The Sea Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

TheSeaMysteryAfter working through each of the inverted Inspector French stories, about two months ago I had my first taste of a more traditionally structured Crofts story with The Box Office Murders. While I liked aspects of that story, I had found French to play a frustratingly passive role in that adventure so I was happy to see that here he is right in the thick of things.

A man and his son are out fishing on the water when their lines snag a large object. Eventually they manage to pull it up to the surface and find that it is a crate. When it is opened a body is discovered inside with its face so badly disfigured it is impossible to identify it. Inspector French is sent from the Yard to try to discover the dead man’s identity and uncover what has happened.

I thought the opening was really intriguing and I appreciated Crofts’ point that were it not for the accident of the fishing line this would have been a truly ingenious and likely undetectable murder. I was struck by just how well Crofts manages to reserve information to build that sense of curiosity in the reader about just what is going on or where this story is headed.

The early part of the novel are procedure and mechanics-driven as Inspector French sets about working out the likely point and method by which the crate entered the water based on the timing of the tides. This sort of thing that has the potential to feel quite dry so I was very pleasantly surprised by just how lively this portion of the investigation is. Crofts does a very good job of providing the reader with enough information to understand what is happening without bogging them down in the exact calculations and details.

Once we get past the first phase of the investigation Crofts introduces us to a small cast of characters but it is initially far from clear who is a suspect or why they would have sought to murder the victim. I was pleased that these characters have pretty distinctive personalities and that a limited cast size does not result in a limited whodunit.

The genius of this story is that it does not confront us with a problem in chapter one that the reader will solve at the end of the book but that it is a slow evolution of problems, each emerging from the last. This not only creates a sensation of methodical, logical progress but it also means that it is hard for the reader to predict just where the tale is headed.

Once we have established the mechanics of how the body made its way down river the question turns to trying to establish the identity of the victim and the possible motives for that person’s death. While the investigation is still very methodical and focused on opportunity, I was pleased that importance was placed on trying to establish the killer’s motivation. I also appreciated the way that our understanding of characters’ relationships evolves over the course of the book, making the reader reassess what they may have assumed they knew.

The actual solution to the story is quite clever and while I think the logical, methodical path French follows means that it is unlikely the solution will wow anyone, I did appreciate Crofts’ use of misdirection earlier in the novel. I also appreciated that the methods French does use are quite varied ranging from some physical experiments to some crafty interrogation techniques. As with The Box Office Murders, he seems willing enough to employ some extra-legal methods to acquire information (French’s felonious exploits in search of truth ended up being the focus on conversation in the comments on that post).

So, what doesn’t work? Honestly it is hard to think of much. Had I read The Cask already which supposedly utilizes a number of the same plot points I imagine I might feel frustrated that the author was repeating themselves so soon. I might add that I think one character’s pigheadedness is taken to extremes but I found that to be understandable enough given their personality.

While this is not my favorite Crofts title that I have read so far, I do think it is very successful and a really strong detective story. I appreciated how varied the investigation becomes and think it does show the strengths of French as a character and of Crofts’ skill at making a complex puzzle seem clear and easy to understand.

16 thoughts on “The Sea Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review. 😊 I’ve a copy of this novel on my shelf, and the glowing endorsements I’ve read elsewhere convinced me to keep this to the last. I’m intrigued by your evaluation that this isn’t your favourite Crofts novel – which, then, qualifies for the top spot? 🧐

    Would you say I should/ need to read “Cask” before “Sea Mystery”? I get the impression that one spoils the other.

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    1. You’re welcome. As I may have mentioned I am rather partial to inverted mysteries so I would put the frustratingly out of print The Affair at Little Wokeham (US: Double Tragedy) at the top of my list as things stand.

      I don’t think you need to read The Cask but if you want to avoid the reference it takes place at the bottom of page 22 of the reissue in the paragraph starting “It reminds me”. When you hit that point just jump to the next page and you won’t miss any of the plot of this one. It’s a completely pointless spoiler so it’s a little frustrating but I don’t think you’ll miss out on anything by skipping that paragraph.

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  2. “I think the logical, methodical path French follows means that it is unlikely the solution will wow anyone”

    I wonder if this is part of why Crofts lost favour in GAD circles — increasingly, the appetite became for least likely suspects and shocking final-line-of-penultimate-chapter revelations, whereas Crofts calmly and quietly took you by the hand and showed you everything, and then just as calmly and quietly went “So that’s the guilty party”. I’ve only read seven or so of his books, but they’re all buil the “wrong” way round cpmpared o those whose names have prevailed: Christie, say, gives you a murder with ample clues and you gradually sort through them, but Crofts gives you a murder with virtually no clues and so you have to accrue them. Dunno where I’m going with this just a thought you got me thinking…

    Anyway, I’m very pleased you enjoyed this one. It might be my Crofts equivalent of The Case of the Constant Suicides for Carr — the book that made me go “Oh, yeah, I’m reading everything else you ever wrote”. Got a review of The Ponson Case coming next week; about 80% in and really enjoying it at present.

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    1. I suspect that you are right though this book had a really solid giant piece of misdirection that does at least provide a little of that surprise element. I do think that some of the methodical, technical investigations are more interesting than others. He definitely gets the variety and pacing of those tasks right here for my taste.

      I do think the comparison with Christie is useful though because I have yet to find a last page twist that stays with you. I think that for most readers that is what gets them to talk about a title with others.

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts on The Ponson Case soon.

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      1. It does have a nice piece of misdirection, doesn’t it? The book proceeds is such a calm guided way that it caught me completely by surprise. You’ve watched everything play out so openly in front of you that you don’t even expect to be swindled. I loved that aspect. It’s funny – the misdirection would be par for the course in any other mystery book, but in The Sea Mystery it almost feels brilliant just because of the way that the story is told.

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      2. I think that is it entirely – it works so well because of the way the rest of the story is told. It is like French builds a house of cards and then pulls one of the supporting planks out. Really satisfying stuff!

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  3. “The genius of this story is that it does not confront us with a problem in chapter one that the reader will solve at the end of the book but that it is a slow evolution of problems, each emerging from the last.”

    You nailed it with that sentence. It’s funny, because it should be so incredibly boring, but it isn’t. The story moves with a gradual yet unrelenting pace. There are constant moments of discovery and the plot meanders into areas that you never really expect. You wouldn’t make a movie of The Sea Mystery – it would have to be a short TV series.

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    1. Thanks. I am more than capable of grumbling about the incessant attention to detail in some of his other works but this is varied and creative. I think the broader canvas of this story helps a lot too – we are not just dealing with one type of logistical question here.

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    2. I think what especially helps in this regard is how insoluble the problem initially seems — it’s not as if there were fourteen people around the manor at the time of the Major’s murder and patient logging and comparing of their testimony will eventually reveal a contraiction or flaw. There’s nothing to go on except the holes in the crate, and so the detective (via the author) can either sit around maundering about how difficult it is and hope something turns up, or they can launch themsevles full-throated into the tiny amount they do have.

      This, particularly, is what I enjoy about Crofts, I think — the way he just goes straight for every detail, no matter how small. I think this would be the reconciliation between my love of his work (so far…!) and the love of the more incident-packed impossible crime: there’s that similar attention to the little things — the crack in the wall, the slight lean on a bookcase…all those everyday details that would ordinarily be overlooked but instead take on a much grander significance on account of how easy they are to overlook.

      Okay, I can feel an essay coming on. Expect a post on this topic in the coming weeks… 🙂

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      1. The funny thing is that this is what Ellery Queen does too and yet it can feel so drawn out there and over-explained. I think your point about the initial insolubility of the crime is really good. That seems to hit the nail on the head.

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      2. It only occurred to me in light of Ben’s comment: both these and impossibilities have that insoluble air, and I think that’s something which is a strong indicator for me: when you’ve nowhere to go, where do you go? The answering of that question just might be precisely what I’m looking for in my detective fiction.

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      3. There are definitely other authors who propose brilliantly baffling problems, yes. Obviously the manner of the telling plays a part — you’re right to cite (early, at least) Queen for the drudgery of their over-explaining — but I think the capturing of my interest comes from something that’s complex and has no discernible pattern to it and can then be steadily stripped away by intelligent design (which is part of why I love Carr’s Death-Watch so much). However, I’m legitimately thinking a post on this might be a good way to explore it, so I’ll hold off examples until that. Whenever/if it happens.

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