In the same year that Agatha Christie mixed sight-seeing and shipboard slaughter in Death on the Nile (1937), Freeman Wills Crofts sent his series detective, Chief Inspector Joseph French, into bat with a similarly travelogue-rich tale of marine-centric malfeasance. Found Floating (1937) might, in many ways, be seen as Crofts’ take on the essential principles of a Christie plot, even if it does highlight many of the reasons Dame Agatha has remained in the public consciousness while Crofts is only now enjoying a resurgence in awareness and popularity. Indeed, for a man who made hay in the annals of the realistic detective story, this might be his most successful brush with verisimilitude yet.
The plot is essentially split into three sections. The first concerns the state of affairs in the Carrington family, proprietors of an engineering concern that elderly Uncle William has decided should be run by Mant, the son of William’s elder brother George who settled decades ago in Australia. It is in William’s dotage that he sends for Mant to come to England and run things, much to the chagrin of Jim Musgrave, William’s nephew, and the consequent discomfiture of Katherine Shirley, William’s niece. This first third or so, concerning relationships within the family seen from various perspectives and topped by a mass poisoning at a dinner to celebrate William’s birthday, is rich in everyday details and pleasingly-observed even if not exactly packed with incident.
The second section then concerns the Carrington menage going — at the suggestion of their doctor and Katherine’s beau, the magnificently-named Runciman Jellicoe — on a Mediterranean cruise, where murder is done, before the final third of the book sees Chief Inspector French summoned to pick through the mystery. This might — Hercule Poirot-like — represent the latest entry French has yet made into one of Crofts’ novels, and it’s interesting to see the approach the author takes in delaying his series sleuth’s arrival on the scene. Sure, French made a similarly late appearance in The 12:30 from Croydon (1934), but, that being Crofts’ first inverted mystery, we were mostly concerned with the actions of the criminal. Here, things are done more traditionally, the reader as much in the dark as the characters, and there is much to enjoy before he steps from the wings to centre stage.
I’ve long been a fan of the small touches of character which enrich Crofts’ novels, and this one is no exception. Be it the general perception of Jellicoe as a sound man (“The feeling of confidence he inspired…did as much or more for his patients as his various treatments. People who called him in added faith to medicine and grew better. Thus he achieved a reputation for cures and his practice grew.”), the attitude of local Inspector Kirby who first picks up the case (“The thing was obviously an accident, as no murderer would attempt to poison a family wholesale. Therefore no matter how efficiently he dealt with the case, there would be no kudos and probably no publicity.”) or the humanising effect of familiarity on the staff of the T.S.S. Patricia on which the cruise is taken (“Claverton thought neither of the history nor the artistic possibilities of the place: to him it was a shallowish fairway with mudflats to either side, which with a low tide had to be navigated with care if a grounding and its attendant troubles were to be avoided.”), Crofts manages to find enough in these people and their situations to bring them just enough to life before moving on, and it’s always fun to see what wrinkle he’ll mine next.
Perhaps the one exception to this is Katherine, who emotes like a silent film star who has read plenty of Victorian literature and considers it a bit subtle, but Crofts has yet to really excel at characterising his women, despite some good efforts in The Box Office Murders (1929) and Sudden Death (1932). Hell, even the Patricia fares better than Katherine, getting a chapter of character as the cruise gears up and various elements of shipboard life stir themselves to action, which seems to double for Crofts shrugging off the slow burn of that opening third and finally getting down to the business at hand. Here we’re treated not only to wonderful historical principles, such as the means by which the depth of water beneath the ship’s hull is detected, but also to some magnificently technical writing that really puts the modern marvel of such a huge undertaking into delightful perspective:
Leaving his colleague in charge near the controls, the second engineer moved about, seeing what was being done, seeing that nothing else required to be done, seeing that everything was right, listening, always listening for undesired noises in that cataract of sound.
As with the aforementioned Christie title, the travelogue here was doubtless also part of the appeal of writing this, and while Crofts’ take on what might capture a reader’s imagination is less successful than Christie’s was, his details are rather more telling: be it the “thoroughly up-to-date operating theatre” in a Spanish bullring or simply the joy engendered by travel once the Carrington party gets underway — and replicated in the attitude of French, no small lover of the outdoors — Crofts for me feels his settings far more acutely than Christie did.
One of the real delights of this Harper Collins 2022 reissue is the superb idea to print within the text the commentary of ex-Superintendent Walter Hambrook, who read the book as it was serialised in the Daily Mail and provided reflections on the case approximately every five or six chapters. The poor man has the double game of putting his reputation on the line in the name of fiction and yet not spoiling the whole undertaking by being rather too noticing, and comes across as a thoroughly charming sort (“I am not a bloodthirsty creature, but as a professional detective eager to show results, I must say that I would like to have a corpse.”). That he is also able to pepper his observations with reflections from his own illustrious career is simply icing on the cake of the whole endeavour, and part of the reason I’m submitting this slightly longer review for the Reprint of the Year Award being run once again by Kate at Crosse-Examining Crime: it’s easy enough to delight in the simple act of making long-neglected titles available, but the care taken to include Hambrook’s Hints and ensure this is something a little out of the ordinary really speaks to the hale condition we find ourselves in with regard to classic era reprints at the moment.
In the final analysis of events, Crofts might leave French with perhaps too big a leap to have completed on the information available, and yet I can see how his suspicions would point him in the broad direction of both malefactor and method. Motive will elude you entirely, as there’s barely a sniff of that until the criminal explains in the final chapter, but given French’s well-documented habit of considering every possible alleyway of investigation and probability, I’m willing to let him have this one. If it’s your first sojourn into the world of Frenchian combinatorics you’ll likely leave a little underwhelmed come that final summary, but as I work my way through him in broad chronology I can see much here that’s an improvement over previous title Man Overboard! (1936) in wrangling something that feels realistic from fairly prosaic beginnings.
Christie’s tale is understandably more famous, playing more of a game with the audience in mind, but Crofts seems to understand his readers more from the perspective of how novel the experiences described herein would be. French is an everyday man investigating a terribly complex skein in hugely unusual circumstances, and by not getting too caught up in plot contortions the novel retains that everyman touch which doubtless saw Crofts’ popularity peak as it did in the genre’s Golden Age. Christie’s milieu has retained more romanticism in the 85 years since it was published, but Crofts deserves huge credit for taking on the harder job of getting his readers invested in ideas and experiences that they may not have even been aware existed in this way. There are undoubtedly better Crofts novel out there, but few of them will have so much of interest when put in the appropriate context. For that alone, this comes highly recommended.
Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: The problem for me is that while the killer’s explanation tidies everything up very nicely, I do not see how French would possibly have been able to deduce every element of that solution from the information he has. Too much information is gifted to the sleuth and unlike the other French stories I have read, there is little sense of him making logical deductions from the evidence. In short, even if you are a fan of French’s investigations I think you may well be underwhelmed by his efforts in this case.
Martin Edwards: The killer’s scheme is quite complicated, but I must admit that French’s unravelling of it did not keep me gripped. Part of the problem was the very small pool of potential suspects, and the fact that I didn’t really care about them. Nor did I think that the killer’s motivation was adequately signposted. Crofts wasn’t very interested in criminal psychology, and this makes Found Floating a flawed book. He did much better in some of his other novels, but at least I’m sure he had a great time in the Med.!
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)
Found Floating (1937)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)
The 9.50 Up Express and Other Stories [ss] (2020) ed. Tony Medawar