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.
I shall refrain from pointing out the similarities between The Shop Window Murders (1930) by Vernon Loder and The French Powder Mystery (1930) by Ellery Queen — Nigel Moss does an excellent job of that in his introduction of this reprint, and you’ll want your money’s worth. In short order we get dead bodies in a display in a shop window, and after the initial surprise of revealed identity it’s not long before Detective Inspector Devenish and the avuncular Superintendent Melis are on the scene to untangle possibly the most baffling range of clues seen this side of an early-period Queen novel. Oh, er, sorry about that. No more, I promise.
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.
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…
Well, who’d’ve thought it, eh? Philip MacDonald first featured in my reading life in 1-star ignominy, and here he is not just beating all-comers to feature my 400th blog post, but doing so with a book that I — against my better judgement, nature, and previous standards — unabashedly loved with every fibre of my being. Quite the turnaround, and part of why I persevere with intially-disappointing authors. Just to clear something up from the off: no, I would not classify this as an impossible crime, despite its inclusion on the Ronald Lacourbe list being what brought it to my attention in the first place, but that’s hardly the first time this has happened….
I wasn’t sure I wanted to dive into another complex alibi problem so soon after Cut Throat (1932) by Christopher Bush. But if anyone can convince me of the joys of alibi-breaking it’s Freeman Wills Crofts, and so off I went in hope of some fiendish minutiae to get the brain cogitating with possibilities. As it happens, I need not have worried — there is no complex alibi-breaking here. Sure, there’s a grand mix of ratiocination and weighing the odds on the way to intelligent deductive work, but this is decidedly a ‘wrong man on the run’-style thriller before it’s a novel of routine. Were pithiness my forte, I’d probably make an ‘Alfred Hitchcrofts’ reference.