Crofts, like Rhodes, understood industry better than most detective novelists, and his descriptions of how businessmen (and they almost always were men) operate is as convincing as any of the period.Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)
Several years ago in anticipation of the first anniversary of starting doing this blog I began to compile some data about the books I had read and reviewed. I was quite surprised to learn that my most read author was not, as I expected, Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr but an author that had been completely unknown to me when I began blogging – Freeman Wills Crofts.
The reason for the surprise was not just a matter of his profile but that my first few experiences of his writing were not overwhelming successes. My first few reviews, Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon, praise aspects of the plotting but were less than complimentary about his series detective, Inspector French. In fact one of the reasons I recommended the latter was because it hardly featured him at all!
What I soon came to appreciate though was Crofts’ ingenuity and that he was one of a handful of writers who were laying the foundations for what would become the modern day police procedural. His plots are often inventive and feature enormous attention to detail both in the planning and detection. I rarely, if ever, come away from a Crofts novel with issues with the mechanics of the crime!
Arguably his flaws as a writer lie in his characters who can feel rather flat and functional, none more so than Inspector French. While other series detectives often suggest a life beyond their job, Inspector French seems to just love details and we rarely get a sense of his recreational time beyond an occasional mention of slippers, newspapers and his love of things mechanical (in the book I will be discussing below he says he has a small metalworking space which feels downright intimate by the author’s usual standards).
Perhaps it is a case of the character reflecting his creator. It was hard to find a good quote about Crofts in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, not because he isn’t mentioned but because he doesn’t seem to have prompted the sorts of strong feelings that a Gorell or Berkeley could do. Instead he comes off as decent, conscientious and hardworking with an appreciation for structure, mechanics and order – all of which is reflected in the works themselves.
While enormously popular in the twenties, Crofts fell out of the public eye in the decades that followed and was saddled with the label of being a ‘humdrum’ writer. I understand the complaint but I cannot agree with it because that term suggests staleness and repetition that I simply don’t see in the author’s work.
What excites me about Crofts and keeps me coming back to him again and again is that he doesn’t just adhere to a formula. Instead his style constantly evolves as he experiments and plays with new ideas. Take for example his handful of inverted mysteries, each of which is written in a completely different style and have distinctly different structures. Similarly you can find examples of traditional detective stories, thrillers, locked room mysteries and even a detective story for children.
Humdrum? Not he.
The Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally published in 1935
Inspector French #13
Preceded by Mystery on Southampton Water
Followed by The Loss of the Jane Vosper
Also known as The Crime at Nornes and Inspector French and the Crime at Guildford
A weekend board meeting brings a jewellery firm’s accountant to the managing director’s impressive Guildford home. On the Sunday morning, he is found dead and is soon the subject of a murder inquiry by the local police. Meanwhile, Chief Inspector French is investigating the sensational burglary of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels from the safe of an office in London’s Kingsway. French must determine the connection between the theft and the murder as he embarks on a perilous chase to track down the criminals.Cover and blurb from Collins Crime Club reprint
The Crime at Guildford turned out to be a great choice for this project as I think it perfectly illustrates almost every aspect of the author’s writing, both positive and negative. This starts with the choice of setting.
Like many of Crofts’ works, the case is involved with the world of business. In this case, a jewelry firm that has found itself in a precarious financial situation. The book begins with a private meeting between several of the most significant shareholders to coordinate an approach to take on the company’s financial troubles at the next meeting. There are several possibilities suggested. These include declaring bankruptcy and restructuring and issuing new shares but there is also an option to sell a large number of precious stones that the company has acquired over the years. Unable to reach an agreement, the group agree to spend a weekend together at one of their homes and they decide to invite along the company’s accountant to give them more information.
The weekend goes ahead but when the accountant is found dead in a guest bedroom in suspicious circumstances the local police are called in. Meanwhile Inspector French is called to the company when the safe is opened the next day and all the jewels of value are found to be missing. Believing the two cases to be linked, French tries to work out the nature of that connection…
Crofts is convincing in describing the practical workings of a business and does a good job of outlining the situation the company faces. While the shareholders themselves may seem a little stiff and formal, particularly in those early discussions, the concerns they voice are all easy to understand and we quickly gain a good understanding of the broader situation faced by the company and why the murder and the theft of the jewels could spell ruin.
There is also a lot of well-observed detail in the descriptions of the mechanism and business practices related to the company’s safe. The way that information is shared with the reader can sometimes feel a little dry but it is necessary to understand the nature of the problem that Inspector French will have to solve: how could a thief gain access to the safe when it required the use of two keys, both of which must have been with their respective holders attending the gathering. It also helps us to eliminate some possible explanations and focus our attention, perhaps a little artificially, on our smaller group of suspects.
French’s investigation is both slow and careful, as is his handling of those suspects. He isn’t prone to making wild accusations or impulsive decisions – instead he follows the evidence carefully, develops theories, tests them and refines them. It’s not necessarily the most explosive way to tell a story but interest is built by having the case slowly take shape and when movement toward the explanation is finally achieved, it feels truly earned.
The reason it feels earned is that the situation, while initially appearing quite simple, is anything but. Ideas that may make sense of one crime are usually incompatible with the other. The challenge of reconciling these two problems and building a model that will satisfy them both is a huge one and while the reader should prepare for a lot of false starts, the journey as a whole will be a satisfying one.
Those explanations are strikingly clever. Take for instance the question of how the safe was breached. The solution to that problem is highly creative and it certainly would work. I would actually go so far as to suggest that this is a rare instance of a technical solution that still feels as clever today as it must have done when it was written over eighty-five years ago.
Other aspects of the solution similarly impress but what really appeals to me is how logical it all is and how neatly everything seems to fit together. When the final piece to the puzzle is presented and things finally make sense, I felt both a huge sense of satisfaction at the tidiness of that solution and delight that it was predicated on a simple but clever idea that just hadn’t occured to me but is, in retrospect, obvious. That, for me, is the ideal in terms of plotting.
The Verdict: The Crime at Guildford is not the flashiest of reads (perhaps reflected in its rather bland title) but it is ultimately a very satisfying one and very illustrative of Crofts’ style as a writer.