Originally published in 1957
Inspector French #31
Preceded by Many a Slip
A foolproof method for earning a fortune in a short space of time is discovered by some enterprising young men. They haven’t bargained on finding themselves involved in blackmail and then murder. It is up to Inspector French to unravel the threads with his usual flair.
Peter Edgeley has found the return to civilian life after the war challenging. Though he is clearly intelligent and capable, he struggles to take direction and yearns for a break from the drudgery of routine. After being dismissed for insubordination, Edgeley runs into an old friend from before the war who has experienced some similar challenges. That friend however thinks he has the solution and invites Edgeley to join him in his new, but illegal, venture.
Dick Loxton has recently inherited a rather snazzy yacht – it’s gorgeous but devilishly expensive to run. He could sell it and live off the proceeds for a while but he would rather find a way to make it pay and experience a bit of the adventurous life he has also been craving. With the help of a financial backer, he plans to run a small cruising company, taking groups of four or five to Switzerland and back. The real money however won’t be in the human passengers but some cargo he plans to hide on board and smuggle back to England, avoiding customs duty.
The early chapters of the book follow Peter and Dick as they scheme together, meet Dick’s backer, and put their plans into action. Crofts was always superb at carefully laying out the genesis and construction of a scheme and this novel is no exception. While his writing style is rather leisurely, the author’s delight at explaining the technical details of the execution of that plan is quite evident and at times rather infectious. We certainly understand why these two young men are prepared to throw the dice, not so much out of financial desperation but a desire to recapture something they’ve lost.
This matter of how the war changed the men who returned is a common theme in mystery fiction of this period but particularly in the inverted mystery field. Quite often the books that explore this topic can be quite grim reads but interestingly these are not men haunted by what they have done or empowered to commit violence but rather thrillseekers keen to experience excitement and danger once again. Crofts manages to make the pair quite appealing, casting them as rogues rather than villains and allowing us to retain some degree of sympathy with them throughout the whole book.
The other strength of this first part of the book is the credibility of the scheme. Crofts is meticulous about explaining why the scheme might work, outlines some issues that the plotters will need to address, and then sets about providing solutions to them. It’s a very solid, cleverly composed scheme that stands a decent chance of success so long as they don’t have any bad luck. Which, of course, they inevitably do.
After allowing us to follow the planning and execution of the scheme, along with its successful first voyage (incidentally, one of Crofts’ better efforts at travelogue writing), we then see how things begin to come unstuck. The explanation for those circumstances is similarly credible and Crofts does a good job of stringing out that moment, presenting the moment of discovery from the point of view of that witness. From that point onwards the story assumes a more familiar trajectory, setting up a familiar inverted mystery structure.
I have previously described Crofts as something of a master of that form and so it’s quite pleasing to see that in this, his final work published only a few weeks before his death, he returned to that form once more. Structurally and thematically this work is most like Mystery on Southampton Water, though there are still a few moments where he tries something new – most memorably the event that takes place at the end of the first section of the novel and the incorporation of a whodunnit element later in the book.
Unfortunately while I am predisposed to enjoy Crofts’ inverted novels, I feel this is one that falls down on the detection elements with the investigation feeling rushed and unsatisfactory to this reader. Part of that is the awkward conceit that French is trying discretely to assist his protege, Inspector Rollo, to ensure that he lives up to the task having assigned it to him over more experienced peers. This occasionally limits his actions but not in an interesting way while Rollo is so lightly characterized that he makes French look like quite a vibrant personality in contrast.
The bigger problem though is that French just gets really lucky. There are a number of points at the story where French, forced to interpret an aspect of the crime, instinctively guesses at the correct idea or explanation without ever really considering or testing the matter. This feels really lazy and sloppy but more importantly it reduces the opportunity for French to carefully piece together details – usually the strength of Crofts’ writing.
Things get so rushed towards the end that characters we have spent time with in the first half of the novel suddenly get forgotten, their actions and fates referenced but overlooked in favor of other figures from the case. After investing so heavily in them before, this feels disappointing and once again reduces the satisfaction of the ending a little.
That being said, the few clues Crofts provides French are solid and do a nice job of setting up reasons for him to doubt the story he is being fed. One feature I did appreciate was the need to find some way of corroborating what he knows to be true in order to be able to make his final arrest – while the journey to that ending may be a bit rough, I did believe that the case French builds against the story’s villain will stick. That, to this reader, meant that the story ends on a relative high note.
Anything to Declare? would be the final Crofts novel and I felt a little sad when I finally closed this one as, to the best of my knowledge, I have no more inverted stories by him left to read. I still consider him to be one of the strongest of the Golden Age exponents of that style and I love that each of the novels ends up trying to do something different than those that preceded it – even this one which is admittedly the least ambitious of the five novels (ROT-13: Gur ernqre jvyy or fhecevfrq ng gur erprvivat bs n frpbaq oynpxznvy abgr nsgre gur zheqre bs gur svefg oynpxznvyre, creuncf yrnivat gurz gb jbaqre whfg ubj fbzrbar ryfr znl unir yrnearq bs gurve cynaf).
The good news is that while I may have exhausted the well of Crofts inverted mysteries, I have plenty of more conventional detective stories left to read. No doubt I will do so soon as I seem to recall that he was a member of a certain society of mystery writers which readers of this blog have been seeing me write about a lot recently…
The Verdict: While French’s investigation is rushed and, I would argue, a little unsatisfying, it it by no means disastrous. Anything to Declare? is far from a late stain on its author’s career and I can imagine revisiting it in years to come.