A chance invitation from friends saves Ruth Averill’s life on the night her uncle’s old house in Starvel Hollow is consumed by fire, killing him and incinerating the fortune he kept in cash. Dismissed at the inquest as a tragic accident, the case is closed – until Scotland Yard is alerted to the circulation of bank-notes supposedly destroyed in the inferno. Inspector Joseph French suspects that dark deeds were done in the Hollow that night and begins to uncover a brutal crime involving arson, murder and body snatching . . .
These past few months I have concentrated on trying to acquaint myself with new authors. In many ways this has been a positive as I have found several new authors to enjoy but I did feel that I had an Inspector French-shaped hole in my reading life. Clearly this couldn’t go on so when I acquired a copy of The Starvel Hollow Tragedy it went straight to the top of my TBR pile.
Ruth Averill lives at Starvel with her invalid uncle. While she appreciates that he provided her with a home after the death of her parents, she finds the atmosphere stifling so when she is told that she has been invited to spend some time in York and that her uncle has provided some spending money she is grateful to get away. She even plans to use this short period of freedom to investigate finding a job so that she can support herself, move out and start living her own life.
Shortly after she arrives in York she hears that her Uncle has been involved in some sort of accident. Returning back to Starvel she finds that the building has burned to the ground and that the charred remains of three people were found inside. While she is told that she is the heir to her Uncle’s estate, the discovery is soon made that almost all his wealth was kept in cash inside a safe within the house and after opening it they discover that the money is burned and all that remains is a small sum in gold sovereigns.
Though the deaths at Starvel appear at first to be the result of some tragic accident, the local Police notice enough inconsistencies with the evidence to send for outside help. French is dispatched to look into the matter and working in the guise of an insurance investigator, he starts out by examining the question of whether the fire was natural or a case of arson. Before long he has begun to wonder if he might be looking at a case of murder.
As the third of the French novels, this is the earliest one I have read to date which presented a point of interest in itself. As well as looking at this as a mystery, I was curious whether Crofts’ approach would feel similar here to his later works or whether there would be signs of a writer still finding his feet.
In all the important respects, the character of French seems to be already pretty well defined. This is not necessarily a shock as Crofts did remark that he intended the character to be pretty ordinary and straightforward but I think his methodical approach to addressing a crime and following up on leads is present and correct here.
One difference that I did detect here is that French feels driven not so much by the intellectual challenge of the puzzle but out of a desire for promotion. He is looking to prove himself and excel, making him that bit more driven in his efforts to seek out answers. He doesn’t skirt the law quite so dangerously as he does in some other early stories to achieve that end but he is certainly results-driven.
The other major difference that struck me was that French does not work out all of the details of this case for himself. Instead some of the information is provided by another party including explaining a critical connection between several pieces of information that I think neither he nor the reader could have made otherwise.
His method however of thoroughly questioning everyone, checking every detail and comparing information is certainly present however. This can sometimes be a little frustrating such as when we follow French around comparing bank serial numbers as Crofts provides us with far too much detail of each interaction. While I understand that this allows Crofts to sometimes conceal a clue within one of those many interactions, it also makes the investigative phase feel a little slow and repetitive.
The other aspect of the novel that struck me as frustrating was that because French sticks so firmly to his method he never considers some alternative readings of the scene and clues until it is forced upon him. Crofts can often be a little guilty of this in his novels but the reason it particularly frustrates here is that some of the possibilities he fails to consider should have occurred to him while he was first assessing the evidence.
While I may grumble over these aspects of the novel, I think it is important to note that it does a lot of things correctly too. Take for instance the methodical way French picks apart the evidence relating to Ruth’s feelings about her trip to York which is really quite impressively handled or the exploration of Ruth’s psychology which felt pretty convincing and done well.
The Starvel Hollow Tragedy is not a book that contains many shocks or surprise revelations. Certainly I felt that the killer’s motivations and identity were clear from a point early in the book though I still enjoyed learning more about the suspects’ characters and motivations.
In spite of those deficiencies I still found this book to be an engaging and entertaining one and would say that I had a good time with it. Though hardly bad, Crofts could and would do much better than this in many of his other works. Still, for those who are looking for a lighter, entertaining Inspector French story you can certainly do a whole lot worse.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Crime involved fire/arson (How)