Can a book still be a masterpiece if it’s not brilliant? In the case of Gaston Leroux’s debut The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) — which plays up to and anticipates so many of the established and forthcoming trappings of detective fiction — I’d say yes. The focus on propelling the plot at a time when even those who were focussed on plot weren’t exactly propulsive is both admirable and impressive, and the creativity Leroux brings to a subgenre that would utilise the secret passage for another 60+ years is staggering. But it would be folly to claim that age has not caught up with it and that this was in the same class as the genre’s genuine masterpieces of the 1930s.
You’ve doubtless heard of Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher books in which the gargantuan ex-serviceman does plenty of fightin’ and figurin’, and if there’s a bigger name in publishing today it’s only because James Patterson has, like, 86 co-authors.
Recent years have been very kind to the Golden Age Detection nerd seeking non-fiction reference works. Indeed, if it didn’t seem like so much of a rip-off of the Reprint of the Year Award Kate runs over at CrossExaminingCrime, I’d be inclined to start a GAD Reference Work of the Year Awards.
The majority of Agatha Christie referred to on this blog has been from her later, less popular phase while I work through her canon chronologically. So it’s lovely to be able to refer to some of her early work with this collection of 18 stories originally published between 1923 and 1936.
While Freeman Wills Crofts’ work has caused me much delight over the last few years, that of his fellow ‘Humdrum’ John Rhode/Miles Burton doesn’t inspire in me quite the same raptures. Rhode (as I’ll call him here) writes swift, events-focussed novels, and constructs plots with the same deliberation and consideration from multiple sides…so maybe it’s that his plots always feel like a single idea with some people bolted onto it. Here as in Death Leaves No Card (1944) or Invisible Weapons (1938) I come away with the impression that he read about a single obscure murder method and thought “Yeah, I can get 60,000 words out of that”.
As his seventh published novel, Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) shows Freeman Wills Crofts again subtly altering his approach to take us through the minutiae of crime and detection, introducing a structural change which addresses the issue of “whodunnit” that these early GAD trendsetters sometimes struggled with. While you may well be aware of the guilty party from about chapter 4, rest assured that Inspector Joseph French eventually cottons onto his target at around the halfway stage, and the final third of the book is then devoted to tracing the criminal. And a lot of fun is to be had along the way.
At some point in the 1980s, Britain started pumping out crime fiction by authors who literary darlings could feel smug about admitting they slum it with: Colin Dexter, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and today’s experiment, Reginald Hill, among others — authors I’ve sampled here and there and who generally leave me cold. My precise objection to them is difficult to pin down, but they seem to me to be forcing upon the genre a staid acceptability it neither needed nor flourishes under, and that’s something I can’t get further into without reading more of it…and, well, I’m reluctant to do that. A Killing Kindness (1980) perfectly exemplifies why.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. After a debut that laid the cornerstone of a new genre and three succeeding works exploring the principles of that genre from varying perspectives, now begins Freeman Wills Crofts’ 30-novel (plus however-many short stories) relationship with Inspector Joseph French. At this stage it’s difficult to judge how French differs from his antecedents Burnley, Lafarge, Tanner, Willis, Vandam, and Ross, but I guess we’ll never know whether French was ever initially conceived as more than a one-book man like those others. The title certainly suggests so, but history shows otherwise.
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.