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.
Right, the dust has settled on The Problem of the Wire Cage, so it’s time to pick another book to get all spoilerful over. There’s no mystery here, that book has been picked and its title is in the title of this post, but allow me a paragraph break otherwise I have no idea how I’ll work one in.
This 2017 HarperCollins reprint — under the title Inspector French and Sir John Magill’s Last Journey — is 309 pages long and took me, almost to the hour, two full weeks to read. Ordinarily this would be the sign of a very bad book indeed, but, with the end of term and then Christmas to negotiate, had it been any less good — honestly, now — I probably wouldn’t have finished it. The fractured, disrupted natured of such a reading experience requires the mind to keep plot details fresh while also contending with the busiest time of a busy year, and the clarity amidst complexity of Crofts’ plotting here is joy unconfined to my puzzle-fixated mind. And with the Nativity headed back into its box, here’s why.
Much like in one of those hilarious romantic comedies from the early 2000s starring Ben Stiller or Jennifer Lopez, Philip MacDonald and I got off to a rocky start that seemed to be improving, on the way to falling lovingly into each other’s arms by the end credits. It began badly with X v. Rex (1933), showed signs of improvement with Murder Gone Mad (1931), and so by now we’re at the montage stage — I’m the aggressive go-getter, he won’t compromise where his family’s concerned…how can two such different souls ever hope to find common ground? Can’t I see that his brand of innovation is made for me? Won’t he just do the decent thing and write a novel of detection with actual clues? Hairy Aaron, we’re so stubborn…
First thing first: yes, I’m aware that the 2017 Collins Crime Club edition of this novel — for which I am eternally grateful, since it has enabled me to read it in the first place — has been reissued with the title Inspector French and the Sea Mystery. What can I say? I’m a stickler for origins, and so am reviewing it under the original title. My delight at having Crofts back in print is undimmed, and if building an MCU-esque awareness through uniformity in titles helps the books gain popularity and leads to even more Crofts back in print, hell, I’m all for it. And, while we’re on the subject of these new editions, the covers are exquisite — simple, direct, clean, beautifully evocative…a great job.