#1049: The End of Andrew Harrison, a.k.a. The Futile Alibi (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts

End of Andrew Harrison

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It’s been a long road to The End of Andrew Harrison, a.k.a. The Futile Alibi (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts.  Back when I was fairly new to classic era detective fiction in general, and impossible crimes in particular, I heard rumours of this book — the first I’d ever heard of Crofts — but it turned out to be rather unavailable.  I also heard that Crofts was dull, dull, dull, however, and so spent a long time avoiding him before finally taking the plunge, falling in love with his writing and reading 22 of his novels in broad chronology, in which time Andrew Harrison was reprinted by Harper Collins.  And…that just about brings us up to date.

Scarcity often results in a belief — usually frustrated, c.f. Death in the Dark (1930) by Stacey Bishop or Mr. Diabolo (1960) by Anthony Lejeune — that the book in question is an unrivalled masterpiece, but since I was told first off how boring Crofts was, and since I found so much joy in his writing before getting to this title, I came to Andrew Harrison’s demise with the merely hopeful expectation of a long-time fan. So to have enjoyed it as much as I did is credit to how fully Crofts continues to apply himself to the intelligently-marshalled humdrum detective story: 21 books into his career, he’s still finding new ways to tweak his approach so that, although they don’t always work, there’s something new to admire in his successes.

The first third of this sees young Markham Crewe forced into work when the death of his father is followed hard upon by the realisation of the old man’s financial ruination. Acquiring a job as the social secretary for millionaire business magnate Andrew Harrison, Crewe swiftly comes to feel that “[t]here was evil lurking beneath the surface in this house of wealth,” a feeling reinforced when Harrison apparently vanishes and his stocks begin to plummet, meaning financial ruination for thousands. In this regard, Crewe is an excellent avatar for the opening, being more than just intellectually aware of the horror such straits represent, and Crofts’ talk of the suicides that result from such a slump hits harder than it otherwise might.

When Harrison reappears with an innocent story, and the stocks consequently recover, the earlier observation from business secretary Henry Entrican that “[t]here’ll be murder done before we’re very much older” and Crewe’s own belief that “Harrison had given each of the three persons who were nearest to him a motive for murdering him” come to a terrible head. While the family is staying on Harrison’s behemoth of a houseboat the Cygnet, the great man is found apparently having gassed himself to death in his bolted cabin one night, yet — c’mon this is the Golden Age of Detective Fiction — when circumstances coalesce to throw doubt on felo de se, it seems that one of his household, “all grasping for what they thought they wanted, and so missing happiness”, has finally done away with the wellspring of their misery.

At this point, slightly to the story’s detriment as Crewe is a very likeable protagonist, enter Chief Inspector Joseph French who, having originally looked into Harrison’s apparent vanishing, is brought in now to rule on his death. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this is how completely Harrison’s death simply must be suicide and yet, bit by bit, genuine reasons for doubt begin to emerge (not least a forthcoming business trip to Germany where Harrison “had been hoping to meet Herr Hitler”) and French’s magnificently painstaking investigations throw new light on the accepted order of events in such believable fashion. Crofts is so very good at glossing over the “uninteresting routine work which bored [French] stiff”, ensuring that we’re in at the blood of the exciting developments while days spent checking statements and going door-to-door are swept over quickly or, more likely, delegated to the faceless myrmidons who enable such detailed and thorough investigations as Crofts’ cases require. What remains is intelligent, brisk, full of incident, and frequently runs into human problems that must be untangled by appreciable elbow grease and human cunning.

I do love French, and all we learn about him here simply strengthens my case for including him on my recent list of my ten favourite literary detectives. He’s savvy enough not to simply take what his senior officers say at face value, dismissing early on several reasons his Assistant Commissioner gives for suspecting murder, yet human enough to admire the actions of a cornered miscreant in the closing stages (“He was doing what everyone ought to do in the crises of life and what so few accomplish: thinking the thing through before he made a move.”) or to agonise for the criminals when their scheme begins to crumble to folly (“Truly the ways of transgressors were not easy.”). And his attitude to the boring work Crofts has become so well known for is also quite pleasing, though very well-known to those of us who have been paying attention to the novels rather than simply taking the author’s reputation from the mouths of others:

French saw…stretched before him one of those long routine enquiries which he so much hated. To find a taxi which had made a certain run, a car which had conveyed a given party, a rifle from which a certain bullet had been fired, or as now, a boat which had done a definite trip — this type of enquiry bored him to distraction. And besides being boring, such investigations not infrequently proved extremely anxious work. His entire case often hung on his success, and usually he experienced the heart sickness of deferred hope.

The book is chock-full, too, of little historical notes, such as the fact that the county police who call in Scotland Yard pay the wages of the officers assigned to them (how have I never picked up on that before…?), or the fact that a newspaper’s notable stories were contained in its central pages rather than at the front. Indeed, alongside reflections on the dark arts of high finance, which hit especially hard given what the world has gone through in recent years, it’s the emergence of a press which is beginning to move in the more sensational direction we recognise so readily today which is perhaps one of the best ancillary threads of this story:

Mrs Harrison made a gesture of anger. “[The Guardian] say your father’s such an important man that anything about him is news. If we can’t satisfy them about him, they’re going to make a scoop of his disappearance tomorrow.”

The sense of a world moving on, too, lends itself to difficulties in French’s detection: that a railway station is now unmanned between certain hours at night causes a logjam where previously a nightwatchman would have provided a breakthrough, or the discovery of a gambling club that would have been a coup of policing instead adds difficulties by providing a key alibi. The family relationships are pleasingly imbricated, too, with everyone wanting one thing and yet forced into accepting something less, creating the generational tension which would so frequently become a fixture of novels from this era. Plus, as a record of a bygone era, some of Crofts’ language is delightful (“…though even here his potations had loosened his tongue”), serving as an excellent reminder that there’s more than just complex murder and a pleasingly gentle hand where social considerations are concerned when it comes to the charms of the Golden Age.

So, after such a long wait, it’s a delight to be able to recommend The End of Andrew Harrison almost without condition (it could use a plan of the Cygnet to make French’s nighttime sortie more comprehensible…but that’s all). To see Crofts still taking such pleasure in composing these complex, baffling, surprising stories of murder and skulduggery, and to see this one turn and eat its own tail in a way that makes sense of every little narrative conceit, is completely thrilling. There really is no-one to touch him where this type of story is concerned, and I remain hopeful that Harper Collins will continue to reprint Crofts in his entirety — look at the way they utilise the variant titles on their covers, for pity’s sake, these people clearly care about doing this well, and the least you can do is reward their care by going a buy a few of these so we get the rest. I’ve even ordered the earlier titles best to worst to help you out there, so what are you waiting for?


See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: Sometimes I have been frustrated by the pacing of a French investigation, feeling that the logical path he follows means that the alert reader may be far ahead of the detective but here I feel Crofts sets his pace perfectly. There are regular discoveries of information as French tests new theories and once Crofts provides the reader with all they need to solve the case he moves quickly to the conclusion. Against expectations based on those previous experiences, this is one of the most tightly plotted Crofts novels I have read to date.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The End of Andrew Harrison won’t convince Crofts detractors who find him slow, boring and a bit on the dry side of his genius, but it should be noted that French’s customary plodding and thoroughness is not necessary due to it being a so-called “humdrum” detective novel. This time, it sort of serves a purpose as Crofts carefully builds towards an unexpected, genuinely surprising, turn of events as the case began to unravel very rapidly – not always in the way French had envisioned it.


29 thoughts on “#1049: The End of Andrew Harrison, a.k.a. The Futile Alibi (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Oh, I am delighted. I have been waiting for several years to see what you would make of this since I read it myself. I am very happy to see you enjoyed it as much as I did as this has been one of the highlights of that series for me. It was a pleasure revisiting it through your post!


    • I remember you paying a moderate amount for this one before it was reprinted — I have a House of Stratus paperback of it in moderate condition which I acquired about two years ago, since I was equally eager to read it once the Crofts bug bit me. I don’t think either of us have cause to regret our purchases; mainly I’m just delighted that a book this superb is now so readily available for others to buy and read.

      It raises the intriguing prospect, too, of when Crofts peaks. Like, I think the loosely received wisdom is that he’s a his best in the early 1930s, but this is so damn goo that I refuse to believe he doesn’t also have a few belters remaining in his oeuvre. Given how widely-accepted the decline of Christie and Carr in their later years is, it’s quite exciting not knowing what to expect from Crofts from this point on. I mean, sure, some will be a bit rubbish, you can’t write 30+ novels and have them all knock it out the park, but what a voyage of discovery lays ahead!


  2. I’m just today reading Carr’s The Man Who Could Not Shudder, and he also mentions about the local police having to pay the when they call in Scotland Yard. My reaction to that was the same as yours here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Huh, I read TMWCNS roughly a decade ago and do not remember that aspect of it, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. And I hope you enjoy the solution to that book as much as I did — it’s ripe for a reread and a review on this blog, in fact, because it was a fairly early Carr for me and one that made a very strong impression.


      • I enjoyed the solution, and the storytelling getting there. Was a bit surprised to see Fell spoil Roger Ackroyd in the wrapup, however.


  3. A few years ago this felt like a book you’d have to be extraordinarily lucky if you were to snag a copy at a price that was either affordable or even justifiable. It’s great these books have been brought back into print, and in such nicely presented editions to. Now I just need to actually read the thing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do hope that the remaining Crofts are reprinted, though I appreciate that these were largely done in anticipation of a TV series which — I imagine — is now unlikely to happen (otherwise we’d’ve heard something about it…right?). But when a book is this good it deserves to sell in big numbers.

      And when Crofts had already written at least four books this good, he deserves that full reprint…because there are likely to be at least a couple more this good ready to be revealed to the world, right?!?!


      • I’d like to think the remaining titles will come out, not least because these are rather handsome editions. What’s left, a half a dozen or so? I have a few of those MIA titles already but it would be nice to fill in the gaps.


      • The TV series was going to make completely unnecessary changes to the character of French, so I won’t miss the series if it does not happen. (It is funny, French is not one of my favorite detectives, but I still instinctively react against using the character name for someone different.)


          • I remember Curt blogged years ago that an Inspector French TV-series was in development and details released at the time suggested they were planning to go out of their way to change French. I’m fine with the idea of French getting dispatched to post-partition Northern Ireland to modernize their police force. French is the best man for that job and a premise like that would play to his strengths as a thoroughly competent, up-to-date policeman, but the reason why French ended up in Northern Ireland is that he was banished there from Scotland Yard. And they were going to stick him with a dead or dying wife. So the plan was to turn French into another troubled cop, but this time from the past with the mean streets of Belfast (their words) as a backdrop. Who knows what havoc they could have wreaked on the actual stories and plots!


            • Oh, this sounds…less than great. And I’m pretty sure there’s an early mention in the books of French having a sone who was killed in WW1 — surely that’s enough Tragic Home Life for one protagonist to be going on with…and it would have been canon accurate 🙂

              Okay, so maybe we’re better off without the TV series. But I still want a full reprint!


  4. How typical of you to rate The End of Andrew Harrison higher than Sudden Death, but agree with you it’s an excellent, soundly constructed detective novel. More than up to his usual standard! I just think Sudden Death is a better locked room mystery.

    The book is chock-full, too, of little historical notes….

    The so-called “humdrums,” like Crofts and Rhode, don’t get enough appreciation for all those small historical details and snapshots that give you a clearer picture and better feeling of period in which they were written. You don’t always get that from Christie or even Carr.


    • Sudden Death is a better impossible crime novel, and perhaps demonstrates more of a stretch for Crofts, but this is the superior detective novel. Admittedly this might have the stronger appeal for those who are already fans, where SD might make converts on its own account, but either way they’re both great and anyone reading this comment needs to purchase them both 🙂

      And, yes, the contemporary details of the likes of Rhode and Crofts — and, dare I say it, even Connington — often bleed through more because of how relevant they are. There’s a superb timelessness to Carr and Christie which makes their stories more universally appealing, but the Humdrums are so much a product of their specific time that you couldn’t update them by 20 years — as happened with any of the Christie adaptations, I understand — without losing so much of what makes them work.


  5. In presenting a victim who is an internationally known businessman, Crofts brings to mind Sigsbee Manderson in “Trent’s Last Case”. He also offers for comparison a real-life figure from this world via three references to Ivar Kreuger, the “Swedish Match King”, found shot dead in 1932, a presumed suicide. However, it proves impossible to build, from the brief observations of how Andrew Harrison treats family, friends and employees, a character portrait that matches his reputation, or goes beyond establishing motives for bringing about his end.
    Crofts revisits the “locked room” scenario, and, specifically, the cabin-access-via-porthole? question considered in his previous novel, “Found Floating”. Neither problem nor solution impresses much here but the ease of establishing the “how” is contrasted with the satisfying elusiveness of the”who”. Crofts gives his readers good value: two crime plots, not necessarily related; a disappearance-voluntary-or-abduction? and a suicide-or-murder? Some of the best Inspector French moments occur when he is following a trail; in this novel there are particular police procedural pleasures to be had over the tracing of an Austin 20.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good call on Trent’s Last Case (or at least on the third of it I’ve managed to read to date). There’s also a similarity with Crofts’ own Sir John Magill’s Last Journey on the same grounds.

      And thank-you, too, for mentioning the Swedish match affair, as I meant to bring it up in my review — and, indeed research it beforehand — but had too much else to fit in and so jettisoned it. I figured it was a real world case, I simply neglected to look into it. I shall now remedy that in due course 🙂


  6. There are some interesting parallels with Sudden Death based on what you describe:
    1. An impossible murder by gas (which isn’t really that common of an impossibility, although I’ve seen it in some short stories).
    2. A death that can only be suicide is slowly proven to be murder.

    My copy of Andrew Harrison arrived the other day and I hope to get to it in a few months.


    • Hadn’t considered that impossible gassing were quite so rare, but you’re correct: only a few jump to mind.

      I hope you enjoy this, it really is a delightful distillation of everything Crofts does so well. There is no-one to touch him in these hallowed halls as far as I’m concerned (and I say that almost welcoming the opportunity to be wrong — another author doing this as well as this would be nirvana… 😄)


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