I hadn’t planned on returning to Freeman Wills Crofts quite so quickly but I am having to adjust to a new schedule at the moment which has left me with little time to read, let alone write reviews. I had read The Cheyne Mystery a week or so ago with the intention of banking a review for next month and so rather than go a week without content I figured it would be better to have something than nothing.
The Cheyne Mystery was the second Inspector French novel written by Freeman Wills Crofts. While it is certainly a mystery story, it does draw heavily on elements of the adventure genre. This is particularly apparent in the first half of the novel.
The protagonist of the book is Maxwell Cheyne, a young man who is an aspiring novelist and lives with his mother and sister in Devonshire. His writing career has met with very limited success but as he does need the income to support himself this is more of a disappointment than a source of concern.
The book begins with him making a trip to Plymouth where he unexpectedly encounters a man in a hotel who knows of his ambitions and wishes to make a proposal to him. He agrees to join him for a splendid lunch followed by coffee, all of which the men share. As he listens to the man’s proposals he begins to feel drowsy and is found some time later by the manager who informs him that a doctor had been called who suspected that he had been drugged but no traces of a drug were found on the dishes. His first thought is that he had been robbed but nothing appears to have been removed from his wallet or pockets.
That incident is just the beginning of a series of odd events and adventures for the Cheyne family and it certainly gets things off to a promising start. The circumstances of the drugging appear to be impossible and it is entertaining to work through how the thing might have been managed. It takes a while for the answer to be given and I will say that the explanation, while interesting, is not one that the reader could produce for themselves though they could work out the most likely point at which it would have occurred.
The events that follow in this first half are all quite entertaining and certainly add to the sense of mystery about just what has been going on. Many of the strange occurrences seem to happen for no purpose so, given there is no body on hand, the reader’s energies will be devoted to formulating a possible reason for them. The eventual answer is quite clever, if more far-fetched than in many of Croft’s later works.
Before going on to discuss the second half of the book in which French makes his appearance, I do have to pass comment on one aspect of the plotting: Maxwell Cheyne is an idiot. Certainly he can be a charming, entertaining idiot but regardless he makes some really poor decisions and seems to learn nothing from each situation he finds himself in. As a hero for an adventure story he is relatively inoffensive but as the protagonist in a detective story he can be infuriating.
I won’t say that this soured me on the first half of the book as a reading experience – the plotting is entertaining and fairly imaginative – but it is an experience equivalent to watching the scared teenagers in a horror film make the decision to split up and each investigate separate wings of an abandoned mansion.
Happily a more rational and orderly approach is introduced when Inspector French makes his welcome appearance at the halfway point and takes over the case. He sets about working through the clues and piecing together the information he has to get a clearer idea of what the criminals are attempting to do and why. While this is not one of French’s more dynamic investigations, there is plenty of strong detective work to be found here and there are some particularly inventive moments. For instance, I really enjoyed a sequence in which French attempts to interpret a rather unusual document. I would be surprised if the explanation occurs to anyone but I thought it was cleverly set up and worked through.
A more guessable but equally clever sequence prompts an entertaining trip to the continent. This phase of the novel threatens to venture into travel writing – never one of Crofts’ strengths – but I also appreciated that it focuses on some of the practical challenges that an unofficial overseas investigation would entail.
While I was entertained and interested in the explanation of what was going on, I did feel that the story’s resolution was underwhelming. Much of the reason for this is that much of the denouement occurs “off screen” and is related to a character after the fact. This feels somewhat anticlimactic and a little rushed after so much patient build up.
That leaves me in a bit of a quandary about how to judge it overall. For much of my time reading it I found it to be a surprisingly colorful and entertaining read, full of unpredictable (if far-fetched) developments. It is let down by its weak ending but it held my attention far better than the better-plotted, if rather dull, The Starvel Hollow Tragedy. I think on balance it is best to describe it as a lesser effort but a thoroughly readable one. For those keen to try out Crofts for the first time however superior options are available!
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A journalist/writer (Who)
JJ @ The Invisible Event enjoyed this one a lot, appreciating the rich, fast-paced yet detailed writing style and moments of ratiocination.
Nick @ The Grandest Game In The World was less enthused, finding it to strike an overly moralistic tone towards the end .