#867: Crime at Guildford, a.k.a. The Crime at Nornes (1935) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Crime at Guildford

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Five members of the board of Nornes Limited, a London-based jewellers, meet one Saturday evening at the home of the company’s managing director to discuss the dwindling health of the business away from the prying eyes of their competitors.  On Sunday morning, one of the men is discovered dead in bed, and the doctor who is summoned to examine the body proves unwilling to offer a death certificate.  Little do Nornes, Ltd. know it, but their problems are only just beginning, as Monday morning reveals the execution of a theft that will sink their business if the loot is not recovered.  Enter DCI Joseph French.

After two books — The 12.30 from Croydon (1934) and Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) — which explored the possibilities of the inverted detective novel, Crofts is back to the ‘straight’ novel of detection here: the reader following the detective to discover the criminal, rather than knowing the criminal from the off and watching the hunter circle ever-closer to his prey. Continued from those books is Crofts’ keen interest in the impact of business failure upon the working man, however, with Norne himself reflecting early on that “on the Stock Exchange you can put an exact money value on fear: about the only way in the world it can be done” and one of the firm’s staff telling French that the theft is “a serious matter for people like myself, who are dependent on what they earn for their livelihood”. Say what you like about Crofts’ lack of character development, but I have yet to encounter another GAD author who was so very empathetic with the working classes.

Plot-wise, the two crimes herein get about as close to being impossible crime as you can without actually putting a toe over the line. The murdered man’s situation is summed up pithily thus:

“According to [the butler], no-one went into the room between ten o’clock and one. According to the doctor, [the victim] was suffocated before twelve. We seem to have got to a deadlock.”

…and the theft could only be accomplished by the acquisition of two keys, both of which are held by different men, neither of whom had the chance jointly or separately to effect the crime. Extra keys might exist — “a very old trick, occasionally practised by dishonest locksmiths” — but French’s meticulous (what else?) investigation establishes the impossibility of secret copies and the security of the two spares that do exist. How, then, could it have been done? The answer is somewhat ingenious and, while Crofts magnanimously acknowledges both in the dedication and a footnote at the moment of revelation that the idea was not his own, credit must be given for having the idea floated before him and folding it in with such grace to so masterfully-constructed a scheme. As a complete aside, I’ve seen an updated version of this exact thing worked in an episode of The Real Hustle, and it’s fascinating to see how the technology has developed so far to effectively the same ends.

French, and therefore Crofts, is also extremely cautious in simply assuming that there must be a link between the two crimes. The murder taking place in the same region as The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) brings back a character from that book, and French must prove that the two cases do more than simply involve the same people if he is to take responsibility for their solution. A large part of the narrative is concerned with why the murder would be necessary in order to allow the theft, or why the theft necessitated the murder, and it’s pleasing to see French chase down the mirages of false solutions in his attempts to establish what link, if any, exists. The answers to this may seem obvious to the reader but, when Crofts propounds possible theories about a third of the way through, many people will doubtless find much wind sucked from their sails (“To have reached a solution so soon seemed just a bit too good to be true” Crofts winkingly informs the impatient among you).

The actual answer, when it comes, raises an interesting point about the type of novel Crofts writes. It is true that the answers will be clear to anyone thinking ahead before French lights upon them, but Crofts seems rarely to have attempted the typical final-chapter Gotcha! amidst suspects gathered in the library which has become the dénouement of lore in the genre. The true procedural novel, it seems to me, is based not so much on the terminal surprise as the terminal establishment of guilt — that fatal moment when the long-suspected link joining the case together presents itself after much head-scratching and exhaustion. Now, true, we hardly expect French to falter, and so the uncovering of key, final evidence long after the guilty party has been under observation by Scotland Yard, and with maybe with five pages remaining, lacks for genuine tension, but particularly here, in light of the high rating I’m giving this, it’s important to expect of Crofts mastery of the exact book he set out to write rather than then sort of story you think you should be reading.

What I especially love about the structure of this is the little sniffs of verisimilitude that bring this down from the realm of pure intellectualised puzzle. At one point — stepp’d in so far that, should they wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er — the criminal will have had to face up to the entire endeavour not coming off, and their response to that is part of what raises this so highly in my estimations. I love a John Dickson Carr master criminal faultlessly pulling off a seventeen-point contortion, but the human frailty at the heart of Crofts’ detectives, criminals, and witnesses alike really does make him so very compelling. And it’s not simply their flaws that make them work, but the eloquence of even their smallest actions, such as the hotel manager who “wanted…French and everything connected with him to leave the hotel and vanish into oblivion” — hell, Crofts even manages to make his penchant for indulging in phonetic dialogue something of a coup of gorgeous characterisation, so he must be doing something right. Also, given Crofts’ strong stripe of religious conviction, it’s interesting that he allows so blatant a disregard for one of the Commandments and lets said malefactor go unpunished in any way…

And, of course, there’s Joseph French himself, the policeman’s policeman, who has “by this time quite got[ten] over the novelty of his promotion” and is as driven as always — giving vent to “a stream of rather ugly blasphemy” in a moment of exhausted frustration, revealing his feelings on capital punishment (“I’m always glad when a chap that murders [using this method] goes to the scaffold. Hanging’s about too good for him.”) and knowing to select his “oldest lounge suit” and his “shortest pipe” for night-time reconnaissance. The casual references to ‘the Blazing Car Murderer’ Alfred Rouse and the stoic acknowledgement that places like Hazebrouck, Bailleul, and Armentières are “burnt into the heart of every Englishman” simply round him out beautifully, and it’s probably fair to say that he has joined Carr’s creation Dr. Gideon Fell as one of my very, very favourite GAD sleuths.

Indeed, I’d be moved to suggest that the real crime at Guildford is how long this book had been out of print and so unavailable to those of us lacking deeper pockets. Thankfully, this reprint has resolved that issue, so there’s no excuse not to read it now. Enjoy!

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See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: It’s not necessarily the most explosive way to tell a story but interest is built by having the case slowly take shape and when movement toward the explanation is finally achieved, it feels truly earned. The reason it feels earned is that the situation, while initially appearing quite simple, is anything but. Ideas that may make sense of one crime are usually incompatible with the other. The challenge of reconciling these two problems and building a model that will satisfy them both is a huge one and while the reader should prepare for a lot of false starts, the journey as a whole will be a satisfying one.

Curtis Evans in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2012): Crime at Guildford is filled to abundance with ingenious elements, though it is rather imitative of Southampton Water in its basic design and one key joist in the plot span is shaky. Guildford involves the theft of a fortune in gems from Norne’s jewelers and the murder of one of the company’s executives. Much of the novel revolves around how keys to the company safe were obtained, a plot point repeated from Southampton Water, though admittedly with a different — and quite clever — mechanism. Additionally, there is some unfortunate travelogue near the end of the novel when Inspector French travels to the Netherlands. Still, Crime at Guildford stands as a fine example of the Golden Age detective novel.

Martin Edwards: Chief Inspector French comes on to the scene, and Crofts shifts his focus away from the misfortunes of the business, and on to the police inquiries. As usual, he charts the steps in the investigative process with such care and conviction that the rather pedestrian style of his storytelling doesn’t really matter. If anything, it lends further verisimilitude to the story.

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This Saturday sees the unveiling of the Agatha Christie titles that Brad, Moira, and I will be discussing in full spoiler detail for podcasts in April, July, and October. Over 400 votes have been cast thus far, so be sure to get yours in before the poll closes on Friday.

34 thoughts on “#867: Crime at Guildford, a.k.a. The Crime at Nornes (1935) by Freeman Wills Crofts

    • Well, yeah, I can’t disagree with your summary 😄 Also bear in mind that I’m a little obsessed with the little changes Crofts makes from book to book in order not to repeat himself, and the whole thing just worked for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s been while now since the last tranche of Crofts reprints appeared, or it seems that to me. I hope they will continue as it would be a real shame if the publishers were to give up on them at this stage.

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    • The Harper Collins Detective Club Facebook account published this very morning that Found Floating — the next French novel chronologically — was coming “soon” (unless I completely misunderstood their hint, of course 😄). So fingers crossed that’s an indication of a few more on the way…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So I am genuinely curious to know what it is that separates for you someone like Crofts from first-period Ellery Queen. Both have had accusations of being arid, mathematical equations disguised as mystery stories, devoid of complex character and emotion. I have never read any Crofts (though your continued positive reviews really make me wonder where to start…) and I do find it really interesting how these two seemingly-similar schools of mystery writing are viewed quite differently from many readers.

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    • Huh. What a great question.

      For me I’d say that Crofts writes the more realist form of detective story: ordinary men working at the limit of their ingenuity with the huge organisation of the police to help them. The cases progress slowly, but there’s always a sense of progress. Even if it’s combinatorial, running through possibilities only to hit a brick wall, Crofts is great at helping you understand why a particular piece of the investigation was useful despite ending in ostensible failure.

      Early EQ wants you to be dazzled. They want to be writing fast, brilliant novels of deduction where the genius insight of an individual progresses things in leaps and bounds, where longeurs of little advancement seem to contribute only to the intended effect of Ellery sweeping in and blowing everyone away with what he sees that others have missed.

      The tedium of routine is the point of Crofts’ books, highlighting the collective effort, whereas the tedium of Queen is simply tedious so that we are amazed by something that often isn’t that amazing, or worth having been delayed for the 40 pages it can take to be revealed. Sometimes this works for Queen, like the sequence in Greek Coffin with the clothes that are the wrong colour, but most of the time I — and this is only my perspective — find it hard to bear.

      They actually write very different styles of book. Queen writes novels for a Big Surprise, the traditional format of the genre where we gather the suspects and point a finger and everyone gasps — when they’re good, they’re very very good indeed. Crofts tells you everything as he goes, so you’re always clued in, and the endings are rarely a shock (though he completely blindsided me once). It would never occur to me to say they were similar authors, or types of detection or writing.

      Apologies if that’s unclear, I’m thinking as I write it out. Maybe I need to go and give this more thought, but I think I’d end up just repeating the above at greater length 🙂

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      • This is a very interesting and thoughtful response and I appreciate your consideration. My ignorance of Crofts I blame for conflating the two authors’ styles in my mind, but it sounds like they are aiming for two very different goals. I guess Crofts was championing the procedural form of mystery writing (dare I even draw a comparison to Law and Order …something about which I am equally as ignorant) whereas Queen was very much crafting a nuanced detective story. Yet, there are chapters in Queen which feel like they’re pushing in that direction. No one else seems all that interested in the bureaucracy of crime-solving like Queen was and I wonder if it’s fair to draw parallels there.

        I confess that most of this comes down to my own great personal enjoyment of the early Queen books. What you find tedious, I honestly find suspenseful. If the mystery novel is all about the forward momentum of getting closer and closer to the truth, then the Phase I Queen novels are just about the Platonic ideal.

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        • I can’t comment on Law and Order, I’m afraid, but, yes, the sense of Crofts being procedure-based and Queen being about the nuanced nature of clues and interpretations feels right.

          For me, Queen hits the pacing I’d like more appropriately in the middle period: Chinese Orange, Door Between, Halfway House…not as complex overall, but at leats not so opaque in their processing and analysis. And the clues feel better, too, rather than striving for the obscurity of the early titles.

          Crofts doesn’t really do subtle clues, because as soon as something is uncovered it’s used to drive the plot forward. I think that’s what particularly appeals to me, too — the sense of development feels more controlled even if (as in, say, The Pit-Prop Syndicate) it does come about after a moderate amount of no-doubt realistic waiting and waiting and waiting…

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      • I was a bit stunned when I first read Nick’s question, because it does seem so strange. I think you nail it in your answer, but I’ll repeat some of it in my own words.

        1. There is very little sense of progress in the early Ellery Queen novels. Everything gets searched and searched and searched. People get interviewed and interviewed and interviewed. It’s so incredibly tedious, and there’s no spark of revelation to tease the reader along. Crofts, on the other hand, is a constant feed of progress. Even in French’s failures there is a feeling of progress as he switches to another approach.

        2. There’s this light sense of soul permeating the Crofts books. French enjoys the scenery during a train ride, French enjoys a meal before picking back up on the case. French enjoys a stroll along a remote seaside cliff. I know this sounds so boring, but I’m comically there enjoying it with him. There’s none of that soul in the early Ellery Queen novels.

        When you add these points together, I’d summarize it as: Crofts is about the journey. And that’s a bit weird for me, because I read most GAD mysteries with a single minded desire to get to the solution. Not so with Crofts. With Crofts the solution is almost the reluctant end of the journey.

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        • It’s good to have another perspective from someone who has read both, and I think you’ve summarised it well. I understand the second point above is addressed more as we get into late period Queen and Wrightsville, but there’s certainly that distinction at this early stage.

          Anyone else want Crofts compared to a favourite author? I’ll do my best…

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    • You raise a point I’d never considered, in that this might be the first title (as in, the combination of words) in Crofts’ output that isn’t a necessarily good fit for the story. The problem here is that there is a single crime in Guildford and then a separate single crime at the Nornes HQ…so both titles work, with neither being entirely satisfactory.

      The Affair at Nornes, The Nornes Mystery, 2 Hog’s Back 2 Mysterious…all these would be better. Even something vague and pulpish like Chief Inspector French Takes the Case would sort of work. Huh.

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      • What I find interesting in this case is that both titles are basically “Crime at _____”. And someone at some point was apparently dissatisfied enough with place #1 in the title that they changed it to place #2. “The public isn’t going to buy Crime at Nornes! Change it to Crime at Guildford. Yes, yes…”

        I guess that’s a little similar to Murder at Hazelmoor and The Sittaford Mystery. I always found that one amusing for similar reasons.

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        • This was Crofts’ fifth book in a row to have a different title in the UK and US, so you have to wonder if they were just messing with him at this stage.

          As for weird renamings, it always struck me that changing Parker Pyne Investigates to Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective — a profession known for its investigating — was redundant in the most hilarious way.

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  3. I have three copies of this one now so I really ought to get around to it at some point – particularly since it has been so long since I last read a Crofts. Thank you for sharing that there are further reprints on their way – I missed that hint earlier!

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  4. This was not among my favourites because it was entirely a matter of “how” and I had guessed that halfway through the book.As a result the rest and particularly the last 3 chapters seemed very longwinded.Anyway I have now realised that the key of loving French everytime is to read the books after a gap of 6 months between each .With JDC , christie ,It’s OK to take three one after another but not Crofts .

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    • When I first read Crofts – The Hog’s back Mystery — I said in my review that I couldn’t do too ma y of these in a year, so I understand where you’re coming from. Now I’ve worked out his differences from a lot of what else I read, I reckon I could read about five in any twelve month period: he’s a great “resetter” for me, since I tend to run into a lot of disappointments in the puzzle fiction I tend to favour elsewhere, whereas I can reach for a Crofts and virtually guarantee I’ll at least enjoy it.

      I’m actually trying to read him more slowly, because this is my twentieth and that means I have only 17 left. I’m going to run out of Crofts and Carr in the next few years if I’m not careful, and as yet I have only R. Austin Freeman, Craig Rice, Cornell Woolrich, and J.J. Connington to fill that gap. And I’m reading all of them at the same time, and so I’m going to run out of everything before too long. Oh, god…!

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  5. Though I really enjoyed Nick F.’s Grandest Game review–“…the anti-climax takes place…”–I actually found the dialogue-heavy first chapter of this more enticing than all the other Crofts beginnings I’ve read after a review here. Your new elucidation of French’s strong points and Crofts’ narrative strategy definitely add to the momentum of wanting to finish this one–and, balancing the camps, Nick’s championing of the early Queens make me want to revisit them as well. So my own long GAD journey won’t be done anytime soon!

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    • One of the lovely things about this community is the range of opinions it contains — you can love or hate whoever you want and find someone who agrees with you. And we’re all intelligent enough not to get too uptight about it — hell, some people think Death on the Nile is a lousy book, and they’re probably allowed to walk around like a normal, trusted person — and to just have a lovely time doing our own thing.

      If this was YouTube, Brad would be making videos entitled 17 Times Jim Was Wrong About Ellery Queen, and it’d all be bitchy and back-bitey and no fun at all. Of coures, we’d all be making money off our content, too, so maybe that’s why we’re nice to each other — no click-baiting for sponsor money 😄😄

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