Originally Published 1940
Inspector French #20
Preceded by Fatal Venture
Followed by James Tarrant, Adventurer
The new Sir Geoffrey Buller is earning his living in Chicago when he unexpectedly inherits his title, an English baronetcy, and Forde Manor in Surrey, complete with its vast collection of priceless works of art. His widowed housekeeper, who knows a thing or two, is surprised to discover that Sir Geoffrey is having his pictures cleaned. But then disaster strikes! A devastating fire, a missing artist and a lot of insurance money – from a mosaic of detail, Inspector French must reconstruct the pattern of a most cunning and complex crime…
I have generally had good luck with Freeman Wills Crofts’ mysteries. While I have sometimes grumbled about Inspector French being a little dull as a character, I have never found the plotting to be dull. You can hear the “until now” coming, can’t you?
Golden Ashes begins by introducing us to Betty Stanton, a woman who has had the misfortune to face financial calamity twice as the result of the profligate men in her life. The first time was when her father died leaving little but debts. She found temporary happiness when she was married but discovered that history had repeated itself when her husband died. After much searching a friend puts her on to a position as a housekeeper at Forde Manor.
The homeowner is Sir Geoffrey Buller who unexpectedly inherited his title when several people ahead of him died. He has recently arrived in England after living in Chicago and hopes to integrate himself in English high society. He is quickly disappointed, having little taste for the home, and within six months he is looking to sell the estate and move to the continent. The house is emptied except for its galleries of valuable paintings which Sir Geoffrey had recently had cleaned on advice from an artist friend.
While Betty is disappointed, she is pleased when he arranges for her to stay on the grounds to show around potential buyers. One evening she discovers that the building is on fire and tries to rescue the paintings though only a fraction of the collection is saved. Before long an insurance company representative is on the scene to investigate and then Inspector French arrives to ask Betty some questions about the disappearance of an art director friend of hers that had looked at the restoration work only a short time before the fire. Recognizing their common interests, French and the insurance rep pool their efforts to try and make sense of what happened at Forde Manor.
It is possible that a solution to what has happened may have already occurred to you. It certainly did to me. This is not the first time I have immediately guessed at a solution but it is unusual to find so little effort on the part of the author to make me at least doubt myself or consider an alternative. While a few details are introduced after the investigation begins, most just help flesh out the mechanics of how the crime was committed and all stand out pretty much instantly as important on being introduced. You just are left waiting for French to figure out the question to which that element will be the solution.
While this may sound as if it at least promises some technical, thoughtful investigation on French’s part the reader will likely feel underwhelmed on that point too. There is little of the technical detail, careful testing of hypotheses or considered speculation that I have found in most other French stories. Here he just makes several journeys to France and back to check on details and conduct interviews. It makes for decidedly dull reading and feels quite rushed.
This is all the more unfortunate because there are some aspects of the story I thought showed some promise and that may well have held my interest if they had been introduced differently. The art angle, for instance, is at least quite clever even if the reader’s attention is drawn to it far too early in the text.
While French’s methods were not particularly interesting, the sleuth himself was in fairly good form. One of the brightest spots in the book is the warm relationship he forms with the insurance investigator who he previously knew, though I had wished that their investigations had placed them into some sort of conflict with one another either personally or in terms of their aims. The most we get is a little complaining that French could achieve more if he was willing to bend the rules a little.
The biggest problem with the book for me is that it feels too neat and tidy. The best French stories seem to feature the detective working chaos into order but from the beginning the interpretations feel fairly clear – it is just a matter of working through them to be able to prove the conclusion. That may be an accurate representation of police procedure but it is far from gripping reading.
Throw in that Crofts spoils a major aspect of his earlier (and far superior) The 12:30 From Croydon for no good reason and you have what strikes me as easily the most disappointing reading experiences I have had from this author. It is not that it is badly written – but rather that it is really dull. He was capable of much, much better than this.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Professional is main sleuth (Who)