Hector Macdonald’s excellent thriller The Storm Prophet (2007) was the first book to ever make me consider the terror of being trapped aboard a sinking boat in the open sea. 15 years later, the opening chapters of The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936) by Freeman Wills Crofts, in which the eponymous freighter is shaken by mysterious explosions and must be abandoned, brought those anxieties back, despite the calm competence of her crew and some surprisingly elegiac imagery (“[the lifeboats] turned with one consent and began rowing with her, determined to see the end…Not a man but was heartily thankful to be out of her, and yet she was their home.”).
Back on dry land, the Land & Sea Insurance Co., Ltd must establish the cause of the explosions following their client’s claim of £105,000 (roughly £8 million today) for lighting units being shipped to various South American ports, and investigator John Sutton is engaged for this purpose. And then, before anyone knows what Sutton might have uncovered — “The one unsatisfactory point about Sutton was that he was extraordinarily secretive. It was hard to get him to make regular reports of his proceedings. He seemed to have a rooted objection to describing his activities – until he had attained a result” — the man vanishes, and his tearful, fearful wife approaches The Yard to request that his sometime friend Chief Inspector Joseph French be deployed to find out what may have happened.
Oh, to be back in the arms of Freeman Wills Crofts, a man whose unstinting commitment to rigorous detection is rivalled only by his intense reluctance to write the same sort of book twice. Here, the first third or so is concerned with matters maritime, albeit from the inconveniencing position of inquest halls and boardroom meetings that add an extra level of complication for the men trying to find out what happened to the Jane Vosper. Then French spends until the halfway point trying to pick up Sutton’s trail and establish any new information that might progress things, only to run into blank wall after blank wall so that, by the halfway stage, all seems as impenetrable as before, with French fearing some “ghastly oversight” that might unsettle his career. And it’s here that I can level the only real fault with this book: restating the same information several times, precise to the point of pedantry on very little available information, this circling of the same ground gets just a trifle repetitive.
The second half, though, springs to magnificent life almost immediately, predicated on one of those thin fibres of hope that Crofts is so often able to tease out through the institution of the police — a huge organisation ravening for any and all information related to some event or person. The wonder of Crofts for me is how magnificently compelling he makes this sort of plotting, perhaps because you’re always keenly aware of how his setbacks nevertheless close off an avenue just as his leaps and discoveries progress him, keeping the stakes in sight while also not shying away from the man himself embroiled in the work. Stoic in the face of yet another “wearisome and thankless” facet of his investigation, French’s exhausted acceptance that his job might be “unpleasant” but is “all in the day’s work” before getting on with yet more of the same is characteristic of the man. Some people call this boring; I think they’re missing out.
Given that one or two minor characters manage to compel themselves to me in most of Crofts’ works, he does a superb line in thumbnail sketches here. Be it Captain Hassell facing the sinking of his ship and “[a]fraid not so much for his own skin, though even that was still precious to him. But afraid for his men. He couldn’t risk their lives too far”, the director of the Land & Sea, who “[n]aturally…wished to avoid payment if this were possible, but…was not going to suggest, anything which was not strictly honourable. To evade its liabilities on some legal quibble was to him the worst possible policy for an insurance company”, or several others, Crofts’ society is populated largely with decent people who have The Right Thing uppermost in their minds at all times. Elsewhere, he elicits neat pictures through subtle humour: Sutton, “whose ideas of lunch ran more towards Porterhouse steak and onions, washed down by draught stout”, having to settle for omelettes and coffee, or the two members of staff of the Land & Sea damned with faint praise thusly:
Both were good men – if they weren’t they wouldn’t have remained long under Jeffrey’s management, but neither was outstanding, and for the same reason.
Perhaps the one other fault I can level at this concerns Sergeant Carter, who has now clearly replaced the human Swiss Army Knife that was Sergeant Ormsby from French’s earlier cases — perhaps as a way of distancing the now Chief Inspector from the borderline-criminous activities his creator has pre-promotion Inspector French commit in Ormsby’s company. I miss Ormsby, he had great potential to become a much-valued addition to Crofts’ lore, and I find the non-entity that is Carter, dragged around with French presumably because it’s procedurally correct rather than for plot purposes, hard to warm to. He at least gets to vouch an occasional opinion this time around, but otherwise he’s just…there, and easy enough to forget, and for some reason that makes him loom large in my mind. I feel rather like a parent churlishly refusing to warm to my offspring’s current beau because I liked their ex so much more, but there you go.
Don’t let this lull you into thinking that the second half is constructed with anything less than the rigour of Crofts’ usual endeavours as — alongside references to the Waratah and the Vestris, no doubt forgotten now in the public hunger for that other big boat that sank around the same time — he delivers a piece of watchmaker-precise construction that builds effortlessly, stalls only when he intends it to, and progresses through some subtle detection and compellingly humdrum insight to an answer whose final piece falls into place through another wonderful piece of subtle psychology. Were he not so deliberate in that carefully-judged first third I’d give this five stars, and it seems a shame to penalise the man for trying out something new…but I want you — possibly less of an acolyte of Crofts than I am — to go into this with reasonable expectations and hopefully come out having enjoyed it as much as I did.
Crofts, then, continues to serve up almost exactly what I want my classic detective fiction to provide: dense, well-constructed puzzles untangled by good old-fashioned intelligence and hard work, populated with memorable characters and informed by a typical Croftsian snapshot of a post-depression society, the public gallery at the inquest on the ship being crowded out by unemployed men (“Not a single woman or girl was present.”) seeking “relief from the dreadful tedium of their lives”. It’s also spiced with just a stir of the romance that must have imbued so many of the innovations of the age and which were obviously Crofts’ own fascination — the paragraph of French reflecting on the boats leaving ports in England to travel to exotic locales is divine. Sure, in an ideal world he’d provide a few more shocks to set me back on my heels, but that’s the beauty of this Golden Age detective fiction lark: even in the range Crofts offers there’s still ground to be made elsewhere. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten into this genre, and remain hugely grateful for the work done by previous generations to entertain us still all these years later.
Curtis Evans in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2012): After a bravura opening detailing the foundering of the ship, the next chapters follow the genesis of the investigation by an insurance company suspecting fraud. When the insurance investigator disappears, French is put on the case. What follows is the gradual uncovering by French and his team of a very clever yet credible crime. Here Crofts pays more attention to realistic police procedure and provides patient readers with a fascinating story, praised by both Nicolas Blake and Milward Kennedy.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: It’s always pleasing to be able to say that Julian Symons was wrong about his humdrum accusations and this is another opportunity to do so.
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