#945: Man Overboard!, a.k.a. Cold-Blooded Murder (1936) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Man Overboard

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Today sees the republication of Found Floating (1937), the twentieth of Freeman Wills Crofts’ novels and the sixteenth to feature (Chief) Inspector Joseph French, the first of eight reprints due between now and January 2023. And so let us turn our attention to Man Overboard, a.k.a. Cold-Blooded Murder (1936) — the fifteenth French novel and final entry in the last set of Crofts reprints — in which a man gets on a ferry in Belfast and is no longer aboard when it arrives in Liverpool…so what happened to him between those two points? Alas, in answering that question Crofts has written what is for me his first dud in 19 books.

Things start out well, with another deliberately-paced opening reminiscent of previous book The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936): young Pamela Grey and her affianced, Jack Penrose, brought in on a chemical scheme likely to net millions (hell, billions) if it is what is claimed. An emissary from a technical firm in Bristol is dispatched to examine the process and, during his return journey to report on his findings, disappears. The American title of this rather gives the game away, but a certain amount of time is spent trying to establish if accident or suicide might be the answer before we find ourselves mired in murder and Joseph French is brought into things.

The novel is most successful in its capturing of its minor characters, with the case followed from the perspectives of Pamela, French, Sergeant M’Clung — returning from the vastly superior, similarly Norn Ireland-invoking Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) — and the dead man’s uncle, all of whom have a chance to encounter plenty of minor faces. Whether it’s retired business magnate George Whiteside who “read three detective novels a week” and wryly turns down the offer of being driven to a demonstration because “there’s a contributory negligence clause in my life insurance”, Jack’s father whose hobby of cattle farming sees him “slipping across to England or the continent to study the life history of cows”, or a nameless porter whose surprise at his categorising of a suspect as “a well enough looking fella” seems to spring from the realisation “that such a thing could be true of anyone born outside the Province”, tiny little encounters are full of life and delight.

This extends to French — at one point settling down to a “snack” of “soup, steak and onions, [and] apple tart and cheese, washed down by a draught ale” — and M’Clung, whose pride in the efficacy of his brother Norther Irish officers should probably take a bit of a lick when it occurs to him that the case only progresses because of information uncovered by a civilian. Each will have their very human patience tested by the persistence of this case and its refusal to settle down once any sort of conclusion is reached. I was less enamoured of Pamela, who emotes in her chapters like a heroine in a silent movie, but the sense of the family who surround her is well-developed, and her relationship with Jack pleasingly straightforward.

Where the book stumbles, and stumbles near-fatally in my eyes, is in its plotting. Crofts, the arch constructor of wonderful schemes unpicked by clever developments whose progress is always keenly felt and well-framed, simply does not have enough plot to go around, and so once that deliberate opening is out of the way he resorts to the age-old tactic of simply repeating and repeating and repeating that which is already known, sprinkling in a new development briefly, and then repeating and repeating and repeating that new development. And then saying it again for good measure. Then he says it again, or has someone who hasn’t said it before say it. There’s a trial in the final third of this which is agony because of how it simply says again what has already been covered at least six times with no variation…and that’s at least the fifth time such a thing has happened.

The book suffers by welcoming any comparison to Magill by use of M’Clung, since that case was a legitimately brilliant piece of plotting, with developments bristling at every turn and so demanded the word count of a novel. The eventual solution to this, when reached, could have been covered in a short story — and surely the scheme wouldn’t have fooled a halfway decent pathologist (Dr. Thorndyke would have seen through it in an instant…) — and lacks anything close to ingenuity or clever reframing of previous events. It’s just…dull. Crofts is wise to the need for such realistic procedure to be followed…

“But that’s only guesswork, sir,” M’Clung pointed out. “You may suppose anything you like, but we can only act on evidence.”

…but, honestly, he feels wrung out after the brilliance of the Jane Vosper case written earlier in the same year (in fairness to the man, he’s been on a hot run for quite some time and is frankly overdue a duff one). It has some points of historical interest, such as a man using as an alibi his involvement in a bridge game when Agatha Christie would use that as the opportunity for commission of a murder in the same year, and Croft’s take on the legal system is intriguing…

The state is acting against the accused, why shouldn’t the state arrange for the trial to be fair? Why should private individuals have to pay huge sums to get justice? Suppose they hadn’t the money? Pam thought of the agony of having to put up with perfunctory or second-rate help because one couldn’t afford to give one’s loved one the best chance for his life. And apparently conviction or acquittal did depend pretty largely on who conducted the case for the defence.

…but this is easily the most minor work yet by an author who helped define the genre and had achieved wonderful things within its expectations. Still, anyone with a sizeable oeuvre will have written at least one, and my enthusiasm for the forthcoming reprints and the remaining titles in Crofts’ library remains undimmed. Bring on those reprints, I say, and let’s prove this to be the exception it surely is in Crofts’ library.


See also

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Crofts is absorbing as ever; his pace is not so much slow as ample and deliberate. I read the first 250 pages in a single sitting. (So much for tedium!) Since Sudden Death (1932) and The 12.30 from Croydon (1934), Crofts has steadily increased the character interest, telling part of the story from the perspective of the people involved in the case, rather than solely from the investigator’s. His characterisation here is neither deep nor vivid; only Pamela is developed in any depth, but she emerges as a sympathetic character. But this is neither the most detailed problem Crofts has offered, nor the most demanding.


11 thoughts on “#945: Man Overboard!, a.k.a. Cold-Blooded Murder (1936) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. After a successful decade-and-a-half in his second career, Crofts may have been experiencing increasing difficulty in conjuring up original plotlines. Devising new variations of old ideas provided a solution. The ‘man overboard’ situation had appeared briefly in “Greatest Case”, while the ‘wrong man’ development had featured in three of the four pre-French novels.
    The creation of a sympathetic female figure as a conduit into the drama (an attempt to extend readership among women?) had been seen earlier in “Starvell Tragedy” and “Sudden Death”. The introductory character could be dropped from the narrative once the investigation is underway; Pamela Grey stays the distance because her “wholesome” nature centres on devotion to her man.
    Famously Crofts accepted advice to excise from “The Cask” the courtroom sequences he had written. He did get into court with two trials in “Groote Park Murder”, but these took up no more than a quarter of a chapter. More fully in “12:30 from Croydon” he conveyed the fluctuations of mood, in reaction to the respective arguments by Prosecution and Defence counsel, of an accused we knew to be guilty. Perhaps Crofts felt he owed his audience the complete works of this final stage of the criminal justice system, both formally and emotionally, depicting it through both eyes and heart of a woman liable to lose her beloved.
    One of the interesting aspects of the ‘wrong man’ scenario in cases where French appears is the way Crofts engineers circumstances to ensure the reputation of his great creation cannot be smirched by accusations of promoting a miscarriage of justice.


    • Oh, no doubt the pressure of writing 19 books in 16 years plays a part here — I don’t even mind the repetition of ideas form other books of his, since that’s going to be inevitable with any writer sitting in the same genre for this long. I think, too, that two books published in 1937 was a lot of works, and Jane Vosper is so damn good and took so much working out that Crofts was probably a bit wrung out when it came to this. That’s okay, we all slip from time to time.

      Crucially, I also don’t believe — without yet having read a word of anything that followed — this is any more than a blip. Crofts was too damn good to just nosedive off a cliff and never achieve anything notable again. He’ll be back to better than this in no time at all.


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