Freeman Wills Crofts
Novels: The Cask | The Ponson Case | The Pit-Prop Syndicate | Inspector French's Greatest Case | Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy | The Sea Mystery | The Box Office Murders | Sir John Magill's Last Journey | Mystery in the Channel | Sudden Death | The Hog's Back Mystery | Mystery on Southampton Water | The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" | Man Overboard! | Fatal Venture | Death of a Train
Short Stories: The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express | The Greuze | The Hunt Ball | The Two Bottles
Round Robins: The Scoop | The Floating Admiral
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The Ponson Case (1921) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, end of 6, 7, 10)
The Sea Mystery (1928) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, first part of 12)
The Box Office Murders (1929) (available on-line at http://fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20170515)
Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930)
Mystery in the Channel (1931)
Sudden Death (1932) (Chapters 1, 6, 10-12)
The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, first half of 5, end of 7, 8, first half of 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, second half of 19)
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) (Chapters 1, last third of 3, 4, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21)
The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" (1936)
The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express
Crofts was one of the founders and most influential members of what we have been calling the Realist school of detective fiction in this Guide. For an overview of the Realist school, please see the linked article.
Commentary on Freeman Wills Crofts includes:
Four features of The Cask are especially notable:
The Cask contains the first of what will be a Crofts specialty: the alibi plot. A suspect will have an alibi that makes it look impossible for them to have committed the crime. An investigator will research every aspect of the alibi, talking to witnesses, retracing movements, and constructing time tables. All of this will simply make the alibi look more solid. Finally, the investigator will discover a way in which the alibi could be faked.
Such alibi puzzles have a link to the impossible crime. Both alibi and impossible crime plots make it look impossible for someone to have committed a murder - whereas the solution ingeniously shows it actually is possible. Both types of story are pure, fair play puzzle plots. Alibis are not usually considered impossible crimes. Despite their broad similarities to impossible crime mysteries, they are usually considered a different sub-genre of detection.
The alibis in The Cask and its immediate successor, The Ponson Case (1921), do not depend on that popular staple of the Realist school, "the breakdown of identity". In other words, they do not depend on impersonation, multiple identities, mistaken identifications, or other manipulations of identity to create an alibi.
Instead, the central alibi puzzle in The Cask, and Cosgrove's alibi in The Ponson Case, center on "location and technology": the ability of modern technology to do unusual things with the location of people.
The other problem is the racial slurs, something I don't recall seeing elsewhere in Crofts. By the time he insults the entire population of Portugal, it is time to give up on this book.
The amateur sleuths employ a printer's, to aid in their investigation (Chapter 10). Before the Internet made mass distribution of information easy, there were printing shops for hire. Crooks use a print shop in The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" (Chapter 10). Such shops play a role in Genius in Murder (1932) by E.R. Punshon.
Mysterious Strangers appear in the writings of Mary Roberts Rinehart and her followers. See my list of The Mysterious Visitor. In the Rinehart school, these strangers are often working class or lower middle class intruders on an upper class world, and often bearers of disturbing information to that world.
Crofts' Strangers mainly are different. His Strangers do indeed visit upper class homes, but they don't seem to be emissaries from another world.
I also liked his breezy tobacconist friend Tony (Chapter 7), who aids him in identifying cigarettes.
Tanner makes brief return appearances in Mystery in the Channel and The Hog's Back Mystery, two books that mainly star Inspector French. He seems more like a "normal" Scotland Yard Inspector in these books. He is not shown dressing up or pulling off con games.
Austin's engagement to a middle class woman triggers conflicts with his wealthy father.
Tanner has no trouble deducing that a suspect is working class, from his footprints (Chapter 3).
All the employees of the railroad are treated as competent and intelligent (Chapter 7). They include middle class people like the station agent, and working class like the porter. Perhaps this simply reflects Crofts' love of railways. See also the largely positive depiction of the working class railway "cleaner" in Sir John Magill's Last Journey (Chapter 8).
The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) is a mystery-cum-thriller, in which two men investigate a strange business. The storytelling in the book drags, but the solution of the mystery shows considerable mechanical ingenuity.
A great deal of other kinds of material are included in The Pit-Prop Syndicate, however, and they are unfortunately inferior to the ingenious criminal scheme:
The Europe of the book is one in which people can travel anywhere, by boat or motorbike; it seems to be a universally commercial land, devoted to business enterprises; it seems profoundly at peace, in way that it will not be again for 70 years.
The hero is a clean cut young man on a business trip: typical of bike riders of the Realist School. He, and most other motorcyclists in the Realist School, are far from the outlaw biker image promoted in the film The Wild One (1954).
After a pleasant opening (Chapters 1-3), I didn't enjoy the rest of Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy. It was dull and boring, because it lacked a clever mystery puzzle, and because its settings were generic and un-detailed. And much time was spent with some unlikable suspects - which was positively unpleasant.
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy declines opportunities to include the kind of Backgrounds found elsewhere in Crofts:
Many good Crofts novels spend much time on witnesses, as opposed to suspects. See for example the best parts of The Ponson Case, The Sea Mystery and Mystery in the Channel. Oftentimes, French interviews these witnesses in depth, and we also see these witnesses performing their jobs. These witnesses tend to be pleasant, likable people. And the work they do is interesting. Reading a novel about them is a pleasure.
I suspect that both my personal tastes and aesthetic values are showing here. I prefer to read about nice people who are good at their jobs and who accomplish things. I generally dislike reading about folks who are dysfunctional, subnormal, or nasty.
Julian Symons, a critic with whom I am in deep disagreement, thought that the primary duty of crime fiction was to provide in-depth psychological portraits of deeply disturbed evil people who are likely to become murderers. I have no interest in such people at all. Instead I am fascinated by talented detectives, witnesses, and people who are expert at their jobs. It's both a different preference, and different aesthetic.
The heroines of Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy and Sudden Death are both struggling to find a job and a career, one that will enable them to support themselves. These passages are not explicitly feminist. But they are consistent with contemporary feminism, in that they recognize the importance of women's jobs.
As in The Hog's Back Mystery, there is a sentence similar to the "Had I But Known" statements in Mary Roberts Rinehart and her followers. See just after the message delivered by Roper to the heroine (fairly near the start of Chapter 1).
Similarly in Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, the nice young heroine has come home from boarding school to stay with her uncle. But she really doesn't know or learn that much about her uncle's private affairs. Or about his new servants the Ropers, his lawyer Oxley, his neighbor Markham Giles or his doctor Dr. Philpot. She has very little in-depth knowledge of these folks. And when the killing takes place, she is unable to provide the police with much actual information.
Crofts earlier reconstructed events on a river in The Ponson Case (Chapters 1, 2).
Like many Crofts books, the opening of The Sea Mystery is set in a real locale: Burry Port in the south of Wales.
The reference does establish that The Cask takes place in the same "universe" as the French books, to use the modern term. French is described as a friend of Inspector Burnley of The Cask. Later, other detectives from early, pre-French Crofts novels will make guest appearances in some French books.
The reference also establishes that the opening situation in is seen explicitly as a variation on the one in The Cask. Similarly, the construction site in The Hog's Back Mystery (Chapters 16, 17) is depicted as a variation on one in a preceding French novel. In both cases French is consciously aware of these similarities.
French will solve another disappearance mystery in The Hog's Back Mystery.
It makes "Duplicators", and other office equipment. I think these are what were called "mimeograph machines" in the United States. These were a key kind of information technology, used to mass produce documents, newsletters, political and Civil Rights information, mystery and science fiction fanzines, teaching materials for classrooms. Like the printing firms shown in The Ponson Case and The Loss of the "Jane Vosper", these were a way to spread many copies of a document. However, they were much cheaper than printing firms, and the simple mimeograph technology could be used by laymen with no special training.
The puzzle of the disposal of the duplicator, set forth and solved in these sections, is a nice mystery subplot.
SPOILERS. The duplicator puzzle, and the factory scenes as a whole, stress the assembly of parts in manufacturing. Assembly, outside of a factory context, is also seen in The Hog's Back Mystery, with the doll houses that are put together.
However, it is unclear whether Crofts thought of such things as simply "typical of advanced factories" versus "typical of Modern Architecture" as a whole. The Sea Mystery is fascinated by contemporary factories, both their architecture and business organization. But it never explicitly recognizes a movement called Modern Architecture. The Sea Mystery certainly examines factories. But it is not clear that it recognizes them as an example of what we now call Modern Architecture.
All three books:
There is also a great deal of emphasis in the novel on police detective work. French comes up with an endless number of ingenious ways to gather evidence against the crooks. The book is 250 pages of pure detection.
Evaluating the quality of The Box Office Murders is a bit difficult. The work is very readable: in fact I downed most of it in a single sitting, which is quite unusual for the often labored Crofts. It gains big plusses from being a logically organized exposition of a single theme. There is almost no padding in the novel: every chapter has something new to add to the big picture. Some of French's detective work is fascinating, and it is really pleasant to see such a determined approach to detection, which is too often neglected today. However, the book can get repetitive, and is narrowly focused: there is little in the way of characterization, there is little plot in the conventional sense, and most of the whodunit mechanism of the Golden Age is simply missing. The work can seem thin, and even trivial. It is nowhere as rich as Crofts' classic The Cask (1920). However, Crofts deserves big plusses for trying something original, and for pulling it off so well.
If Crofts' book seems largely sui generis in Golden Age detective fiction, it does have an important ancestor within his own work: The Pit-Prop Syndicate, which contains a somewhat similar crime scheme.
While The Box Office Murders concerns a crime scheme, it has little to do with the Rogue literature of the previous generation. Rogue stories tend to focus tightly on the personalities of their crooks, with especial emphasis on their cleverness, their tweaking the nose of authority, etc. Crofts, in contrast, focuses on the crime scheme itself, and its technological and organizational features. The class element that is so important in Rogue stories is also altered here. Rogue stories tend to have lower class crooks who take on the clothes and personas of upper class members. Crofts' characters instead are explicitly identified by him as members of the lower middle classes. Inspector French himself seems petit bourgeois, and the story is one of the most relentlessly and unusually middle class of all Golden Age novels. The criminals seem in fact like tradesmen or small businessmen, and French at one point compares them to "industry in the British Isles", a memorable and apt comparison.
French is somewhat better characterized here than in his debut novel, the dreary, and unfortunately titled, Inspector French's Greatest Case (1924). Here, at least, he comes across as extremely tenacious, emotionally involved in his work, ingenious at coming up with schemes for detection, and somewhat slippery in his dealings with the public.
One thing seems odd: while the bad guys seem to have great technical and engineering resources, the police seem to have none. At one point, French explicitly yearns for the skills of a Dr. Thorndyke. Well, why couldn't he get them? It seems amazing, but Crofts' novel suggests that in 1929, Scotland Yard seems to still have nothing resembling a police laboratory, or any scientists it can turn to for help in its investigations. The police in the book do have great organizational skills, just like the criminals, but they are completely lacking their scientific expertise. This leads to a serious imbalance in the story. Only the crooks in the novel get the benefit of Crofts' technological imagination. Because this is the heart of the tale, in some ways the crooks come across as the real protagonists of the story.
Oddly enough, while The Cask is a puzzle plot and The Box Office Murders is not, The Cask seems much more realistic than the other book, which seems more like a fantasy of The Perfect Crime. Also, the investigative procedure in The Cask also seems much more authentic, although I admit this personal impression is not based on any genuine knowledge on my part of police procedure in the 1920's. French's detectival technique in The Box Office Murders seems largely designed to unravel cunning criminal conspiracies, and such conspiracies seem to me to be basically a fictional fantasy. By contrast, the police techniques in The Cask look as if they could be used to solve real life crimes.
The Box Office Murders has an advantage over its predecessor The Pit-Prop Syndicate, in that all of the detection is done by pros. The amateurs of the early chapters of The Pit-Prop Syndicate were always having their investigative hands tied by their amateur status. That book's crime could have been solved much earlier (and more entertainingly) if some professional police had taken charge, with warrants to search everything and investigate all. French's full frontal assault on the conspiracy in The Box Office Murders is much more satisfying as a logical approach to investigating such a situation.
There is also some technological similarity to Meade and Eustace, who stand behind Freeman in the scientific detective story tradition. M&E's crooks engage in industrial enterprises, too; they emphasize means of communication; and they pioneered the sinister use of basements: all features found in The Box Office Murders. It is odd to see such continuity across nearly 30 years in time. The heavy involvement of women in the tale, both as villains and protagonists, is also an M&E tradition. There are other signs of continuity between M&E and the Croftsian school, perhaps through Eustace, who was active through the 20's. His "The Tea-Leaf" (1925) has a similar setting as Wade's slightly later "The Three Keys", and Dorothy L. Sayers was collaborating with Eustace, and pointing out M&E's pioneering role in the school of scientific detection.
Crofts' novel does seem somewhat anticipatory of later Big Caper tales, wherein thieves plot some big heist from a museum, say, complete with careful organization, and some technological gimmickry. This was a subject that was popular in post World War II movies. However, Big Caper tales tend to focus on one-time events, such as a major robbery, whereas Crofts' book deals with an ongoing criminal enterprise; and Big Caper tales have the thieves as protagonists, whereas Crofts' hero is the police detective French.
Crofts' book also shows some similarities to the drug smuggling episodes in such books as Sayers' Murder Must Advertise (1933) and Christie's Partners in Crime (1929). However, if these writers show some of Crofts' interest in criminal organization, they are miles away from his technological interests and skills.
Crofts' books are also oddly like the Stratemeyer syndicate novels: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are always meeting suspicious characters, whose sinister schemes they have to track down. Just as in Crofts' book, the issue of whodunit does not apply: the crooks are identified early on. And just like in Crofts' tales, the issue is not murder, but some disreputable money making scheme. Crofts also has mild thriller elements, just like the Stratemeyer books. At the end, a young woman gets kidnapped by the bad guys, just like the ending of dozens of Nancy Drew stories. Even Crofts compares this with numerous "thrillers" read by the young lady in question. Crofts shows a feminist slant here, burlesquing these thrillers' passive heroines and male rescues; his own heroine has to show a lot more gumption. Even during these well done thriller sequences, Crofts continues to paint a picture of the technological and organizational aspects of his villains' crime scheme. His kidnapped heroine, too, has to show an imagination that is largely technological.
SPOILERS. The closest thing to a subplot in Sir John Magill's Last Journey is the account of the injured man (explored in Chapter 18). Even this is a direct component of the main mystery plot, and not separate like other books' subplots often are.
Ellery Queen once referred to his own books and those of similar writers as the "Straightforward American School" of detective fiction. He meant that these books start out with a mystery, then concentrate in a straightforward way on its investigation and solution. Sir John Magill's Last Journey has the same sort of "pure investigation of a mystery" structure. (Sir John Magill's Last Journey is not American, of course: it takes place entirely in Great Britain!)
Before Ellery Queen referred to the "Straightforward American School" in the 1940's, famed critic Vincent Starrett wrote that "Crofts tells a straight-forward tale of crime and detection". This was quoted in a 1936 ad by Crofts' American publishers Dodd, Mead and Company. The ad is reproduced in Curtis Evans' book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012).
The characters are frequently on the road, so there are many pleasant descriptions of travel by train, car and boat. To a degree, one might say that "travel" serves as a Background subject in Sir John Magill's Last Journey. However, this is stretching the concept of Background. Mystery in the Channel has boats and ships as a Background, and contains a great deal of specialized, inside information on this topic. By contrast, Sir John Magill's Last Journey restricts itself to conventional concepts: you buy a ticket, go on board a ship, sleep in your berth, etc. This cannot really be called a Background. Travel is a constant subject matter in the book - but not presented with the inside information that characterizes a Background.
Sir John Magill's Last Journey thus lacks the fascination that the Backgrounds in other Crofts works have. And it is thus probably not at the very pinnacle of Crofts' achievement. But the absence of a Background somewhat surprisingly does not prevent the enjoyment of the story. Sir John Magill's Last Journey is an enjoyable reading experience throughout.
This initial story of the trip will be referenced again and again throughout the rest of the novel. It is the main building block, on which the plot of the book as a whole, is founded.
Let's call this version of Sir John Magill's journey in the first chapter, the Standard Account.
Additions. In the rest of the book, the Standard Account is changed in two ways. First, there are three additions to the Standard Account (last part of Chapter 3, first half of Chapter 8, Chapter 12). These are the result of witnesses who give additional testimony about Sir John's trip. All of these additions deal with the final stages of Sir John's journey, after he arrives in Ireland. Most importantly, all three are hard to explain. They seemingly make little logical sense. They have Sir John doing things that are out of character and/or not justified by the purposes of his trip.
These additions form surreal extensions of the Standard Account.
While the police pay close attention to the additions, they have little success in explaining them, at least at first. And the additions do not lead to deeper understandings of the mystery, or solutions to the crime. They just result in the police being more baffled than ever.
Modifications. The second series of changes to the Standard Account are very different. These start with M'Clung's insight, leading the police to question a new witness about a new topic (first part of Chapter 9). This unexpectedly leads to a long chain of revelations, which steadily accumulate through the whole rest of the novel.
These revelations modify the Standard Account. They show that what the police and reader believed to be true about various episodes of the Standard Account, were in fact subtly different from the actual reality. What the police thought was true, was actually not quite true at all. Reality is revealed to be more complex than originally thought.
These modifications do reveals the solution of the mystery, step-by-step. Each modification gets us closer to the truth behind the crime. This is in total contrast to the earlier additions, which simply made the crime more baffling, and which failed to provide any solution.
This transformation of ideas is the result of thinking about the new evidence. It recalls the way that detectives of the Intuitionist School solve cases by pure thinking. French's discovery of the solution by hard thinking (Chapter 18) seems especially close to passages in many Intuitionist detective works. See Doyle's Sherlock Holmes solving a case by pure thinking in "The Man with the Twisted Lip" for example.
Both Crofts' transformative ideas in Sir John Magill's Last Journey, and the ideas found by thinking by Intuitionist detectives, resemble the paradigm shift in science. They offer fundamental transformations of how a thinker sees some field of study, whether a mystery problem, or a scientific discipline.
The new transformative ideas that French and M'Clung get in Sir John Magill's Last Journey should be regarded as part of the solution of the case. These concepts form a permanent part of what will be the mystery's complete solution.
SPOILERS. In Sir John Magill's Last Journey, we are talking about:
This anticipates tracking the doctor and his woman friend in The Hog's Back Mystery. In both novels, the tracking leads to major plot surprises.
Later, M'Clung insists on French's investigating suspects who French has no interest in investigating (end of Chapter 12). We see French reluctantly keeping at this, only because of his commitment to M'Clung and M'Clung's boss Rainey (middle of Chapter 13). But M'Clung proves right again, eventually.
So at two key points, it is M'Clung and not French who does the main detective work.
When detectives in mystery novels travel to foreign countries, often times the books go to great lengths to depict the local police of those countries as intelligent and skillful. This helps depict the country with respect, and avoid offense. This is likely part of what is going on with M'Clung. M'Clung works for the Royal Ulster Constabulary: the Northern Ireland police. And Sir John Magill's Last Journey is thus treating Northern Ireland with respect.
But Sir John Magill's Last Journey is also depicting French as fallible. And benefitting from other policemen's ideas. One suspects that this is the most important reason that M'Clung is allowed by Crofts to contribute so significantly.
Only glamour boys like the salesmen in Hammett and Crofts get this skeptical treatment. By contrast, the respectable-but-lower-middle-class salesmen in Dorothy L. Sayers' Montague Egg stories, and in the film Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) are treated as Good Guys.
These polished young salesmen with moral problems in Hammett and Crofts recall other glamorous young men with hidden sides: characters in The Social Gangster (collected 1916) by Arthur B. Reeve.
Crofts' technique reminds one a bit of a mainstream author of the era: John Galsworthy and his play Escape (1926). Escape too has many vignettes, in which we get brief but vivid portraits of characters. As in Crofts, there is a naturalistic or everyday quality to their dialogue, in which people converse naturally about their lives and attitudes.
The suspects are all upper middle class men, perhaps willing to do monstrous things out of greed. This will also characterize villains in Crofts' The Hog's Back Mystery.
The two backgrounds allow for pleasing contrasts:
Mystery in the Channel deals with tracing a complex financial crime, and the money trail has some unusual developments and demanding detective work. These parts of the novel are creatively imagined. By contrast, Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy simply traces a note.
These earlier American writers took an interest in business, commercial life and the professional activities of their characters, as did Crofts. In both these Americans and Crofts, this is a Good Thing.
Much is made of the fact that no houses or buildings overlook the area, thus concealing it from view. Similar concerns for non-overlooked areas in the countryside are prominent in the road construction area in The Hog's Back Mystery (Chapter 16). In both cases, this allows for criminal activity to take place in the region.
"Lines of sight", what can be seen from various points of view, play a different role in "The Confession" (1917) and The Door (1930) by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
BIG SPOILERS. The solution involves a new module. This is perhaps linked to the assembly of parts in:
More "upper middle class homes in the country" are the setting of The Hog's Back Mystery.
One problem with this otherwise pleasant chapter: none of heroine Anne's struggles to stay employed turn out to have much to do with the mystery. Anne does not become a detective figure later on: all of that is left to Inspector French. Nor does she become a romantic heroine. I thought she might have a romance with the house's hunky chauffeur. But apparently, the class gap between the two of them seems to make such a marriage Out Of the Question in 1930's class-obsessed Britain.
The opening of The Hog's Back Mystery (Chapters 1, 2) will also recall Rinehart's approach. There are even two Had I But Known passages (middle of Chapter 1, end of Chapter 1), one of Rinehart's signature tropes.
Crofts solves the locked room puzzle at the end of Chapter 12. At this point, we are still only a little more than half way through the novel. This "solve as you go" approach is standard for Crofts, who usually shows us everything his sleuth is thinking throughout the story. But it is really atypical of impossible crime books, which tend to have a big unraveling in the last chapter.
Crofts tries to keep interest high, by introducing a whole second locked room puzzle in these later chapters. Unfortunately, this second murder has a solution that is today something of a cliché. To be fair, it is a legitimate approach. And I'm also not aware of who else might have used it by 1932. It's possible that it might even be original with Crofts and Sudden Death.
Another of Crofts' series detectives, Inspector Tanner from The Ponson Case, puts in a brief but pleasant appearance (second half of Chapter 8).
Consequently, I found the book's overall plot and ultimate solution disappointing. By contrast, passages of traditional detective work and tracking suspects, found in the book's mid-sections, are often impressive and make absorbing reading. These are discussed in more detail below.
Unfortunately, some reviews have no compunction about spoiling these events. The idea seems to be that at long as you conceal the culprit revealed at the tale's end, that mentioning everything else is fair game. I disagree. I can only suggest that you avoid reading much about the book before you start reading it yourself. And don't read the back cover of the recent paperback edition either.
Especially good: French reasoning out the return journey the characters likely took (first half of 8).
SPOILERS. This episode opens with French using a document found in one of Dr. Earle's overcoats. This recalls a similar gambit with a business card found in a suit in Crofts' earlier Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930).
SPOILERS. In keeping with much of the rest of The Hog's Back Mystery, the suspects principally traveled by motor vehicles. This is different from the boat and train journeys on which many other Crofts novels concentrate. We get a look at parking areas and how they were run in 1934 England.
This section has a three-part structure, with the first and third sections similar, and the second, middle section forming a contrast. (Such a pattern recalls classical music forms such as the "aria da capo" and the "minuet".):
French does some brief but solid detective work, telling people where to explore in this locale. This reminds one of his excellent detective work in the opening of The Sea Mystery.
By contrast, the chauffeurs in The Hog's Back Mystery are given what might be intended as a "realistic" treatment. These chauffeurs are mainly married, sometimes with children. They are good at their job, but completely lacking in glamour. They seem like regular "working stiffs". Their working class status is underlined at every occurrence. They are treated respectfully, but not idealized.
Crofts has transformed the image of chauffeurs in The Hog's Back Mystery, just as his fiction as a whole transformed the depiction of detectives:
British realist authors in the early 1930's often included brief comments on the movies, and especially motion pictures as an industry. The film industry seemed to be viewed as an exemplar of "modernity". See:
French threatens a suspect he is questioning, telling him if he doesn't speak up, that the police have ways of making him talk (start of Chapter 7). I found these threats creepy. Suspects should have the right to remain silent, and not incriminate themselves. Also, there is no actual evidence linking this suspect to any criminal behavior. He has motives to commit a crime, but nothing more. So French is threatening someone for whom there is no evidence of criminal activity.
French is also threatening to suspects in the later Man Overboard! (1936) (Chapter 14). Here at least these men are possible criminals. One of them, a belligerent man, tells French "This wasn't Russia or Germany." So by 1936, the British Public was aware there were police states where people had no rights. However, there is no sign that French has the slightest concern that he might be endangering civil liberties. And I cannot see much sign of concern on Crofts' part either. This mentioning of "Russia or Germany" seems like bluster from a hardcase, rather than a thoughtful look at civil rights in Britain.
This criteria recalls a key passage in Genius in Murder (1932) by E.R. Punshon. If the police investigate a rich financier for business swindles, but fail to prove their case, the investigation will be treated as an outrage, and the police will be fired. Only if the police prove swindling, will everything be alright (Chapter 14). Just like the exhumation in The Hog's Back Mystery, if the investigation succeeds, it is tolerated; if it fails, it leads to the firing of the officers involved. And as in The Hog's Back Mystery, the wealth and position of the suspect are what causes this drastic standard to be applied.
These criteria are different from US law. In the USA, if the police have solid evidence that a possible crime might have taken place, they can go to a judge, and ask for a warrant. The judge examines the evidence; if it is good enough, the judge rules that the evidence is probable cause, and justifies a warrant. The police then execute the warrant. Whether or not the warrant succeeds in finding more evidence that proves a crime, the police are seen as having acted properly and in accord with the rule of law. They do not get fired if the warrant fails.
The nurse in The Hog's Back Mystery faces similar over-strict standards (see the letter at the end of Chapter 23). If she raises concerns over a relative possibly poisoning a victim, and her concerns later turn out to be groundless, her career will be ruined. She can raise issues only if she turns out to be "correct".
These sections in The Hog's Back Mystery and Genius in Murder reveal the excessive power of the British upper classes in the 1930's. They also recall the drastic, over-strict libel laws that protected the wealthy in that era.
The good sections:
Mystery on Southampton Water is far from routine. It has solid craftsmanship, much detail, and flowing storytelling throughout. But, as best as I can tell, it only occasionally develops into first-rate content, in the sections listed above.
By contrast, one of the good things about French's detective work late in the book (Chapters 17, 18, 19, 20, 21) is that it concentrates on French being helped by witnesses and technical experts. As usual in Crofts, such witnesses and experts are interesting. They are fun to read about.
This issue is discussed in more detail in the section on Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, another Crofts novel that suffers from its focus on criminals.
SPOILERS. The first crime is a "killing disguised as a traffic accident". This plot has appeared at least fifty times in films and television - maybe hundreds. To be fair, it might have been fresher in 1934, when Crofts used it. Mystery on Southampton Water devotes a huge amount of time to the villains setting this up, and the police investigating it (Chapters 7, 8, 9). It's the central mystery problem in the first half of the novel.
Worse is the alibi puzzle. French himself refers to the solution as as "a very old trick" (Chapter 23). That's for sure. In fact, S.S. Van Dine was pleading for writers to stop using this ancient gimmick, in his anthology The World's Great Detective Stories (1928) (see the last section of the Introduction). That was in 1928, six years before Mystery on Southampton Water!
BIG SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THIS SECTION. The puzzle: how did explosives get on the boat, even though the docks were full of workers watching everything?
Crofts solution depends on the geometric, architectural layout of the dock area. His solution is in the same broad family as one of the impossible crimes in Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot, one in which a killer moves around despite a witness. The details in both books are completely different. Both are good.
Hake Talbot comes out of a completely different mystery fiction tradition than Crofts. As best I can tell, impossible crimes in other Crofts books don't much resemble the one he has created here in Mystery on Southampton Water. It shows Crofts "moving out of his comfort zone", to use the modern phrase, and exploring different approaches.
A problem: I had difficulties visualizing the layout of the dock area, at first. After re-readings I THINK I understand the layout. Diagrams and maps would have helped. The situation is similar to, but not as bad as, the train in "The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express", where I just didn't understand the layout of 1920's trains. While a bit confusing, this problem did not prevent me from enjoying Crofts' inventive ideas here in Mystery on Southampton Water.
This puzzle is of the kind known as a "howdunit" or "how-done-it". Howdunits are mysteries where it is completely unclear how a crime took place, in physical terms. The detective has to figure this out. Howdunits have a long, distinguished tradition in mystery fiction.
Mystery on Southampton Water gets to work right away on this howdunit mystery (Chapter 17). The first witnesses are baffled at how the fire occurred. They have good reasons why it could not have been caused by petrol (gasoline).
French's elucidation of the mystery goes through many stages. It's an impressive piece of plotting. Crofts sets things up, so that an "obvious" explanation turns out to have massive problems (Chapter 18).
The actual explanation turns out to be ingeniously different (Chapter 20). It explains and resolves the problems noted earlier, in the discussion of the failed "obvious" solution.
Here is a mystery whose solution is its high point in inventiveness: always a fun sort of mystery to read. This is a structural feature. Crofts has constructed this mystery like a piece of classical music, where the development steadily builds until the story reaches a climax.
This passage shows Crofts' ability as a prose stylist. It is full of alliteration. There are parallel constructions: "individual in question", "invariably possessed".
In Sir John Magill's Last Journey the science fiction imagery is used to express an abstract state of mind in Inspector French. By contrast, French's thinking in Mystery on Southampton Water is normal, and not abstract.
Oddly, Crofts regards the Depression as being "over" by 1934 (Chapter 1). Admittedly, a recovery was underway by 1934, from the lowest depths of unemployment. But in real life the Depression and its problems would hang on for years, until ending in the 1940's.
Mystery on Southampton Water is mainly set in the business world, with businessmen characters. Unlike many business novels, there are no businesswomen. And no female support staff, like receptionists, typists or switchboard operators.
Feminists should not necessarily object to this. Mystery on Southampton Water is centrally a portrait of business corruption. Its businessmen characters keep sinking lower and lower into vile behavior. Mystery on Southampton Water depicts this as a problem among business MEN. Feminists might consider it lucky that Crofts does not depicts women in business as corrupt.
Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery documents how many of Crofts' 1930's books focus on crooked businessmen. It's 75%.
The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" has a dual focus:
The opening of Crofts' earlier Mystery in the Channel took place at sea, and showed the mystery from the point-of-view of professional ship's officers who discover the crime. The start of The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" offers a similar view of the crime from the perspective of the ship's Captain and officers. Both opening sections are full of nautical detail.
Captain James Hassell of the "Jane Vosper" is the main viewpoint character in the opening. Hassell resembles series sleuth Inspector French, in that both men are intelligent, observant and practical. Like French trying to understand a case, Hassell keeps trying to understand the events on his ship. Hassell is shown repeatedly revising his ideas and plans, just as French revises his ideas and plans throughout a case.
Both Hassell and French are shown as motivated by a desire for professional success. They are middle class men concerned with their career. Both are also figures of integrity, who stick to the straight-and-narrow in their actions.
Unfortunately, much of this inquiry is dull, merely thrashing over facts we already knew. It is not as long or as dreary as the courtroom episode in Crofts' next novel Man Overboard!, but it is a step in the wrong direction.
On the positive side, it is interesting to see what a Board of Trade inquiry is like (first part of Chapter 3). It is not a standard courtroom procedure, and not one I have seen in many other novels.
Also good: the questions barrister Richard Armitrage asks Hassell about the ship's position (middle of Chapter 4). These show good detective work. Their "computational reasoning about a ship's position" recalls the more extensive calculations in Mystery in the Channel.
Richard Armitrage is introduced as one of those high-powered barristers famous for their oratorical skill and courtroom presence (Chapter 3). This led me to expect the worst from him. Instead, he unexpectedly shows intelligence in his questions: substance rather than style.
Trade Union representatives are present at the hearing. Crofts criticizes them mildly for not having anything substantial to say.
The inquiry also introduces characters who will play a role in the rest of the novel.
Today such detective work would employ computer databases. But in The Loss of the "Jane Vosper", it involves searching through the paper records of businesses by hand. The search technique, then and now, is the same. It simply is computerized today.
This section recalls the much simpler episode of finding where a man purchased clothes in Mystery in the Channel (Chapter 13).
The book's other problem: it's a tale of a nice woman who gets more and more involved with various business sharpies who seem out to victimize and/or swindle her. Reading it made me nervous.
The best detective work in Man Overboard! is unexpectedly done, not by the policemen heroes, but by an amateur. This detection is by businessman Philip Jefferson (Chapter 11).
Jefferson does not do anything radical. He simply checks up on the movements of the victim, during the last day of the victim's life. This is a standard part of police procedure in other Crofts books, something automatically done by Inspector French. But French and Sergeant M'Clung fail to do this in Man Overboard!. When Jefferson does this check, it immediately leads to an important discovery, one that establishes for the first time that the crime is likely murder.
One has to conclude that French and Sergeant M'Clung in Man Overboard! have shown a serious intellectual failing in their handling of the case.
There are some parallels to The Hog's Back Mystery. Throughout the whole initial investigation in The Hog's Back Mystery, French and the other police are convinced that the mystery is based in illicit passion: either the disappeared man has run off with a girlfriend, or he has perhaps been murdered by a jealous lover. It takes French forever to consider that he might be dealing with a deliberate murder committed for financial gain: the actual explanation of the crime.
Similarly in Man Overboard! most of the police initially regard the case as a routine suicide by a man in debt - or perhaps as a deliberate disappearance. Until Jefferson, they find it it hard to grasp that this is in fact a murder for financial gain.
The fact that Jefferson has a business investment in the situation, and is deeply worried that he might be financially swindled, motivates him to look into possible financial chicanery in the case.
One wonders if there is some implicit social commentary in this. Crofts does not draw any explicit "moral". But both The Hog's Back Mystery and Man Overboard! show the police finding it hard to grasp that middle class or upper middle class people might deliberately kill for money.
Later, heroine Pamela Grey makes the book's other key discovery (Chapters 19 - 20). The discovery comes her way by chance, unlike Jefferson's deliberate detective work. But the intelligent, observant Grey carefully, doggedly reasons out the clue's implications.
The police are less to blame in the Grey episode, than in the Jefferson subplot. It is not the fault of French that the clue came by chance to Grey, rather than to him. Still, both the Jefferson and Grey episodes show the case's main discoveries made by amateur detectives, rather than a professional policeman like French.
The prominence of amateur detectives in Man Overboard! recalls The Ponson Case.
The invention involves Energy. But it is NOT that staple of fiction about Energy, a new power supply or energy source. Instead, the invention strives to make existing energy sources safer and cheaper to use. Please see my List of Mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.
The main chemical ideas are explained (first half of Chapter 2). They involve chemical conversion of a substance from one form to another. Kurt Vonnegut's science fiction novel Cat's Cradle (1963) offers a nightmare account of such conversions. It frequently came to mind while reading the opening of Man Overboard!. Perhaps unfairly to Crofts, the Vonnegut association added a disturbing, nasty undertone to what I was reading.
Little of the scientific and technical detail in the opening chapters, plays any actual role in the mystery puzzle plot.
Fatal Venture will also open with a detailed look at a new business.
Both books vividly establish that sexual harassment is not a new problem, and that women were struggling with it back in the 1920's and 1930's. One notes that 1930's Hollywood films, especially "working women" films from Warner Brothers, also showed women struggling with unwelcomed lecherous bosses.
Unfortunately, Man Overboard! lacks today's perspective on sexual harassment. The book and heroine don't even have a name for what the heroine is experiencing. Nor does she have the perspective to see that harassment is a political problem and social problem.
Finally, in the last section of the story, Crofts finally gets down to his own specialty, the breaking down of alibis. Even here, the technological aspects remind one of Freeman.
When the murder does finally occur on page 93, it takes place on shore, during a tourist excursion to Northern Ireland, and the whole cruise ship aspect of the book has nothing to do with the crime. In many ways, the actual mystery portions of the book would form a short story, and only the non-mystery sections expand the work to novel length. Freeman's Mr. Polton Explains (1940) will also combine a mainstream, non-mystery first half with a mystery novel second half.
The book shows the ambiguity with which British writers viewed business. Crofts is gung ho about his business scheme. He is one of the Golden Age British novelists to take an interest in business. The book is rich in detail about how business negotiations were conducted, and how new enterprises were formed in the 1930's. But he also shows his businessmen to be grasping and amoral, and much of the business enterprise to be immoral.
Americans today tend to think of a "booming economy" in which every economic advance helps other people also make money. Crofts asserts however that "one man's profit is another man's loss", and depicts business as a zero sum game with winners and losers.
In addition, while there is some good detective work tracking down villains, the story is hardly a fair play, puzzle plot detective story.
This part also involves some police counter-espionage schemes, which are in the light-hearted Rogue fiction tradition. Like the gentlemen con men who populate Rogue stories, the police here lie, cook up ingenious schemes, dress up in uniforms not their own, and engage in all sorts of sneaky - but non-violent - activities normally performed by mystery fiction's crooks.
However, I am not sure that even if I understood this story, I would enjoy any mystery given such a purely technical solution.
The mystery can be seen as an impossible crime. Crofts would later include a crime with impossible aspects on a train in Sir John Magill's Last Journey: the material about manipulating a locked door. The actual impossibility, and its technical explanation, are completely different in the two tales.
There are two copies of the painting in "The Greuze". But the copies are not used for the "breakdown of identity", unlike many Crofts tales with multiple copies of an object. Instead, Crofts uses the two copies as part of a strange, mystifying story and crime plot.
The locations where the hero finds the directories are interesting.
In The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" (Chapter 9), Inspector French uses city directories for London. He finds them in every post office.
See my list of mystery writers who use City Directories.
Crofts lays on thick the upper-class lifestyle of riding horses, hunting, and gambling with cards. One suspects he disapproves of all of this. It recalls the upper middle class wastrel Slade in The Hog's Back Mystery, and his obsession with gambling on horse races.
SPOILERS. Men's evening clothes play a role, as they do in Mystery in the Channel. How women dress in the evening is part of the solution in The Scoop.
BIG SPOILERS. The location of the fingerprints, and how they got there, recalls The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" (middle of Chapter 12).
The premise of the tale involves an invention, formed of two bottles of different kinds of chemicals. This recalls the chemical invention that is the MacGuffin in Man Overboard!. The technological ideas in "The Two Bottles" are simpler than those in Man Overboard!, but come out of recognizably the same approach.
The character, relationships and motives in "The Two Bottles" recall in general terms those in The Hog's Back Mystery. Both have:
The killer's identity is easy to guess in "The Two Bottles".
Crofts' two sections of The Scoop look as if he conceived them as a pair at the same time. They deal with related plot ideas and characters. Together they make up a work of short-story length.
Crofts' sections introduce a Scotland Yard inspector, with what is surely a piece of self-conscious humor on his part - what else would anyone expect a Crofts section to be about?
Aspects of the mystery plot anticipate The Hog's Back Mystery. BIG SPOILERS:
Not surprisingly for Crofts, his section concentrates on police procedure! Its first half has Inspector Rudge finding a witness to identify the body. And setting up courses of action for police investigation. These are sensible, albeit unoriginal.
BIG SPOILERS. As in both Sir John Magill's Last Journey (Chapter 10) and The Hog's Back Mystery (first half of Chapter 8), the policeman's routine inquiry to reconstruct trips, leads to surprising discoveries. In both The Floating Admiral and Sir John Magill's Last Journey, this discovery involves the policeman figuring out that a mysterious suspect he has been tracing is actually the same person as someone else known to him previously in the case. In Sir John Magill's Last Journey, this is a brilliant piece of detective plotting, which ingeniously ties together known facts, and opens up remarkable new vistas of understanding and future investigation. But in The Floating Admiral, this discovery is more routine. It simply identifies a mysterious character, nothing more.
In both works, this discovery that two characters are actually the same person, in an example of the Realist School's theme of the breakdown of identity.
Various lies told by Mount are summed up at the end of the chapter. This recalls relentless liar James Dangle in The Cheyne Mystery.