As regular readers of this blog will know, I have something of a fixation with the inverted mystery and have been actively seeking out examples of the form. Recently I came across a list of Freeman Wills Crofts’ four inverted mysteries and, having already reviewed Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon, I have made completing the set a priority [Update 9/21/19 – Apparently this list omitted another inverted mystery novel, Anything to Declare?].
Actually getting my hands on a copy Mystery on Southampton Water proved to be quite a challenge until I learned that it had been released in America under the name Crime On the Solent. Quite why Dodd, Mead & Company felt that would be more attention-grabbing with American audiences I am not sure. Incidentally, on the topic of the publisher, I would love an explanation of what the eight-point test Dodd and Mead gave to all mystery manuscripts they received was if anyone knows!
So, what is Mystery on Southampton Water all about?
While the story certainly can be described as an inverted mystery, that would only describe a portion of the text. Crofts structures his story in four distinct phases that alternate the focus between the criminals and French. In the first we see the criminals plan and execute an industrial espionage scheme that backfires, resulting in a body that has to be covered up. The second section features Chief Inspector French looking into the matter but being unable to connect everything together. The third returns the focus to the criminals who find themselves put under a new form of pressure while the fourth sees French investigating a related mystery and resolving the original case.
Structurally this is quite complicated but I felt it worked well. Essentially Crofts gets to have his cake and eat it to by providing us with both an inverted crime and a genuine whodunnit in the same book. As an added bonus, those who are not necessarily big fans of French as a character will appreciate the regular breaks this gives readers from his exhaustive brand of detection while, for those that are, there is a little bit of timetabling and mathematical reasoning to enjoy in that final section.
A distinction between this book and the two other Crofts inverted mysteries that I have read is that the novel features multiple would-be criminals working together. This does not mean that they are equally culpable in the decisions that get made but it is interesting to see how these characters manage to communicate and discover whether they will ultimately support each others’ stories. This cooperation which extends to support for each others’ alibis will also prove an intriguing complication for French to deal with as he attempts to piece the story together.
It was the relationships between these criminals that most interested me in the book and motivated me to power though the novel in a single sitting to see how this would resolve. Unlike many criminals, these characters seem to fundamentally quite like and respect each other and, without wishing to spoil the novel, I appreciated that their path to murder was not thought out and carefully planned which meant that some of the characters managed to remain quite likeable and easy to empathize with until the very end of the novel.
Each of the characters has a decidedly different personality and temperament in the way they respond to both events around them and, more specifically, to the investigation. This not only provides some conflict among the group as they get caught up in events and fall under suspicion from the Police, it also keeps the narrative from getting stale or becoming repetitive.
French himself is as diligent and hardworking as ever, delivering a typically thorough and meticulous investigation. I was intrigued that Crofts takes the time here to reference some past events, if only fleetingly (don’t worry – there are no spoilers here), and we learn that he has recently been promoted to Chief Inspector but misses being able to immerse himself in a single case. French even has a little moment of character development as we learn that as a child French had a great interest in learning the distinguishing features of different types of boat. This passion remains with the adult French as we are told:
He was interested in shipping, and the presence of four of the world’s greatest liners grouped in one small area thrilled him.
Sounds about right.
While Crofts’ structure is complex, the case French is initially investigating seems relatively simple. There are no great revelations in that second portion of the book, just some pretty logical sleuthing although there are a few occasions where French dismisses alternate readings of the scene a little too quickly based on the ambiguity of some of the evidence.
The story really comes to life in the lively third section which not only introduces an additional but related crime for French to solve, it also introduces a more traditional mystery into the mix as we do not directly witness the events described. Sadly a few aspects of that case are quite straightforward and the solution to how the thing was achieved will likely stick out to regular GAD readers but I did appreciate that there was an additional element to the case that I had missed.
Overall I rather liked this story, although I do think it is the weakest of Crofts’ inverted stories that I have read so far. The use of multiple criminals was quite successful and I felt that the motivations were generally solid and believable. And while the mystery side of the story was relatively straightforward, fans of solid, logical policing will likely enjoy the way it is proved. It is definitely a second-tier work however for Crofts which likely explains why it has yet to be picked for a reissue.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book published under more than one title (What)