If I asked you to name the debut novel of a hugely influential detective fiction author that was originally written in 1916, published four years later, featured a character called Hastings, and had its ending rewritten at the publisher’s request to remove a courtroom/trial sequence…you’d no doubt be surprised just how much The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie and The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts had in common. The intervening century has been kinder to Christie than to Crofts in both literary reputation and availability, and their divergence from these surface-level similarities is no doubt a part of that.
A mere nine books into the 37-strong output of Freeman Wills Crofts (soon to be 38 thanks to the excellent work of Tony Medawar and Crippen & Landru), I’m going to make a bold assertion: Crofts, I suggest, went out of his way to never write the same type of book twice. Oh, I know, you’ve heard they’re all just a boring man in a boring office poring over boring train timetables and talking boringly about boring tides on the way to solving a boring murder (to be honest, the only truly boring thing about Crofts is being told how boring he’s supposed to be)…but first read nine books by the man before telling me I’m wrong.
Noah Stewart, one of the most knowledgable people currently blogging on the subject of GAD, once said that Romance and Detection are the two genres wherein the ending is never in doubt before you’ve even read the first page (I’m paraphrasing, of course — Noah would never put anything that pompously).
Last week I talked — at great length — about the alibi in crime and detective fiction as utilised by the criminal working alone. This week, I’ll hopefully find as much (or, depending on your feelings about last week’s post, maybe less) to say where more than one criminal is involved, and then if there’s time I’ll diverge into crimes where there is no alibi.
Freeman Wills Crofts’ second novel The Ponson Case (1921) recently enjoyed a reissue thanks to the superlative efforts of HarperCollins and their revived Detective Club imprint. Nevertheless, I’m not passing up the opportunity to flaunt my pristine House of Stratus edition, with a cover so fabulous that it was recently reused for Martin Edwards’ genre-sweeping study The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017). Since Crofts himself spoiled his debut The Cask (1920) in The Sea Mystery (1928), I’m skipping that for now but shall otherwise read him chronologically until I run out of books, and hope HarperCollins seize the chance for a full reprint in the meantime…