#813: “French was close to the truth, hideously, damnably close…” – The 9.50 Up Express [ss] (2020) by Freeman Wills Crofts [ed. Tony Medawar]

I know what you’ve been thinking: “For such an apparently avowed fan of Freeman Wills Crofts, that Invisible Event guy hasn’t exactly jumped on the recent collection from Crippen & Landru…”. Well checkmate, my friend. Check. Mate.

The 9.50 Up Express and Other Stories (2020) has been long-anticiapted at The Invisible Event — I remember editor Tony Medawar mentioning it at the Bodies from the Library conference back in 2018 — and would appear to collect the remaining prose stories as-yet uncollected elsewhere, as well as a couple of scripts (one for radio, one for the stage) featuring Crofts’ series detective, Joseph French. Split into three parts — nine DCI French tales plus those two scripts, two tales featuring his juvenile sleuth Robin Brand, and two non-series shorts — this is topped by Crofts’ essay ‘Meet Inspector French’ (1934), which I did not realise was originally read by Crofts himself on the radio, and tailed by the essay ‘Why I Write Detective Stories’ (1935) and the decidedly non-canon French script ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ (1938) in which, with delirious abandon and tongue wedged firmly in cheek, French and the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard set about solving the murder detailed in that rhyme.

The very outer layer of this onion is composed of two fabulous pieces of work: at the front, an overview of Crofts’ life and work completed with the insight and thoroughness that we’ve come to expect from Medawar, and at the back a bibliography of Crofts’ novels, short fiction, radio plays, stage plays, non-fiction, personal appearances, and parodies of his work. This latter is especially impressive given the tendency it would appear Crofts had for repurposing short stories in more than one place under more than one title (hardly uncommon for the era, I know) — so, for instance, ‘The Match’ (1939) herein was reworked and published as ‘Mr. Sefton, Murderer’ (1944), and then reworked again as ‘The Case of the Old Gun’ (1947) for the collection Murderers Make Mistakes (1947). The sheer range of work encompassed by this bibliography is phenomenal, and the effort involved in getting it right doesn’t bear considering.

The collection as a whole is delightful. I’ve read none of Crofts’ short work outside of the collaborative efforts The Floating Admiral (1931), The Scoop’ (1931), and Six Against the Yard (1936) and, while I can’t deny that the man’s strengths probably lie more in the longer form, some of the mostly very short pieces here, written for the Evening Standard newspaper, display a genuine acuity with final-line delights that are the friend of such fiction. At times you can almost feel his frustration at not being able to outline the criminals’ schemes in more detail, but like Edmund Crispin he possesses a good eye for the sort of petard by which shorter stories see their malefactors hoist.

Before we go any further, however, there is an elephant in this particular room.

“Ohno! I hope it doesn’t squash me…!”

It’s not nice having to say this, but it cannot be ignored: the typesetting of this book is simply appalling. Along with persistent misspellings there are multiple typographcal errors on most pages (double spaces between words, spaces in the middle of words, weird sudden punctuation) and simple things like the spaces between paragraphs are wildly inconsistent. One story is in a different size font to the rest of the book. Even a thoroughly disinterested proof-read would have fixed solidly half of these — most of the not inconsiderable amount of self-published fiction I’ve encountered contains far fewer errors-per-word than this — and it’s a genuine shame to see a publisher of Crippen & Landru’s prestige put out something in which such basics have been neglected.

However, onward to the contents.

Part I: The Casebook of Inspector French

Having read Crofts’ frst sixteen books — up to Mystery on Southampton Water, a.k.a. Crime on the Solent (1934) — and his 22nd, Antidote to Venom (1938) it’s interesting to see how much DNA certain of these stories share with that latter work rather than the former. With the exception of the 70-page stage play During the Night (1949), a reworking of his impossible crime novel Sudden Death (1932), these are all classical inverted mysteries in structure: told from the perspective of the criminals first before French investigates and (spoilers?) catches his man.

Take ‘The Hunt Ball Murder’ (1943) — a reworking of ‘The Hunt Ball’ (1937), which was itself revised as ‘The Case of the Hunt Ball’ (1947) — in which we are privy to the fact that Howard Skeffington feels pushed into murdering Justin Holt from the first paragraph. We’re kept in the loop in every regard of Skeffington’s motivations (we shall talk about motivations in due course) but, as with Antidote to Venom, we’re crucially not shown the moment of the crime nor the precise actions undertaken. When the trap snaps shut, it’s as much a surprise to us as it is the killer. Or consider ‘Teamwork Felonious’ (1953), a.k.a. ‘Fatal Teamwork’, a.k.a. ‘Teamwork’ in which, again as with Venom, two men team up to commit murder so that neither may have opportunity to oversee the whole undertaking and so both hope to avoid suspicion.

Elsewhere, and this is where the Crispin comparison comes in, the minute oversights that would form simply one of the rococo flourishes of Crofts’ novels are the single destabilising point in otherwise intelligent schemes. ‘Fingerprints’ (1952), a.k.a. ‘Flaw in a Masterpiece’ repurposes an old trick — seen in the likes of The Heel of Achilles (1950) by E. & M,A, Radford — but doesn’t hang around trying to build castles of confoundment out of such small beer (oof, I apologise for that mixed metaphor). ‘The Vertical Line’ (1935) has a very neat idea, probably lost on the majority of modern audiences, that again highlights the ways a foolproof method of murder is often anything but. These don’t all work — ‘The Faulty Stroke’ (1952) is overly simplistic, though as such well-utilised in a newspaper story — but the Croftian principle of physical evidence and facts that don’t explain it is a strong thread throughout, an especially apt turn of phrase given the closing moments of ‘Dark Waters’ (1953).

The best of these are ingenious, though. ‘The Match’ (1939) is unfortinately titled, because it draws your attention to the genius piece of reasoning that sees the otherwise flawless scheme exploded, and being longr than most of the rrest has time to examine the pressures that suddenly come to bear and prove so important in scuppering the murderer’s intent:

But as he stood there with the sweat running down his forehead, it came to him that never again in this world would he know peace. Always that gaping wound would haunt him, always that choking cry would ring in his ears. Already, not a minute after the crime, he would have given everything he had if only he could recall it.

To a certain extent, the horror evinced after the murder is committed even after the most cautious preparations — and it’s nearly always after much consideration that such a conclusion is reached — is the moral standfast Crofts’ takes direction from. Once you murder someone, you are irrevocably changed, so that all the planing beforehand was done by a different person who would not make the mistakes you, with blood on your hands, now stumble into. The oversight in ‘The Target’ (1953) is possibly the best punchline to an unfunny joke the genre has ever provided in this regard, and the way in which the conditions that make ideal the situation for murder in the radio play ‘The 9.50 Up Express’ (1942) provide the very clue that spoils it — seriously, now, anyone who thought of hiding a murder by dumping a body on railway tracks, after all the failed attempts in fiction, deserves what’s coming to them — only drives this point home further. And, again, the horror of murder as a real act is part of the undoing that allows this:

ACKROYD: (Slightly hysterical) But don’t you realise it? We’re murderers! Murderers!

Incidentally, that radio play is pretty damn good. Crofts was never a master of naturalistic dialogue, and the need for a radio script to provide clarification of action through speech is suited to the vaguely stilted way all his characters speak anyway. Removed of the need to also explain in prose whats happening, he seems to have found the medium that might have seen his star rise even higher had he committed himself to it more fully. I’m not complaining, I love the guy’s novels and wouldn’t have it any other way, but classic radio might have lost a genuine star when Crofts opted to concentrate on prose-led stories rather than dialogue-fuelled ones. I’ve read none of Crofts’ other radio plays, but I’m very, very interested to see what’s out there now I’ve encountered this one.

“I’m still here, by the way…!”

The stage play During the Night (1949) is the fourth iteration of Sudden Death (1932), having been first the play Inspector French (1937) and then another play entitled Chief Inspector French (1944) — reflecting, perhaps, the promotion he received ten years earlier. The principle is the same here as in the novel — a woman found gassed in her room, which has an electronically-operated bolt on the door which was locked in the presence of a witness when the victim was alone inside — but the solution completely different and there’s no second murder. The different solution, far less technical than the novel, and so better suited to a stage play, would be something of a let down in that book, and as such the decision to change it was a good one (the, er, technology involved was also probably more familiar in 1949 than it was when the novel came out). Some good visual clues would work well on the stage, too, showing again a perceptive appreciation of the different form of delivery, but the killer here is decidedly dimmer than the novel and, for my money, the novel represents the superior form of the mystery.

Does anyone know, incidentally, how this version of the play compares to the two earlier versions? As the first proper Country House Mystery he wrote, Sudden Death is an obvious choice for a book to adapt, but Crofts’ endless tinkering with this stage version must have been motivated by a dissatisfaction somewhere…

As a collected body of work, these stories show the way Crofts was able to turn certainties of innocence into cast iron certainties of guilt with some genuinely brilliant reversals of thinking — that 20 minute buffer in ‘The Vertical Line’ is simply ingenious — as well as his own technical imagination when it came to inventive means of death. When you’re brought in on the scheme in that story, it’s actually pretty smart, and when you realise how the various experiments carried out in ‘The Match’ are going to kill a man without his killer being anywhere near him, there is again a certain pleasure to be found in a writer having that level of nous to deploy for our entertainment. Thankfully he also shows up the unavoidable flaws in these schemes, too, but until they’re pointed out they often won’t occur to the reader (or, y’know, maybe I’m just projecting here because they didn’t occur to this reader…).

Given the brevity of a lot of these, there’s little space for French himself to emerge as much more than a dogged investigator, but given the thoroughness with which he approaches all his cases you can sympathise when he finds himself wishing for “some short cut, some royal road, almost, to the criminal” — the man might be human after all! The two plays give him some time to display actual personality — chuckling over a “hoary trick” to acquire a suspect’s fingerprints, or ragging Sergeant Carter for having temporised a completely ludicrous explanation for the crime:

FRENCH: You didn’t ask him if he’d been sleepwalking?
CARTER: (Injured) I thought that wasn’t half a bad turn.
FRENCH: Oh, you did, did you? Well, you ought to know. You give a pretty good exhibition of it half your time.

There’s no doubt French is more of the “ordinary humdrum citizen” Crofts talks about in that closing essay, but simply because he isn’t a “character” doesn’t mean he can have none. You, of course, see more of him in the novels — and it’s nice to know that his long-desired elevation to Detective Chief Inspector (or “Chief Detective Inspector” as he styles himself here in one instance) didn’t lessen the opportunities to get into the field as he had feared in Mystery on Southampton Water. A world with Joseph French trapped behind a desk, sending others out to do the tedious routine work at which he so excels, is hardly one in which I’d feel comfortable.

Part II: The Casebook of Robin Brand

When I spoke to Tony Medawar about this collection, I was delighted to learn that a second Robin Brand short story existed, and that it was to be included herein. ‘Perilous Journey’ (1949) came two years after Brand’s sole appearance in a novel with Young Robin Brand Detective (1947) — Medawar is quite correct in that there’s no comma in the title, though, yeesh, the fingers itch to put one in — and was followed a year later by ‘Danger in Shroude Valley’ (1950) (included in the recent reprint of The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922)). Amusingly, at the start of ‘Perilous Journey’ there’s a Watson-esque reference to yet more cases (He had– but that, as the books say, is another story.”), implying Crofts may have had plans for even more Brand cases…but, well, this sort of Blyton-esque adventuring was probably going out of vogue by the time Crofts came to it and so I can well believe that the demand for more was faint.

The story sees Brand and his friend Jack ‘Mock Turtle’ Carr — there’s surely an origin tale in that nickname, though Crofts tells us it exists “for unknown reasons” — happen upon men removing furniture from a house in a way that intelligent observation leads Brand to believe is a robbery in progress. When the boys are themselves captured by the criminals, they must find a way to escape and spread news of the crime.

The Brand stories — you can read my thoughs on ‘Danger in Shroude Valley’ here because, let’s face it, I’m going on a bit — are entertaining for the way they use peril in a manner that is very real, and resolve themselves through the sort of actions that you feel two young teenagers would devise. There’s an element of luck involved here, and you have to smile at the way master of details Crofts shrugs off Brand being carried up “eight flights of grimy uncarpeted stairs” while tied to a chair as no sort of difficulty at all, but the key thing is how intelligently this is genuinely aimed at a younger crowd. The final line is seeped in Blytoniana to banish the fears of the preceding peril, but the lingering psychological wounds of kidnap, imprisonment, and near murder aren’t, perhaps, the best of impressions on which to finish such a tale.

Having the two stories together here is a lovely way to cap Robin Brand’s brief career, and since it seems wildly unlilkely that anyone is going to reprint his novel I once again recommend tracking it down. If nothing else, it gives an insight into the modern phenomenon of Big Name Authors writing for younger readers, but it’s also a decidedly more rigorous exploration of youthful detection than you’ll get from, say, The Five Find-Outers (love them though I do).

“Stiiiiill heeeeeeere…”

Part III: Other Stories

Two standalone stories comprise this final section, ‘James Alcorn’s Oversight’ (1945) and ‘Murder by Deputy’ (1945). These are so similar to the equally short preceding Joseph French stories that it’s something of a mystery why French doesn’t feature. Perhaps it’s because the schemes are so simple to unravel, thus requiring none of French’s relentlessness. Indeed, both are ‘stingers’ in a way, their final lines swiftly and pleasingly overturning the confidence the criminals have displayed to that point — they’re more spiritual brothers to ‘Dark Waters’, now I think about it, which equally doesn’t really require ‘Soapy Joe’s’ talents. Indeed, ‘Murder by Deputy’ is so simple in its undoing that it’s tempting to read it as a sort of self-conscious parody of Crofts’ more typical fare. I laughed at the closing line, and I’m pretty sure that’s what Crofts intended.

What these share with the French stories herein is the setup of a man — were Crofts’ criminals ever women, or would it be a spoiler to have that answered? — who, by means fair or foul, finds himself at one time or another in trouble on account of money. Within this, however, Crofts finds a way to utilise societal norms and expectations to either evoke some sympathy with the criminal or to find them suddenly, bitterly, unthinkingly resorting to murder and then, in the panic I mentioned above, convincing themselves that only in a cover-up can security be found. Indeed, upon committing his murder, James Alcorn’s first horrified reflection is that “their meeting that evening was to have been a duel of wits, not of physical strength”. A punch to the chin, and unfortunate landing…and everything changes. ‘The Target’ sees murder committed in almost identical circumstances, except that the provoking moment is the sneering disdain of a father who will not entertain a certain suitor for his daughter’s hand.

In the back of everything is a fear of scandal — see how Skeffington buys time in ‘The Hunt Ball Murder’ by threatening action for defamation of character, hinting darkly at the social denunciation this would doubtless engender. Unlucky speculations on the stock market, falling into the grip of a moneylender, saving their family from the ignominy associated with bankruptcy or imprisonment…truly, for Crofts, the pursuit of money is the root of all evil (there’s irony here, surely, given how much money he would have made writing about this precise moral flaw…not, of course that you’d ever accuse him of having taken the short-cuts that see his criminals come so undone). At times, too, a resentment for the preceding generation creeps in, as in ‘Teamwork Felonious’ and ‘Murder by Deputy’, where the refusal of funds by a wealthy forebear is instantly transformed into homicidal rage. The generation gap between those who lived through both world wars an the young upstarts who came after them is rich ground for the crime writer of this era, and the schism between the two can be easily traced to any succeeding (and, indeed, preceding) generations.

Even when the criminals take a moment to reflect — on two separate occasions Crofts has his felon-to-be reflect on “Crippen, Mahon, Rouse and a host of others” who have gone this way and failed — something between desperation, wounded pride, and hubris sees them follow the path to a destination we can see long in advance. It seems bizarre in this age that a man caught cheating at cards would rather kill the man who has caught him than retire from his gentlman’s club with nothing said, but the pressures of the age bleed through superbly, possibly because Crofts was so used to using them that he could communicate their importance with the brevity this shorter for of tale requires. I’m not sure I have much more than this to say about it, but it’s a fascinating seam to encounter time and again in such a small space. And, if nothing else, this collection has tuaght me that the truest way to avoid detection in such an instance is to dispose of the key evidence by more varied means than simply chucking it in the nearest body of water. Like, c’mon, guys; are you serious about this murdering or not?

~

Ye gods, that was a lot of thoughts. Suffice to say, this was loads of fun, and only increases my anticipation for the remaining of Crofts’ work I have to encounter in the years ahead. It seems he wrote quite a few radio plays which may not have been collected so maybe, maybe there might be more to come…? Fingers crossed!

~

10 thoughts on “#813: “French was close to the truth, hideously, damnably close…” – The 9.50 Up Express [ss] (2020) by Freeman Wills Crofts [ed. Tony Medawar]

    • Yeah, there’s been practically nothing about it, but then I feel like most C&L books that aren’t by someone with the surname Hoch tend to suffer the same fate.

      To tha end, let me also mention the recently-released Never Trust a Partner by Robert Edward Eckles. I know nothing about it except that Brian Skupin is a fan, and that’s good enough for me!

      Like

  1. Thank you, I enjoyed that thoughtful review. I shall look for the book. One mild observation, though, if I may? If you are going to criticise someone for typos and spelling mistakes, your own work must be perfect. You may want to run a spell-check over your text!

    Like

    • Must it? Does it invalidate my point if I make a couple of spelling mistakes in criticising a prestige publisher with access to the resources for a full proof-read, especially given the severity of the low standard of error-checking in a book that they’re asking $32 for? And I criticised more than just the spelling errors — the formatting is all over the place, lines break halfway through, spaces appear in the middle of words, the font changes size for one story, a closing speech mark is represented by a comma and a colon…are my criticisms of those points valid because none of them happened in my post, but the one about spellings isn’t?

      Seriously, now; that way madness lies.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for the review. The only Crofts I’ve read is his short story from Six Against the Yard, and I was impressed with his attention to details regarding the killer’s scheme.
    Since During the Night is a reworking of Sudden Death, which one would you say has the better version of the impossible crime? I’d like to start that one

    Liked by 1 person

      • Quite understandable; there’s a lot going on in the above, I’d expect some of it to drift from the memory by the time you reach the end. That’s how I know you actually read it all…!

        Liked by 1 person

    • That story in Six Against is pretty bloody fabulous, isn’t it? I’d read that before my of his novels, and it really put him on my radar…then I had to get over how dull everyone seemed to think he was, the fools, but the important thing is that I made it here eventually 😄

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.