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!
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.
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)
Crime at Guildford, a.k.a. The Crime at Nornes (1935)
The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)
The 9.50 Up Express and Other Stories [ss] (2020) ed. Tony Medawar
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.