For evidence of the restless enthusiasm Freeman Wills Crofts brought to the writing of detective fiction, look no further than the two books he published in 1934. The first — The 12.30 from Croydon, a.k.a. Wilful and Premeditated — was his first inverted mystery, a fairly standard affair in which we are wise to the killer’s reasons, actions, and thoughts from the beginning and which Inspector Joseph French then unpicks quickly in the closing chapters. No doubt Crofts was interested in this new form, but simply repeating a formula which, if we’re honest, gets a little bit long-winded in the closing stages did not appeal. And so changes were wrought for a second stab.
The writing of an inverted mystery must surely bring with it a certain amount of release. Your typical detective novel, after all, keeps the villain, their motives, their opportunity, and oftentimes their method occluded from the reader whilst ideally also dropping all manner of subtle hints about them, where the inverted mystery — in which we know the criminal and their motivation from the off, see the crime committed, and must then watch the detective figure it out — removes every single one of these difficulties, requiring only the investigation which would have happened in a ‘straight’ novel of detection anyway.
Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles, possibly the most famous novel of uxoricide ever written, begins with a line so classic it distracts you from the opening being, well, a bit dull. This Way Out (1939) by James Ronald, similarly concerned with a dissatisfied husband wishing to dispose of his wife, is happy for you to be immersed in the commonplace before hitting you with brilliant lines of its own, but would surely be more more famous if it began with the following from approximately a third of the way through: “While dawn on slippered feet crept through the silent streets Philip lay in bed examining schemes for killing his wife”.
It was my understanding that William Shakespeare invented the word “eyeball”. The noun eye was extant at the time, as was the concept of a ball being something round, but that Shakespeare was the one to take the two principles and conflate them. It turns out he didn’t [see the comments below this post], but presumably someone did, and that’s all I really need to be the case for this opening paragraph.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing.
When a man wrongly implicated in criminous deeds finds himself at the mercy of a blackmailer, is pushed to the limit by the blackmailer’s avarice, kills said blackmailer and goes to great lengths to cover up the crime only to find himself pursued by a highly-observant criminologist…you’re not the only one getting Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) vibes. And, Pottermack being one of my most delighted discoveries of the last couple of years, you’d expect The Heel of Achilles (1950) by E. & M.A. Radford to suffer by comparison, but it is in fact simply proof of how much richness the Golden Age was able to find in the same material.
In our recent discussion about inverted mysteries, Aidan made Ira Levin’s debut A Kiss Before Dying (1953) sound simply fabulous: the first part of the novel follows a nameless man as he commits a murder, the second part is then concerned with unpicking his identity, and the third is the fallout. Much like Antidote to Venom (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts, then, you get both an inverted and a traditional detective story, knowing who the killer is and watching characters who aren’t aware of his identity coming to that awareness, with the additional kick of only finding out yourself with about 100 pages remaining in the book.