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 | Death on the Way
| 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
Freeman Wills Crofts
The Cask (1920) (available on-line at
The Sea Mystery (1928) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, first part of 12)
The Box Office Murders (1929) (available on-line at
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)
Death of a Train (1947) (Chapters 1-8, 10, 15)
The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express
The above is not a complete list of Crofts' novels and short stories;
it instead contains my favorite Crofts works, those I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others.
The lists under the collections do not include all the short stories in the book, just the ones I recommend.
- The Greuze (1921)
- East Wind
Freeman Wills Crofts
Freeman Wills Crofts' mystery novels were highly influential:
Crofts has a beautiful prose style, clear and vivid. Crofts' stories
have an even flowing tone, that reminds one of Hawthorne.
They march steadily on, without climax or structure, steadily,
step by step unveiling his mystery plots and descriptions of events.
- Books like his about Scotland Yard policemen were created
by many subsequent British authors starting in the 1920's, and
have played a major role in British mystery fiction to this day.
- They also influenced the Inspector Maigret police novels of
the Belgian Georges Simenon.
- Christopher Bush in England became
a specialist in alibi plots, following the footsteps of Crofts.
- Crofts' emphasis on crime-solving professionals and their
investigative procedure influenced the hard-boiled private eye
writers in the United States, such as Dashiell Hammett
and Raymond Chandler. Some of Crofts'
early novels such as The Cask (1920) and The Cheyne
Mystery (1926) include private investigators, although these
men are not as hard-boiled as their American successors.
- Much later, in 1950's Japan, Seicho Matsumoto
inaugurated a series of Croftsian works in which policemen battle
alibis through procedural investigation.
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:
- Crofts is one of three writers explored in depth in Curtis Evans' book
Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012).
- Curtis Evans' articles on Crofts are at
and at Mystery*File.
- George Kelley and Marcia Muller's entries on Crofts in Muller and Pronzini's critical compendium,
1001 Midnights (1986). These are reprinted on-line (with permission) at
Mystery*File and at
- William F. Deeck's article on Fatal Venture is at
- A mystery fiction bibliography is at the
Golden Age of Detection Wiki.
The Cask (1920) was Crofts' first novel, and a hugely popular
book. The Cask still is Crofts' best and most important
piece of fiction. If you have not read Crofts, The Cask
is the best place to start.
Four features of The Cask are especially notable:
- It codified the "procedural": a book which follows
the step-by-step detection of professional sleuths, such as policemen
- It contains a Background, a documentary-like look into an
institution or region: here the shipping business in Paris and
London. Such Backgrounds had previously appeared in American Scientific Detection
writers such as Arthur B. Reeve, and the team of MacHarg and Balmer.
Crofts brought the Background to a new level of elaborateness
in The Cask. He probably popularized the use of a Background
among his huge circle of mystery writer followers.
- Tracing out the mysterious movements of the cask.
- The alibi puzzle.
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 Ponson Case
The Ponson Case (1921) is an ultimately disappointing book
from Freeman Wills Crofts. Best parts: Chapters 1, 2, 3, end of 6, 7, 10.
It starts out well, with a beautifully
written account of a summer evening at an English Country Mansion
- that much discussed but seldom seen setting for Golden Age mysteries.
Soon, Sir William Ponson is found dead. Who killed him? There
are only three suspects, his noble son Austin, his bad-boy London
playboy nephew Cosgrove, and the Mysterious Stranger whose footprints
are all over the crime scene. Inspector Tanner tracks down all
three men's movements for the next 300 pages. This being Crofts,
both Austin and Cosgrove have alibis.
Landscape and Architecture
The opening (Chapters 1-3) builds up a fascinating and beautiful landscape around the country house.
This landscape includes a river. It also includes architecture: a boat house and a bridge.
The Ponson Case has two big problems. One, aside from Cosgrove's alibi, there is
little ingenuity of plot. SPOILERS. The solution is a disappointment, the
map of the countryside turns out to have nothing to do with the
mystery, the Big Surprise about Sir William being blackmailed
is obvious to every reader 250 pages before Scotland Yard tumbles
to it, the subject of the blackmail is easy to guess, and a child
of five would not be fooled by Austin's alibi.
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.
Only Cosgrove's alibi shows ingenuity. One wishes that Crofts
had included this alibi in a separate novella. It would make fun
reading. The alibi is stated at the very end of Chapter 6, and
investigated in Chapters 7 and 10.
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.
Links to The Hog's Back Mystery
Many aspects of The Ponson Case anticipate Crofts' later The Hog's Back Mystery.
- Take place in country homes of the well-to-do, in a rural region not far from London.
- Open with a man mysteriously disappearing from his upscale home.
This is atmospheric, creepy, and downright surreal.
- Have servants treated as valuable witnesses and sources of information - but not as suspects.
- Have the police track trails of physical evidence across the countryside,
recreating paths that suspects took: The Ponson Case (Chapter 3),
The Hog's Back Mystery (Chapter 13). This is a classic, traditional kind of detective work.
- Witnesses, and the reader, misinterpret things they accidentally see,
to indicate romantic problems, rather than more serious criminal matters:
what the valet Innes hears in the library in The Ponson Case (Chapter 1),
what Ursula sees in London in The Hog's Back Mystery (Chapter 2).
- Duplicate objects play roles in the solution: Austin's shoes in The Ponson Case,
doll house kits in The Hog's Back Mystery. See also the multiple casks in The Cask.
The breakdown of identity applies to such objects, too.
The Mysterious Stranger
The Mysterious Stranger plays a big role in The Ponson Case.
Another Mysterious Stranger (named Coates) is central in Sir John Magill's Last Journey.
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.
Rogue Fiction: Inspector Tanner
Inspector Tanner is an interesting character, and quite different
from the later Inspector French. Tanner is a sneak, a liar, and
a devious conman, who likes to dress up as a rich guy and fool
suspects. Tanner is right out of the Rogue fiction tradition of clever
crooks who use underhanded schemes to swindle rich people - only
Tanner performs his actions to trip up murder suspects. I've never
seen a Scotland Yard man behave like this. One wishes Tanner were
in a better book.
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.
Class is explicitly mentioned. The first paragraph of The Ponson Case
states that the country house is "symbolical" of "upper-class rural England".
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
After his initial triumph with the alibi plot in The Cask,
Crofts turned to stories in which the physical properties of means
of transportation, such as trains and ships, became important.
The tales are only moderately successful, compared with The
Cask, but they have their merits.
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 fair proportion of The Pit-Prop Syndicate is taken up
with a complex criminal scheme similar to the one in Crofts' later
The Box Office Murders (1929). There are even technological
gimmicks used in common in both books.
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:
By the time The Pit-Prop Syndicate
is done, a good novella about a clever crime scheme (at around
a third of the length of the existing novel), has been padded
out into an often very dull novel with a little bit of everything.
Still the crime scheme is well done, and the book forms an interesting
pair with The Box Office Murders. When he came to write
the second book, Crofts wisely concentrated on a single subject,
and a single professional detective investigating it.
- There is a murder and its endless investigation, only marginally relevant to the crime scheme.
- The book stops to switch gears while the amateur investigators of the early chapters are
replaced by the policemen of the later ones.
- There is a romance subplot, innocuous but stilted.
Mystery Plot: The Numbers
The opening (Chapter 1) gets an intriguing mystery going: why has the number on the lorry seem to have changed?
This is perhaps related to other breakdowns of identity in Crofts.
It reminds one of the various casks in The Cask.
You can also learn a lot about motorbiking, boating, shipping
and traveling in remote regions of France in this story: the settings
are as rural as those of The Cask are urban. The plot is
best followed through an atlas, and is set in a realistic geography.
It is atmospheric in showing its heroes' journey through a deserted
region of the French countryside.
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.
Motorcycles are a favorite means of transportation of the British Realist School,
to which Crofts belongs. The Pit-Prop Syndicate is an early Realist School novel
with a motorcycle riding hero.
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).
Inspector French's Greatest Case
Inspector French's Greatest Case (1924), the novel that
introduces Crofts' series detective French, is a return to the
style, if not the quality of The Cask. This book is just
plain terrible. It is not in any way offensive, but it is remarkably
mediocre. The endless travels around Europe tracking down suspects
are pointless and boring, the puzzle plot is nearly non-existent,
and the characters are ciphers. French himself comes across as
the least interesting sleuth in mystery history. He is a deliberately
personalityless character, perhaps intended as a corrective against
The Eccentric Sleuth, but one which has gone way too far.
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927) is known as The Starvel Hollow Tragedy in the United States.
I think the US title is better. But the book is most often discussed using its British title.
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 has no Background, unlike many Crofts novels.
I think this harms the book. One of Crofts' main skills is the creation of such Backgrounds.
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy declines opportunities to include the kind
of Backgrounds found elsewhere in Crofts:
- Whymper's work as an architect is not shown in any detail. By contrast,
Mystery in the Channel gives us vivid looks at the actual work of many of its witnesses.
- The asylum in Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy is not depicted in detail.
- We get only the most skeletal look at the country home and landscape around it
in Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy.
Contrast this with the detailed riverscape in The Ponson Case,
or the vividly shown docks and harbors in Mystery in the Channel.
The Opening: A Woman's Life
The opening (Chapters 1, 2) is told from the point-of-view of a young woman.
We see much about her personal life, romantic feelings, and career and financial problems.
Some other Crofts mysteries also have an opening focus on a woman character:
Sudden Death, The Hog's Back Mystery.
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).
Mystery: The R. Austin Freeman tradition
The opening reminds one of R. Austin Freeman.
Late Freeman books often feature an innocent viewpoint-character who has a limited acquaintance with a mysterious man.
The viewpoint-character meets and learns a little about the mystery man -
but there are big swaths of the mystery man's life which are clouded in darkness and obscurity.
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.
The Sea Mystery
The Opening: First-Rate Detection
The best parts of The Sea Mystery (1928) are the opening
chapters (1-3), which show the discovery of the body, and Inspector
French's reconstruction of part of the crime. Despite the book's
title, these are the only parts of the story that take place on
the water - the remainder of the book takes place on dry land.
They have a magical, lyrical quality that the rest of the book
lacks. They are also the only parts of the book concerned with
pure detection. French uses logic, reasoning and science and engineering
skills to reconstruct a very mysterious looking crime; these sections
are a gem of pure detection. These chapters anticipate in tone
Crofts' immediately following novel, The Box Office Murders (1929).
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 Opening: Reference to The Cask
Warning: Chapter 2 refers to the events of The Cask,
with considerable wit and self referential pizzazz, but also giving
away much of the plot of that book. So don't read this until you
have read Crofts' classic The Cask.
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.
The Rest of the Book: A Disappearance Mystery
The rest of the book is a Golden Age detective novel, with French
trying to explore a maze-like puzzle plot involving a multiple
disappearance. Unfortunately, Crofts' plot twists here are not
too baffling, or too original either. He is in there trying, however,
and these later sections sometimes have their moments.
French will solve another disappearance mystery in The Hog's Back Mystery.
The factory French visits is an interesting place (second part of Chapter 5, Chapter 6, first part of Chapter 12).
Crofts tells us about the organization and spread of information throughout the factory.
Its extensive paper records seem like a model of organization and communication.
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.
The Factory: Modern Architecture
The architecture of the factory sounds rather Modernist (second part of Chapter 5).
The glass walls are especially representative of Modern Architecture (Chapter 6).
Factories were some of the earliest and most progressive Modern Architecture buildings.
And the one in The Sea Mystery reads like an example of this.
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.
Influences on Later Writers
The Sea Mystery was perhaps an influence on some later mysteries:
All three books are key works of the British Realist school.
All three books:
- Have scenes set in Dartmoor.
- Take us to factories or manufacturing facilities: something unusual in mystery fiction.
The Box Office Murders
Freeman Wills Crofts' The Box Office Murders (1929) is
an unusual book for the Golden Age. Despite its title, it is hardly
focused on murder. Mainly, it is a story of three crooks who are
in charge of a big crime scheme, which somehow centers on theater
box offices. The story revolves around Inspector French's attempts
to uncover the nature of this crime scheme, and gather evidence
against the trio. Although the three commit murder to protect
their scheme, the murders are almost irrelevant to the story,
which focuses on French's efforts to unravel the Big Scheme, instead.
There is no whodunit aspect to the tale - the three crooks are
identified right at the start of the story - and little mystery
surrounding the killings. Instead, the mysteries in the tale surround
the crime Scheme itself. What is it? How is pulled off technologically
- there is a great deal of technological and engineering detail
in the story. How is it organized?
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
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
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.
Crofts includes a Jewish character among the police early on in
the tale: Major Bentley, the chief constable (start of Chapter 4).
While the character occurs only in passing, it makes its point:
Jews are good guys, and deeply integrated into British institutions.
It is a welcome contrast to the anti-Semitic portrayals
that are all too common in British popular fiction of its era
- see, for example, the dreadful Henry Wade.
Crofts and Other Writers
Some of the crooks' schemes remind one technologically of R. Austin Freeman's
Danby Croker stories, especially "The Brazen Serpent".
Crofts was very influenced by Freeman; and the references to him
here, as in The Cask, are clearly intended as a homage.
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.
Sir John Magill's Last Journey
A Unified Mystery
Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930) consists of one huge mystery and its investigation.
Unlike many Golden Age mystery novels, it has no subplots. Everything is linked to a single mystery:
the fate of Sir John Magill. There are no digressions, no padding and no irrelevancies, either.
Everything is connected to the book's central mystery.
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.
A Straightforward Mystery
Inspector French starts investigating this mystery on page 1, and doesn't stop till the end of the book.
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).
Sir John Magill's Last Journey doesn't really have a Background, unlike many Crofts works.
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.
Mystery Plot: The Journey - and Story Structure
The opening chapter gives a detailed account of Sir John Magill's final trip from England to Ireland.
The trip is complex, and involves many episodes and stages. It comes to a mysterious end, with Sir John Magill's vanishing.
But otherwise, the story of the trip is logical, plausible and self-consistent.
It seems evidently "normal" and believably true.
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.
Mystery Plot: Transformative Ideas and the Solution
Much of Sir John Magill's Last Journey, like much of Crofts in general, emphasizes
steady routine police work, that gathers more and more facts and evidence.
But there are times when this advancing evidence allows the sleuths to achieve a new insight,
one that radically transforms how they see the events.
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:
- French's conclusions after what they learn in Portpatrick (Chapter 10).
- French gets the full solution (Chapter 18).
Different passages of police tracing characters movements in Sir John Magill's Last Journey
have different goals. Sometimes the police want to track down and find mysterious characters.
The police hope that by tracing the characters' known movements, they will find a clue to
where these characters are now. An example: tracking Coates (Chapter 10).
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.
Detective-sergeant Adam M'Clung has the key insight, that leads to the unravelling of the whole case (first part of Chapter 9).
It's not the solution - but it is the start of the long process of finding the solution.
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.
SPOILERS. Sir John Magill's Last Journey takes sympathetic views of two manufacturers, Sir John and his son Malcolm.
But the novel takes unsympathetic views of its salesmen characters.
So does "The Scorched Face" (1925) by Dashiell Hammett.
Both works evince a suspicion that such glib, well-dressed, charming young men might be concealing moral rot.
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.
Sir John Magill's Last Journey contains many interviews with witnesses.
These are brief passages, in which the characters mainly talk about their work,
and what it led them to see. The witnesses are vividly characterized, in their
attitudes towards their work. Each in addition has his own way of speaking.
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.
At the finale French is waiting to spring a desperate trap on the bad guy (Chapter 22).
French has a brief moment of abstraction, in which his perceptions are conveyed by
science-fictional imagery: "Time itself seemed to be standing still", "he seemed to be absolutely alone in the universe".
This anticipates more elaborate passages of abstraction in Helen Reilly.
Homage to Christie
Sir John Magill's Last Journey contains a gracious reference to
Agatha Christie's detective Hercules Poirot (latter part of Chapter 12).
Mystery in the Channel
Mystery in the Channel (1931) is an often fascinating tale.
It was also published under the slightly longer title Mystery in the English Channel
in the United States. Its opening crime does indeed take place in the English Channel:
the ocean region running between Britain and France.
Like The Ponson Case, Mystery in the Channel has just three main suspects.
This is an unusually small number for a detective novel. However, the close investigation required
of every detail of suspects' and victims' stories, enables plenty of material to be included in the books.
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.
Mystery in the Channel has not just one, but two Backgrounds:
Crofts is usually excellent with Backgrounds, and the double abundance of
two Backgrounds in Mystery in the Channel gives him plenty of interesting things to say.
- A portrait of boats and ships in the Channel, and the nearby ports.
- A look inside a huge financial fraud.
The two backgrounds allow for pleasing contrasts:
As the book points out in its opening disclaimer, the towns and locales in
Mystery in the Channel are almost all real.
- The financial fraud depicts a huge evil, with the investigators acting as the forces of good.
- By contrast, the boating background is morally neutral:
an interesting, enjoyable part of the world, without any real moral issues.
In both Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy and Mystery in the Channel,
a large sum of money has disappeared in the opening crime. Throughout the rest of the book,
the police struggle to solve the crime also entails the police trying to recover the stolen money.
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.
Ancestors: Mysteries of Absconding Financiers
Tales of absconding financiers had been popular among American writers of a previous generation:
See also the French film Judex (Louis Feuillade, 1916).
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.
Landscape: What Can Be Seen
There is a good landscape, showing a region near the sea in France
(end of Chapter 12, first half of Chapter 13).
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.
Mystery Plot: The Solution
The solution is based on a single, fairly simple idea. In this, it differs from the complex schemes
found in the solutions of Sir John Magill's Last Journey and The Hog's Back Mystery.
Which of these two approaches is better?
Although complexity has value, one can also make the case that the straightforward, unified-idea solution
of Mystery in the Channel is a preferable approach to solving a mystery.
BIG SPOILERS. The solution involves a new module. This is perhaps linked to the
assembly of parts in:
- The factory in The Sea Mystery.
- The doll house in The Hog's Back Mystery.
Suspects vs Witnesses & Experts
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,
often expertly. These witnesses tend to be pleasant, likable people. And the work they do is interesting.
Reading a novel about them is a pleasure.
Similarly likable and interesting are the experts who assist French with his detection.
By contrast, much time in Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy is spent with suspects.
These range from Whymper, who seems bland and uncharacterized,
to more sinister suspects like the Ropers and Dr. Philpot, who are nasty, unlikable people.
I strongly disliked having to read a novel about such unpleasant characters.
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.
Sudden Death (1932) is one of Crofts' few locked room novels.
The novel has some excellent passages, and a nicely done locked room
problem. But it also suffers from unevenness. Whole sections come across
as being built from unimaginative materials.
The Opening: Society - and a Country House
Chapter 1 starts the book off nicely, with a lyrical portrait of life
in a country house, that recalls Crofts' golden mood in the opening of
The Ponson Case. We meet heroine Anne Day, a working woman who is slowly starving
from unemployment in the depths of the Depression. Crofts first paints
a vivid portrait of unemployment in London. Then he show his heroine getting
what seems to be a dream job as housekeeper, in a solicitor's home in Kent.
While this home is prosperous and genteel, it is definitely not the aristocracy.
We are in the realm of a lower middle class working woman, employed by
an upper middle class solicitor's family. This is in keeping with Crofts'
stress on Britishers who work.
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 book then drags (Chapters 2-5), with a detailed look at the emotional problems
and personal lives of the denizens of the house.
This seems to be an attempt by Crofts to write in the "woman's fiction" mode of
Mary Roberts Rinehart and her followers.
Crofts is just not as good at this, as were the Rinehart School.
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.
The tale picks up with the locked room murder (Chapter 6). Then nothing of
interest happens till French actually starts to investigate the locked room problem
(Chapters 10-12). These chapters essentially form an impossible crime short story,
embedded in the larger novel. They are nicely done, and probably would be an
anthology standard today, if they were written as a stand alone short story.
I suppose I should include a SPOILER WARNING: but is it really a spoiler to note
that Crofts' ideas about the locked room are technological? You could have guessed that!
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.
Death on the Way
Death on the Way (1932) is a railroad mystery. It also has the sea shore setting
that runs through Crofts' books.
Death on the Way is the British title. In the United States it was originally published
as Double Death. This was unfortunate, because Double Death is ALSO the title
of a completely unrelated Round Robin book (1939) in which Crofts participated.
To avoid confusion I will refer to this 1932 novel as Death on the Way.
Curtis Evans' book
Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery also refers to this novel as Death on the Way -
so it looks as if this usage is standard practice.
A Bad Mystery
Death on the Way is one of Crofts' poorest works. Although it is a "pure detective story",
usually an area where Crofts is at his best, the book suffers from many weaknesses:
I liked the book's map. However, I cannot see anything outstanding or
especially creative about the map or the landscape it depicts.
- There is little ingenuity in the mystery plot.
- Only occasionally is French's detective work notable.
- The Hidden Criminal Scheme, often a Crofts strength, here is unimaginative
(Chapters 10, 11).
- The two murders are horrifying. They are unpleasant to read about.
- The prevailing tone of the novel is gloom.
- The Background of railway construction work, is surprisingly
uninformative, undetailed and so uninteresting.
We mainly see routine business organization.
- The train technology described in an early journey (Chapter 2)
and in a visit to a train yard (Chapter 7) is not clear to me.
As in "The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express", I wish this were published in an
annotated edition, one that would explain all the terms left undefined in the text.
- The characters are unlikable.
- Clifford Perry suffers badly from "shell shock" from World War I:
what we today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Its depiction turns into an offensive negative stereotype.
Clifford Perry has a long desperate battle with unemployment and poverty,
before landing his current job. His struggles recall those of heroine Anne Day in
Crofts' previous novel Sudden Death. Both characters' financial problems
were made worse by the death of their father, something that left them with few resources.
Economic desperation by workers will lead to corruption in Mystery on Southampton Water.
Detection: The Bicycle
French has a nice detection episode early on, when he tries to track down
the bicycle used in the crime (Chapters 5, start of 6). This section's cheery tone makes
a pleasant contrast to the general gloom of Death on the Way.
Like French's fine detective work in other books, it benefits by concentrating on witnesses,
who are pleasant, interesting people.
The search for the sunken bicycle is a nice scene (middle of Chapter 5).
It anticipates the much more elaborate hunt for the sunken boat in
Mystery on Southampton Water.
Bragg uses such devices as a planimeter and a comptometer, as part of his
office accounting calculations (Chapter 6). These show Crofts' interest in technology.
And the way that people in the 1930's had modern attitudes towards technological use,
even if they didn't have today's technology.
Bragg's using them to provide information for the business recalls
the spread of information through the factory in The Sea Mystery.
The Hog's Back Mystery
The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) is a very pure mystery story.
After a fairly brief opening introducing the characters (and future suspects), something sinister and mysterious occurs.
The police are called in, and Inspector French and the local cops spend the entire rest of the book
investigating the mystery.
Best Chapters: 1, 2, 3, first half of 5, end of 7, 8, first half of 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, second half of 19.
Another of Crofts' series detectives, Inspector Tanner from The Ponson Case,
puts in a brief but pleasant appearance (second half of Chapter 8).
Unfortunately, I found many key aspects of the solution easy to guess. SPOILERS.
By the book's midpoint, I had figured out the motive, where Dr. Earle is, and had decent ideas about who is responsible.
One suspects that many readers will tumble to these, too.
These aspects of the solution just don't seem that clever, either.
(In particular, French takes forever before he finally comes up with the book's motive (middle of Chapter 18).
This is poor work).
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.
Mystery Plot: Surprise Twists
The Hog's Back Mystery contain some surprising plot developments along the way, especially in its first half.
These are dramatically written, and have some creepy atmosphere.
They are among the book's positive assets.
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.
Mystery Plot: Tracking Suspects
An episode shows French tracing down the movements of some suspects,
based on statements he gets from witnesses (Chapters: first half of 5, end of 7, first half of 8).
This is a standard kind of detective work in Crofts novels. And is done decently here.
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.
Mystery Plot: Detective Work
A good passage has Crofts and his police assistants looking for physical clues at a crime scene (Chapter 13).
They make deductions from these clues, attempting to reconstruct the crime.
This is a traditional, even classical, kind of detective work, found in many authors before and after Crofts.
It is done well here.
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".):
Even better: some good detective work (Chapter 15).
This leads to some developments I didn't expect at all.
The detective work is soundly reasoned.
And admirably based on clues and indications fairly shared with the reader earlier
(Chapters: first half of 5, middle of 13).
This detective work is an extension of the earlier discoveries and analysis in Chapter 13.
- The first and third section take place outside,
and are set in similar "depressions" in the foliage; the contrasting middle section takes place indoors.
- French draws clear conclusions about the evidence found in the first and third sections;
his thoughts on the evidence found in the middle section are inconclusive.
A Brief Background: Good Detection
SPOILERS in this section. Most of The Hog's Back Mystery lacks any sort of Background.
It thus differs from many Crofts works. But a late section (Chapters 16, 17) suddenly introduces a Background:
a road construction site. This section shows Crofts' skill with technical environments.
It is a welcome passage, showing the return of one of Crofts' strengths.
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.
Chauffeurs in old mystery tales tend to be macho figures of fantasy.
Some are good and some are evil, but all are sexy hunks in sharp uniforms who can do anything with machinery.
Some turn out to be better at fighting than Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan combined.
The tradition of the virile chauffeur who might upset the social order continues to today
in Downton Abbey.
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:
Crofts' low-key policemen were hugely influential on other writers, starting long traditions
of plodding Scotland Yard officials and police procedurals. By contrast,
most subsequent depictions of chauffeurs have ignored Crofts' low-key portrayals,
keeping instead to the traditional idea of chauffeurs as sexy and dangerous. This is definitely more fun.
- Crofts gave chauffeurs and the police a "realistic", low key image.
Eccentricity is avoided, conventionality and alleged "normalcy" are stressed.
- Detectives pre-Crofts are often implicitly gay; Inspector French is heterosexual and married.
Chauffeurs pre-Crofts are often of burning sexuality, and sometimes sexually ambiguous;
the chauffeurs in The Hog's Back Mystery are married, and sometimes have children.
- Crofts' characters are anchored in a social class, depicted in a conventional way:
middle class for Inspector French, working class for these chauffeurs.
In Crofts' The Hog's Back Mystery, Inspector French relaxes by going to what the book calls a "first-rate" film,
an adventure story set on a train trip (end of Chapter 19).
It is typical of Crofts to like trains!
While one cannot be certain, Crofts' plot description suggests the film might be
Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932).
This film is not just first-rate, but is widely considered by film historians
to be one of the major masterpieces of the era. Crofts had good taste!
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".
- Christopher Bush's The Perfect Murder Case (1929) (Chapter 1, section C, plus more at the start of Chapter 7).
- J.J. Connington's The Sweepstake Murders (1931).
- Philip MacDonald's The Crime Conductor (1931) (Book One, Chapter 1).
- E.R. Punshon's Genius in Murder (1932) (start of Chapter 2).
- Punshon's Information Received (start of Chapter 18).
- Freeman Wills Crofts' The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) (end of Chapter 19).
- John Rhode's The Claverton Mystery (1933) (Chapter 1).
- Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise (1933) (Chapter 19).
- Bush's The Case of the Purloined Picture (1949) (end of Chapter 6, middle of Chapter 9).
How the Police Should Behave with the Public: Questioning Suspects
What is the proper behavior of the police? How should they treat the public?
This is a vast, complex topic. This is far from the main subject of The Hog's Back Mystery -
but some aspects of the book touch on it.
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.
How the Police Should Behave with the Public: Exhumation
At the other extreme, the police are terrified to exhume a corpse, even though there is strong evidence
that the person might have been poisoned (start of Chapter 20).
We learn that if an autopsy reveals that the corpse died of natural causes,
that everyone will regard the exhumation as a serious mistake, and the police might be fired from their jobs.
Only if the autopsy reveals poison will the exhumation be regarded as proper.
This strict standard on exhumation is especially caused by the fact that the man being exhumed
was a man of wealth and position. This standard seems drastically over-strict to me:
good evidence of possible poisoning should be full justification of exhumation,
whatever the ultimate results of the autopsy.
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.
Mystery on Southampton Water
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) was originally known as Crime on the Solent in the United States.
Mystery on Southampton Water is an unusual mix of two kinds of detective tale:
- Its first half (Parts 1, 2) is an inverted detective story.
That is, it starts out with the reader seeing the crime committed.
As in all inverteds, the reader knows all details of the crime, including who done it.
There is no mystery - at least to the reader. Then we watch Inspector French solve the crime.
(Inverted detective stories are the standard structure of the TV series Columbo.)
- The second half (Parts 3, 4) is a traditional mystery story. It involves a mysterious murder.
Neither the reader nor the detective knows who did it, or how. Then Inspector French solves the mystery.
Mystery on Southampton Water is an uneven and episodic book. It has good sections, totaling
around one third of the novel. If these had been published as a separate novella,
I would have no problem recommending it. But they are embedded in a much longer and often uninspired book.
An awful lot of Mystery on Southampton Water is mediocre.
The good sections:
A plus: Mystery on Southampton Water has the storytelling "flow" found in Crofts.
It is an easy read, with the reader moving on to see the story unfold.
As in other Crofts, there is a profusion of detail throughout, with each detail
falling into its proper place in the story.
- The opening (Chapter 1) sets forth the interesting, complex business and technical premises of the novel.
- Architectural and landscape settings are described (last third of Chapter 3, Chapter 4).
- At long last, the investigation of the second killing shows
French doing good detective work on a genuine mystery (Chapters 17, 18, 19, 20, 21).
The boat hunt (Chapter 20) recalls such Crofts detection gems as the
opening of The Sea Mystery, and the road construction site in The Hog's Back Mystery.
And what comes after finding the boat uses mathematics (Chapter 21), recalling French's
nautical calculations in Mystery in the Channel.
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.
Characters: Crooks vs. Witnesses & Experts
Another problem with Mystery on Southampton Water is that so much of it focuses on criminals.
These crooks are unlikable. Crofts' crooks are rarely much fun to read about, in my opinion.
Admittedly crooks in real-life are unlikable, and not fun - so I can't quarrel with Crofts' portrayal.
But this does not make reading a novel about them like Mystery on Southampton Water at all enjoyable.
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
Suspects vs Witnesses & Experts section.
At its worst Mystery on Southampton Water devolves into cliche.
This prevents much of the novel from developing substance.
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!
The excellent second murder investigation of French (Chapters 17-21) includes a solid impossible crime.
This is solved at the end of this section (last part of Chapter 21). French's solution is sound.
And enjoyably inventive.
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.
Howdunit: The Fire
The second murder investigation of French (Chapters 17-21) is rich in mystery plot.
Its most important mystery: how did the fire on the boat occur?
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.
The settings of the first nocturnal adventure (last third of Chapter 3, Chapter 4)
recalls previous Crofts works:
This nocturnal adventure section is the first of two episodes set in the factory and boat house.
In between comes a contrasting episode about keys, set elsewhere. These sections are:
- The factory recalls the one in The Sea Mystery.
- The boat house recalls The Ponson Case.
Crofts sometimes uses this structural approach:
"a three-part structure, with the first and third sections similar, and the
second, middle section forming a contrast".
For another example see The Hog's Back Mystery (Chapter 13).
- The first nocturnal adventure episode at the factory and boat house (last third of Chapter 3, Chapter 4).
- The keys episode, set on a train and elsewhere (Chapter 5).
- The second nocturnal adventure episode at the factory and boat house (Chapter 6, first part of 7).
Science Fiction Imagery
Crofts briefly used science fiction imagery in Sir John Magill's Last Journey
(Chapter 22). Another brief science fictional image appears in
Mystery on Southampton Water (Chapter 19). French is making fun of the way
the public "sees" wanted individuals all over the place.
"In such cases the individual in question is invariably possessed of the
marvelous power of reduplication. He is seen in scores of places simultaneously".
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.
The work on the invention (Chapter 2) anticipates the more elaborate portrait of a team
developing an invention in Man Overboard! (Chapters 1-4).
In both novels there are ominous undertones in this work, sinister and even creepy.
One keeps getting the feeling that something is going wrong.
Both accounts are told from the Point of View of a lesser, non-primary worker on the team.
A person who might not know everything that is Going On.
Mystery on Southampton Water involves a company and its workers
facing tough financial times during the Depression. These men facing possible unemployment
recall the heroine starving from Depression unemployment in Sudden Death.
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.
An All-Male Cast
In Curtis Evans' book on Crofts
Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012), he points out that all the characters in
Mystery on Southampton Water are men. I noticed this too.
It is very conspicuous: a 361-page novel with a large cast of characters and numerous settings,
and everybody's male.
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"
The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" (1936) is an Inspector French novel.
It deals with the mystery of the sinking of the cargo ship the "Jane Vosper",
and by who, how and why this was done.
The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" has a dual focus:
- Its early sections concentrate on boats. This recalls other Crofts sea stories.
- Much of the later book looks at goods transportation, from the factory through rail and lorry
to loading on boats. This recalls the focus on shipping in The Cask.
The opening offers a vivid account of the sinking of the ship (Chapter 1).
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.
The Court Inquiry
A Board of Trade inquiry into the disaster is soon held in a courtroom (Chapters 3, 4).
This inquiry resembles a courtroom drama, with witnesses interrogated by lawyers.
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.
Lights that can be moved, play a role in the story:
This recalls the way Inspector French sets up bright lights so that he can investigate the study
in The Hog's Back Mystery.
- During the shipwreck, an officer rigs lights in the No. 1 hold,
so that the crew can investigate and work there (towards the end of Chapter 1).
- A company makes petrol-powered lighting equipment, that can be set up in remote areas
that are off the electric grid (middle of Chapter 6).
The Electric Runway
The "electric runway" is a 1930's device for hoisting and moving large heavy objects, such as crates (Chapter 10).
Ir recalls the crane-lorry in The Sea Mystery. Both:
Figuring out that an electric runway was used, is done not by Inspector French,
but by his assistant Sergeant Carter (middle of Chapter 9).
This recalls the way that Detective-sergeant Adam M'Clung in
Sir John Magill's Last Journey gets key insights, rather than French.
- Lift and move heavy objects.
- Are used by criminals, as part of their criminal schemes.
- Are "honestly" obtained by the criminals, posing as normal people.
Then "honestly" disposed of by the crooks, after their crime is over,
returning the device to a legitimate business source.
Modern Architecture appears in some London office buildings:
Crofts is basically sympathetic. This makes a welcome change from some Golden Age writers
who only like old buildings and antique furniture. Crofts does poke a little fun at design elements,
such as the lightning designs on the floor (start of Chapter 2). But he seems genuinely impressed
with other features:
- The insurance company (start of Chapter 2). This describes the building interior.
- The company that makes lighting equipment (middle of Chapter 6). This describes the building exterior.
Its glass walls recall the modernist factory in The Sea Mystery.
- The use of lights (start of Chapter 2): consistent with Crofts' general interest in technology.
- The insurance company has "roomy landings and corridors" (start of Chapter 2), and
is "spacious, airy and modern" (near the end of Chapter 6): a feature Crofts seems to like.
By contrast, the way everything is cramped in an old building is underlined (near the end of Chapter 6).
Clothes and Detection
SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION. The killer is tracked down through a small fragment of clothing
found at a crime scene (end of Chapter 13, first part of Chapter 14).
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).
Man Overboard! (1936) is an Inspector French novel.
Unfortunately, it's an uninteresting work, due to a lack of creativity and inventiveness.
In particular, by Crofts' standards the mystery plot of Man Overboard! is simple.
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.
Links to Sir John Magill's Last Journey
Man Overboard! (1936) has features that recall Sir John Magill's Last Journey. SPOILERS. Both:
Unfortunately, Man Overboard! is simpler in its mystery aspects than Sir John Magill's Last Journey.
The victim's journey in Man Overboard! is pretty much confined to a single boat ride plus a brief car trip to the boat,
while in Sir John Magill's Last Journey it is a complex, multi-stage trip all over Ireland and Britain.
And the solution of Man Overboard! is like a simplified, stripped-down version of
the solution of Sir John Magill's Last Journey.
- Take place in part in Northern Ireland, in the coastal regions near Belfast.
- Have nothing to do with the Troubles and related Irish political disputes.
- Involve a mysterious disappearance, on a journey between England and Ireland, that includes a boat trip.
- Have a potentially valuable invention the characters are working on, as a possible motive.
- Have mystery solutions with elements in common.
- Have French work with likable Northern Irish policemen Sergeant Adam M'Clung and Superintendent Rainey.
SPOILERS in this section.
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.
Man Overboard! takes a deeper look at its invention, than does Sir John Magill's Last Journey.
The opening (Chapters 1-4) can seem like a full-scale novel of technological invention.
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.
Just a MacGuffin
The invention serves as what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin:
something valuable everyone is willing to fight and kill over -
but whose details don't actually matter in the plot.
Little of the scientific and technical detail in the opening chapters,
plays any actual role in the mystery puzzle plot.
The opening of Man Overboard! discusses not just technology.
It also paints a picture of the business start-up trying to develop the chemical process.
It examines investors, raising capital, and contracts.
And how the new company hopes the process will transform the transportation industry as a whole.
The portrait brings to mind today's Silicon Valley start-ups.
Fatal Venture will also open with a detailed look at a new business.
Like John Rhode's The Davidson Case (1929),
Man Overboard! depicts its heroine being sexually harassed at work (second half of Chapter 4).
The young businesswoman heroine of Man Overboard! has to fend off unwelcome advances
from a man with whom she is trying to negotiate a business deal.
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.
Fatal Venture (1939) is known as Tragedy in the Hollow
in the United States.
Mystery: The R. Austin Freeman tradition
The whole book reminds one of Crofts' idol, R. Austin Freeman.
Like many of Freeman's books, the story falls
into two parts, one part showing events from the point of view
of a young man, the second showing the mystery solved by the detective.
The young hero of the story innocently
covers up elements of the crime, to protect his girlfriend. Later
we see Inspector French uncover these. The whole thing reminds
one of one of Freeman's inverted stories, with the detective finding
clues to unravel a crime we have already seen.
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.
Fatal Venture suffers from the fact that so much of the
book has nothing to do with the mystery. Nearly the entire first
half deals in detail with a scheme to launch a cruise ship that
would travel round the British Isles. Crofts loved boats, and
he goes into this scheme with enormous gusto. It is almost as
if Crofts were writing the book to outline a real life business
venture. These parts are readable and entertaining. However, they
deal with a fantasy of Crofts', unlike The Cask, which
shows us part of the real world, Paris and the shipping business.
As in Freeman's Death at the Inn
(1937), this book has an anti-gambling theme, with gambling in
Fatal Venture being part of the cruise ship scheme.
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.
The young hero wears uniform on ship, something to which he is
not really entitled, but which pleases him no end - see the start
of Chapter 6. There are elements of Rogue fiction tradition here,
and the way Rogues like to assume the clothes of the upper classes
as part of their schemes. This recalls other Rogue-influenced
characters in Crofts, such as:
- The sneaky policeman Inspector Tanner in The Ponson Case,
who also likes to dress up in misleading clothes.
- The fluent liar James Dangle in The Cheyne Mystery.
- The police will also use costumes and sneaky undercover work in a Rogue-like
way in Crofts' spy-mystery Death of a Train.
Death of a Train
Death of a Train (1947) is an uneven but pleasant mystery.
It is a real mixed grill of a novel, with all sorts of disparate elements going
to make up the book. The book sticks closely to its main story, never digressing
into the characters' personal lives or other filler. In that sense it is a pure
piece of mystery storytelling. But the mystery itself is made of so many
different component parts, that the book falls into numerous, nearly
unconnected sections. It is not a smooth reading experience: many chapters start
completely new plot threads and characters.
In addition, while there is some good detective work tracking down villains,
the story is hardly a fair play, puzzle plot detective story.
Part One: Train Story
Part One tells of the creation of special train to carry secret material from London to Plymouth
during World War II, and its sabotage by Nazi spies. This half is almost a pure train
story: the creation and wrecking of the train, and the investigation afterwards
by a railroad specialist. It is mainly of interest to train buffs, but nicely done, with Crofts'
professional railway expertise loading the story with vivid detail. One learns both
the traditional mode of operation of classic British trains - and how these were
modified under the pressure of war time.
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.
Part Two: The Mysteries
Part Two centers on Inspector French, and contains three mysteries, that still need to be explained
about the wreck in Part One.
These all relate to the train - but have little connection with each other.
Also disappointing: they really do not draw on most of the plot or characters seen in Part One.
In between these mysteries, there is a section on background checks of various suspects
(Chapters 11-12). The novel makes the dubious suggestion that any traitor or spy in Britain
would have to be ethnically German. Is this really historically accurate?
- The first, tracing down the saboteurs, is a nice bit of detection, involving movements
of characters through the English countryside (Chapter 10).
- The second, probing the leak of information, is a disappointment (Chapter 13).
Crofts comes up with the most obvious solution. And it depends on security being
ridiculously lax at Whitehall. This section does show some of Crofts' skill with technology.
- The book picks up again near the finale, when more tracing of spies' activities take place.
(Chapter 15). This section shows skill with both a mini-mystery (how are the
spies communicating?) and with police surveillance detective work.
The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express: A Short Story
"The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express" (1921), is
apparently Crofts' earliest short story. It has been widely reprinted
as a "classic". But I have to confess that I was simply
unable to understand the story. It depends heavily on the physical
properties of trains and railway engines of the era, and I am
simply too ignorant about these things to follow the tale. This
story cries out for multi-media extension, with photographs and
diagrams of period trains, glossaries of technical terms, and
a detailed commentary on Crofts' solution, which I found especially
incomprehensible. This is not intended as a criticism of Crofts'
work, just as an indication of a specialized technical subject
that has now vanished into the mists of time.
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.
The Greuze: A Short Story
The best short story by Crofts I have read is "The Greuze"
(1921). This is a tale of ingenious rogues, but it is not so much
in the Raffles-Arsène Lupin tradition of the Rogue School.
Although it deals with crime, not murder, "The Greuze" falls closer to the
classic puzzle plot mystery, and shows admirable misdirection.
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 hero is an amateur rather than a professional sleuth.
But he investigates every detail of a suspect's story, exactly the way professional
policemen will in later Crofts novels.
(Other amateur sleuths investigates a suspect's statement in The Ponson Case, Chapter 10,
and a victim's movements in Man Overboard!, Chapter 11.)
I liked his use of city directories to investigate the suspect's claims.
Such directories were powerful information tools, in that pre-Internet era.
My father had a city directory for our town, and I was fascinated by it as a kid.
Nostalgia aside, it is worth pointing out that people in the pre-computer, pre-Internet era made heavy use
of many information tools: directories, phone books, library card catalogues, reference books,
slide rules, adding machines, mimeograph machines, radio. Both business people and scientists
were deep believers in knowledge sources and knowledge tools, just like people today.
They used whatever technology they could get their hands on. Their tools were more primitive
than computers and the internet - but their participation in a "knowledge culture"
was surprisingly similar to today's.
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
The hero refers to a "message" in an American film, and the American slang it contains.
This film was from the silent era; and the standard term used today by film experts is "title card".
The Hunt Ball: A Short Story
"The Hunt Ball" (1937) is a mild inverted tale.
It contains a good clue, but only one of them, and is certainly no classic.
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 Two Bottles: A Short Story
"The Two Bottles" (1940's?) is a brief detective story.
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:
- A suburban setting among the well-to-do.
- A man with a workshop in his home.
- Adultery, among neighbors.
- Indebtedness due to gambling.
- Distinctive landscape features, restricted to the background, and which don't play much role in the story.
The architecture of the victim's studio plays a role in the mystery plot.
This architecture is simple. Still, this shows the interest of Golden Age writers
in architecture-based fiction.
"The Two Bottles" is a whodunit mystery.
The killer's identity is easy to guess in "The Two Bottles".
The Scoop: a Round Robin
Two of the Detection Club's round robins have recently been published
in a single volume, the novella length "Behind the Screen" (1930),
and the novel The Scoop (1931). The majority of
the contributors to both works were British realists of the era:
Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C. Bentley,
Freeman Wills Crofts, Father Ronald Knox.
Crofts contributed to The Scoop, but not to "Behind the Screen".
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?
The plot of The Scoop has some ingenuity, although the
villain is easily guessable early on. The second half of the novel
seems padded, although Crofts does some nice work on alibis in his Chapter 11.
Aspects of the mystery plot anticipate The Hog's Back Mystery. BIG SPOILERS:
- The alibi is domestic, showing an upper-middle class man at home, surrounded by "normal" domestic life.
- Woman relatives serve as innocent witnesses.
- The villain in both The Scoop and The Hog's Back Mystery
is a man who likes to tinker with machinery at home.
- Children's toys play a role in both puzzles, the toy whip in The Scoop,
the doll's houses in The Hog's Back Mystery.
The Floating Admiral: a Round Robin
The Detection Club round robin The Floating Admiral (1931-1932) is of novel length.
Crofts contributed a chapter. His work is conscientious, but not inspired or much fun.
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.
The more interesting and complex second half has Rudge reconstructing the movements of suspects: a Crofts specialty.
Rudge at first concentrates on the travels of the Vicar, Mr. Mount.
These travels include trains and cabs. As is typical of Crofts,
Rudge interviews witnesses like railway workers and cab drivers, who can tell him about the movements and activities of Mount.
This recalls the similar elaborate interviews of witnesses to reconstruct trips, in Crofts novels like
Sir John Magill's Last Journey, Mystery in the Channel and The Hog's Back Mystery.
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.
In the Inspector French novels, any discovery French makes usually results in praise being heaped on French
by colleagues and superiors. SPOILERS. But at the end of Rudge's investigation in The Floating Admiral,
his boss pooh-pooh's Rudge's work, and we learn that is typical of the way Rudge's accomplishments are dismissed.
This is funny, and perhaps more realistic than the support given French.
There are elements of bitter social satire in Rudge's treatment.
Various lies told by Mount are summed up at the end of the chapter.
This recalls relentless liar James Dangle in The Cheyne Mystery.