The Box Office Murders by Freeman Wills Crofts

BoMIt has been a few months since I last tackled an Inspector French book and, now that I’ve read all of his inverted mysteries, I had big plans to pick up one of the books I received at Christmas. Instead, just as I was about to pick one of them up, a super-affordable copy of The Box Office Murders fell right onto the top of my to read pile. Sorry, The Hog’s Back Mystery, but you will have to wait a little longer…

The Box Office Murders is a difficult story to summarize, not because its plot is particularly complex but because so many of its keys points are established quite a way into the narrative. Rather than risk spoiling people’s enjoyment of the story, I am opting to be a little vague about what exactly it entails.

What I can say is that this story begins with a solicitor referring a young client to Scotland Yard to speak about her experiences. This woman tells Inspector French of how she became involved in a criminal enterprise and also about the fate of a friend who was thought to have committed suicide but who she believes was murdered. When the young woman herself is found dead the following day, French starts looking into the circumstances of these deaths in earnest.

This introduction reflects one of the most significant issues that I had with the book – namely that Crofts gifts a lot of information to our hero in the form of long conversations in which key characters lay out what they know and who he should suspect. Now, I would certainly acknowledge that the way he manipulates the witness showcases some of his skills and I would also accept that this is exactly the way that the sort of crime we have here would be detected. The problem is that it will cause French to play a curiously passive role at some key points in the proceedings and so his chief contribution to this story would be to work out what the gang’s scheme is.

This is the earliest French novel I have read by quite some way and so I am not sure if this is typical of the role he played in earlier titles. It certainly presents some challenges as an approach because it runs contrary to the idea that your protagonist should be driving events. Crofts invites us to empathize with him, to share in his worries, and to follow his actions but without the actions of a secondary character he wouldn’t even know who to consider a suspect, let alone catch them. It feels rather unsatisfactory.

This is a shame because the scheme itself is an unusual one. It is perhaps not one that the modern reader can be prepared to guess because it is so grounded in the practices of the time period in which it was written but I think it is quite charmingly practical, imaginative and well thought-through.

Turning to French himself, I was rather struck by a few uncharacteristic moments of wildness in the character. Here he bends interrogation rules, breaks into houses without warrants and, in a moment of exaltation he grabs a young woman who is most definitely not his wife, kisses her twice on the lips and tells her ‘My word… but you’re the goods!”. Now, he does immediately reference that he is married but this is not the Inspector French I am used to, methodically comparing the marks made on parking tickets or examining train timetables.

As I referenced earlier, there is an important secondary character in the book who will carry out some very important work in this investigation. I liked this character quite a lot, and appreciated the time taken at the end to sum up how they were left as a result of the investigation. I appreciated that they were not just placed in a position where they needed to be rescued but were able to exert some agency on the events, coming up with a good scheme of their own. I just wish that French had been a little more ingenious in his own efforts rather than waiting for the telephone to ring.

At the end of the case, French sums it up as being ‘an unusually troublesome and disappointing one’. This is of course a gift of a phrase for anyone who wishes to criticise it but, though I have issues with the role it gives its sleuth, I do think that it scores some points for the originality of its crime. That being said, I would strongly suggest that you not make this your first taste of French as this isn’t his most ingenious case, nor the best showing of this character.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by drowning (How)

 

10 thoughts on “The Box Office Murders by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. This is the earliest French novel I have read by quite some way and so I am not sure if this is typical of the role he played in earlier titles

    I have a review of the earlier The Cheyne Mystery coming on Thursday, and French is certainly more active in his investigations there, so perhaps this was just Crofts experimenting with ways to structure a narrative. Also, French is one of the most hilariously felonious good guy policemen I think I’ve yet encountered in GAD — illegal searches, breaking and entering, the works. Were he in a modern cimre novel he’d be some sort of morality lesson…

    Love the new look of the site, by the way.

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    1. Interesting – I will look forward to reading your thoughts on The Cheyne Mystery later this week. I appreciate your sharing that aspect of your experience with it here though. Your suggestion that it may be an attempt to experiment does seem plausible.

      Thank you for your comments on the new look. 🙂

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    2. I had a lot of fun with Crofts’ cavalier attitude to police crimes in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, though it has it’s darker side when the Inspector (not French) in The Groote Park Murder (as I recollect) is abusing the “German Jew” witness. The antisemitism that pops up occasionally in the series is of its time, to an extent, but unattractive nonetheless, as is the attitude that the police have no obligation to respect the rights of suspects, the police always being, evidently, on the side of Right.

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      1. I am sort of fascinated by the meta-examination of French’s felonious exploits, for the precise reason you state here — no matter how many laws he bends, it’s always justified because it always unearths some information that eventually points to the guilt of the person whose rights are trampled. It’d be interesting to see French break the rules and not be justified by a useful discovery…which, given his fidelity to following leads that don’t play out, is something notably missing in the couple I’ve read.

        Not that we take this stuff too seriously, or anything…

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      2. If memory serves in at least one case here the felonious expedition turns up no evidence though I suppose a lack of evidence is often in itself a lead. He doesn’t seem too cut up about it though and is soon giving witnesses misleading impressions about the likely results of their cooperation in his inquiries so I guess he doesn’t really learn his lesson…

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      3. I will look forward to getting my hands on a copy, hopefully for father’s day if my wife has picked up on my subtle hints! It does seem that Crofts thought that the ends justified the means when it came to these sort of extra-legal adventures. I suppose French at least has the decency to feel a little bit of guilt about breaching procedure here…

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  2. I recall this as being the Crofts in which I was struck most by how cavalier – with laws and young girl’s lives – that good old reliable Inspector French actually was. Perhaps there’s a later novel in which he turns wholly to the dark side and, with a twinkle in his eye, wipes out the entire suspect list with a light sabre. Just to be thorough.

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  3. Crofts! I recalled enjoying ‘Hog’s Back Mystery’, but liking ‘Loss of Jane Vosper’ less. If there is a spectrum with “puzzle” on one end and “procedural” on the other, I find that Crofts leans slightly too far down the latter end for my tastes. Then again, a passionate Inspector French might make this novel a diverting read – hovering on the brink of adultery doesn’t quite strike me to be his typical behaviour. >.<

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    1. I do have Hog’s Back sat in my TBR pile so I am happy to hear someone enjoyed it. 🙂

      I should say that French isn’t seriously considering adultery but rather he is overcome in the moment when a plan comes together. Still super inappropriate though!

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