With the sixteenth to twenty-fourth novels by Freeman Wills Crofts to feature his series detective Chief Inspector Joseph French due to be republished between now and January 2023 (well, #18, Antidote to Venom (1938), is already available from the British Library) it occurred to me that people might be looking for advice about the first fifteen — all, incredibly, in print.
I first read Crofts back in November 2015, and have become something of an acolyte since, getting thoroughly swept up in his detailed detection and the inexhaustible efforts of Detective Inspector Joseph French as he chases down criminals responsible for some frankly brilliantly-conceived crimes. The following ranking, seeing at it’s spread over nearly seven years of reading, is drawn from general impressions rather than specifics, but will hopefully provide some guidance if anyone is looking to let a little FWC into their lives.
And so, from worst to best, I give you…
15. Man Overboard!, a.k.a. Cold-Blooded Murder (1936) [French #15]
You can feel the tight rein Crofts has on his slow pacing here, but it’s also achieved by a lot of repetition and the spinning out of character reactions in a way that doesn’t really add much to the experience. The structure is a little off here, too, since we know the right answer won’t be reached until the end, so each development being played as if it is the terminal point of the investigation feels weird. Patient, measured stuff, but lacking in ingenuity, vitality, and sustained interest.
14. Death on the Way, a.k.a. Double Death (1932) [French #9]
The patient, deliberate style Crofts would develop as his career progressed, used to expert effect in the likes of The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936), isn’t quite in effect here: this again just feels slow in order to pad out a thin plot with lots of details about how railways are engineered. “Sometimes,” Crofts seems to want to say, “detection is a grind,” but that laudable sentiment is explored more fully in more interesting plots elsewhere. The scheme here is clever, and if you’re already a fan you’ll lap it up without a second thought, but newbies should definitely start higher up this list.
13. Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924) [French #1]
French’s debut set the pattern for his future cases, with this suffering only because it’s perhaps a little too episodic: problems are set up and solved one-by-one, rather than coming at us in a glut to be unpicked as the strongest of these books manage. Still, this deserves kudos for a surprise ending that I had singularly failed to consider or spot, and it’s impressive how closely Crofts maintained the mien of his detective down the years. Lesser lights would give up Soapy Joe’s rigour as too much like hard work, but Crofts has the class to stick to it, and it shows.
12. The 12:30 from Croydon, a.k.a. Wilful and Premeditated (1934) [French #11]
Crofts’ first inverted novel, which struggles to make the most of its investigative sections — coming in something of a rush at the end — but is enlivened by the business considerations behind its criminal’s scheme. Always learning, Crofts would improve on the form almost immediately with Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), and anyone wishing to see him at his inverted best should really head there. However, the opening chapter, in which we experience a flight from a young girl’s perspective, shows how charming he can be, and this is not without interest.
11. Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926) [French #2]
An almost Buchanesque thriller for DI French’s second case, and a real anomaly in the oeuvre that’s all the more pleasing for how very, very different it is. Revolves around an ingenious mechanical principle, and contains an impossible poisoning that’s also neatly explained by engineer Crofts. It would have been impressive if Crofts had managed to make each book as distinct as this, and his energy is undeniable, but Julian Symons was very wide of the mark when he named it among the author’s best work.
10. The Box Office Murders, a.k.a. The Purple Sickle Murders (1929) [French #5]
There’s almost something a little Domestic Suspense about this story of box office girls disappearing from a London cinema, and it’s another adventure-adjacent tale. Maybe it’s the time taken to get to know a murder victim before they die, or the telling of the story from the perspective of one of the girls, giving her ingenuity the chance to shine in the denouement rather than relying on French to simply solve it and implement the rescue himself. Either way, it’s a not unsuccessful change of focus, even if the smuggling scheme is a little bonkers and some of French’s searches too illegal to ever pass muster in a real court of law.
9. Mystery in the Channel, a.k.a. Mystery in the English Channel (1931) [French #7]
Bodies found in a boat adrift in the English Channel provoke a response from Scotland Yard that sees French investigating in two countries. The problem here of a floating crime scene is suitably complex, and would be made more complex still in the matter of the Jane Vosper in a few years. Also pleasing is the emergence of detectives from previous novels to allow a sort of Crofts Universe, and the final confrontation really snaps with threat and excitement — something which can get overlooked at times. Not the most memorable, but a very important book in the series.
8. Sudden Death (1932) [French #8]
Crofts’ second impossible crime, told alternately from the perspective of a maid in the house where the murder occurs and French investigating the death. This allows a little more character interest, and for the always keenly-felt pressures of the economic situation to be explored more closely, but it’s also backed up with good detection (if a little too intuitive at times) and a good double murder scheme with an ingenious method at play. Essentially a country house murder, and as much fun as you’d hope.
7. The Hog’s Back Mystery, a.k.a. The Strange Case of Dr. Earle (1933) [French #10]
A magnificently, almost overwhelmingly, complex alibi case, with each chapter dense with ingenious detection and brilliant devices by which French’s investigation progresses. This was my first taste of Crofts, and I felt like I was drowning in detail at times, but it’s as breathlessly brilliant as anything he’s written even while it’s slightly hard going at times. Humdrum in the most glorious way, I really wish someone was brave enough to still be writing this style of detective fiction.
6. Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) [French #6]
Every book from this point on is a masterpiece in its own way, with the murder of magnate Sir John Magill at once blindingly obvious and yet intractably difficult to solve and fasten guilt. This is as machine-tooled a piece of plotting as you’re going to find anywhere, with an ingenious triple interpretation placed on events that blows the mind once the full pattern is revealed. Perhaps too plot heavy to feature much in the way of character, but this is the Golden Age amply fulfilling its promise in so, so many ways.
5. Mystery on Southampton Water, a.k.a. Crime on the Solent (1934) [French #12]
The second of only two inverted mysteries in French’s first XV, this juggles industrial espionage ad the ever-closing net of discovery perfectly — aided by very clever detection and some wonderfully evocative prose as our criminals cross and re-cross the foggy Solent in their small boat. Driven again by very human concerns, almost as if Crofts continues to empathise with the circumstances that inspire crime, this is a brilliant realisation of how the inverted mystery can be staged to allow for maximum tension.
4. The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) [French #14]
Perhaps Crofts’ most ingenious crime scene, a boat sunk off the coast of Portugal by a series of explosions — with the small matter of how it was sunk needing to be determined back on the dry land of Blighty. Goes to show that forensic examination of a scene can only get you so far, and leans brilliantly into the Croftian principle of the police being a huge, ravening organisation when set to achieve a particular end. The deliberate structure might be the only thing to put people off, but persevere through the first third and utter delight awaits you.
3. Crime at Guildford, a.k.a. The Crime at Nornes (1935) [French #13]
A murder and a theft within 24 hours of each other, in different parts of the country but concerning the same core group of men, gets newly-promoted Chief Inspector French out from behind his desk and back to doing what he loves. The verisimilitude of this is again what delights, not least when you realise how very wrong the criminal’s scheme went at one point, belying the idea that the villain always has it their way until the final chapter. Rich, intelligent, inspired plotting, with a superb safe-breaking scheme at its heart. Wonderful.
2. The Sea Mystery (1928) [French #4]
Something about the sea brings out the best in Crofts and French, with a naked body in an unmarked crate dredged up by fishermen and setting in motion some of the most purely inspired detection ever seen. How French goes about tracing the movements of the crate from practically zero information might be the most intelligent piece of writing ever done in the Golden Age, and the scaling up of the problem to gradually identify the body and the malefactors — again aided by the sheer size of the police force — is masterful. If you don’t like this, you won’t like Crofts.
1. Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) [French #3]
There’s really a cigarette paper’s difference between these top four books, with the mysterious fire at Starvel Hollow winning out because of the couple of genuine surprises it drops while carrying out the sort of brilliantly rigorous detection that you suspect French does in his sleep. I don’t know what else to say that isn’t a repetition of the above — great minor characters, intelligent decision making, and a very, very clever scheme at its heart. Worryingly close to perfect; will Crofts ever top this?
Management reserves the right, etc, etc.
If you wanted to fold Crofts’ first four novels — written before he conceived of the character of French — into this…well I dunno. Maybe his debut The Cask (1920) would go between Sudden Death and Hog’s Back, The Ponson Case (1921) between Hog’s Back and John Magill, The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) between Death on the Way and Inspector French’s Greatest Case, and The Groote Park Murder (1923) between Croydon and Cheyne. So why didn’t I just rank his first 19 books? Well, nineteen is a weird number, innit?
Y’know what? If you’re going to be like that, just forget I said anything.
Freeman Wills Crofts 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)
Man Overboard!, a.k.a. Cold-Blooded Murder (1936)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)
The 9.50 Up Express and Other Stories [ss] (2020) ed. Tony Medawar