offers of help:

[T]he public mind is usually best seen when the description of a wanted individual has been published. In such cases the individual in question is invariably possessed of the marvellous power of reduplication. He is seen in scores of places simultaneously, details of each appearance being sedulously furnished to the police. The worst of it is that no single one of these communications can be dismissed without investigation, since, however unlikely, it may contain something of value. Many a cul-de-sac of inquiry did French and his helpers explore as a result of the misplaced zeal of the public.

C’mon, that “sedulously furnished” is gorgeous. Plus, how many authors from this, or any, era could be relied upon (at another point in the narrative) to casually toss “desideratum” into their protagonist’s reflections?

Of historical interest is perhaps only that the expression “a fly dog” appears to have been the precursor to “a sly dog”, and Crofts doubles down on the thoroughly unsexy world of cement manufacturing by giving us a brief explanation of the processes involved. Of most interest to this reader, however, is the improvement on plot structure that Crofts evidently felt this style of mystery required: the second half here is almost a practice run for the semi-inverted Antidote to Venom (1938) which again improves on the narrative structure and stretches the better half of this book out to a novel of its own. I’m aware that more inverted tales await me from Crofts’ ever-questing mind, and I’m naturally very intrigued to see what problems Chief Inspector French comes up against next.

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See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: A distinction between this book and the two other Crofts inverted mysteries that I have read is that the novel features multiple would-be criminals working together. This does not mean that they are equally culpable in the decisions that get made but it is interesting to see how these characters manage to communicate and discover whether they will ultimately support each others’ stories. This cooperation which extends to support for each others’ alibis will also prove an intriguing complication for French to deal with as he attempts to piece the story together.

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7 thoughts on “#755: Mystery on Southampton Water, a.k.a. Crime on the Solent (1934) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this and was glad to find that you had a similarly positive experience with it. The structure here is really good and shows Crofts experimenting with the form, trying to marry the inverted and conventional styles which I think he does well.

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    • It’s interesting to think what Crofts saw when he wrote these types of books — how he perceived the need for some sort of puzzle for the reader. It felt to me as if something in The 12.30 from Croydon was dissatisfying to him, and the experience of this book coming immediately answer does, I feel, bear witness to that.

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    • Thank-you, very kind of you to say so. I’m something of a Crofts fan, so I can’t help but get a little enthusiastic where his work is involved 🙂

      I’ve read his first 16 books + Antidote to Venom and the YA novel Young Robin Brand, Detective — on that coverage, my favourites are currently probably:

      1. The Sea Mystery
      2. The Starvel Hollow Tragedy
      3. Sir John Magill’s Last Journey
      4. The Ponson Case
      5. Sudden Death/The Cask

      If you’re looking for somewhere to start, I’d advise Starvel Hollow from the above. Does a lot of what is more traditional in other authors from the era. Elsewhere, Crofts becomes more…Croftian, and is slightly more of an acquired taste. But if one convinces you, others will doubtless follow easily!

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  2. I enjoyed this one for much the same reasons as you did. i wonder whether it was peculiar to FWC to make his murderers less reprehensible because at least part of their motive was to protect the jobs of their employees. It does help place this in the 1930s.

    I think desideratum was also used by a headmaster’s butler in Angela Thirkell’s Summer half which was written around the same time.

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    • Sorry, should have added that in inverted mystery novels that having your killer have a understandable motive does make it easier to spend a novel mostly in their company. Pre abolition of capital punishments it also made it possible to go for the suicide before arrest conclusion a decent opt out.

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    • Crofts was, I maintain, interested in widening the scope of the Golden Age novel of detection, and so had little interest in villains as swivel-eyed loons slaughtering their way to a title and position. His criminals — whether petty and grabbing, or more sympathetic and altruistic — become interesting from very early in his career. And, yes, no doubt this also helps make spending more time with them a little more palatable — hilarious as Malice Aforethought is, I don’t think you’d get Crofts indulging too much in “Well, I want to have sex with someone other than my wife” plots somehow…

      Thanks for the follow-up on desideratum, too — it’s a wonderful word, and good to keep an eye out for.

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