Anything to Declare? by Freeman Wills Crofts

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.

The Detection Club Project: Freeman Wills Crofts – Crime at Guildford

Freeman Wills Crofts by Bassano Ltd, © National Portrait Gallery, London licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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

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.

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.

Reprint of the Year: My First Pick

Reprints are really important and I have a story that I think illustrates my point well.

Two years ago I read Freeman Wills Crofts’ The End of Andrew Harrison which I found to be thoroughly enjoyable. It is one of two impossible crime novels he wrote and, having enjoyed it so much, I was keen to track down a copy of the other – Sudden Death.

I began by trying to get hold of a copy through interlibrary loan but no institution would lend their copy. That left buying a copy but unfortunately where I live there is no possibility of stumbling onto a copy in the wild. Atlanta may be a big city but my efforts to scour second-hand and antiquarian bookstores rarely produce any mysteries from the silver age, let alone the golden age of crime. Reluctantly I realized I would need to try and source a copy online.

Immediately I realized that I was priced out of the market. The cheapest copies at that time seemed to be priced in the region of $400 to $500 which was simply out of reach for me. For a while I just hung in, checking various sites every few days and hoping that one would just turn up. With no sign of any Crofts reprints on the horizon and no affordable copies appearing I had given up hope until suddenly a copy turned up on Amazon marketplace for just $200. Now, that’s a lot of money but having watched these sites for eighteen months I knew that was less than half the previous best price I had seen. Keen to avoid getting beaten to it, I purchased the copy.

For the first few days after it arrived I was thrilled but then came the news I really should have anticipated. The Collins Crime Club would be reprinting six Croft titles for less than a tenth of what I had paid.

I should have been upset. Okay, I kind of was though more at myself for not considering the possiblity that someone had cashed in to sell before the news broke, but I was also happy because it meant that when I did get to read it I was more likely going to be able to discuss it with other people that have read the book or might feasibly go on to read it. That is after all why I do this whole book blogging thing.

At this point I should probably clarify that I am not nominating Sudden Death. That doesn’t reflect on its quality as a book – rather I find myself incredibly anxious any time I touch it that it’s going to fall apart or get stained or destroyed. Inevitably I have had to get myself a second “reading copy” and it arrived too late for me to consider for this nomination. Instead I decided to nominate another of the reprints that I actually have read: Mystery on Southampton Water (reprinted as Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water).

Mystery on Southampton Water is not my favorite of Crofts’ inverted mystery stories but I think it is one of his most interesting. A big part of the reason for that is the unusual structure he adopts which seeks to blend the inverted mystery and traditional detective story formats.

The book introduces us to a pair of men whose business is in trouble. A rival has invented a process that allows them to undercut their competitors, cornering the market. Desperate the men hatch a plot to engage in a little corporate espionage and steal some trade secrets.

The first section of the book covers the background to this scheme and the pair working out the details of what they need to do. This also helps us get to know our two criminals and get a sense of their personalities and behaviors prior to the scheme backfiring badly causing a death.

The next section we follow Inspector French as he arrives on the scene and tries to piece together a picture of what took place. French is, as always, a diligent detective and while this particular investigation certainly can be quite detail-driven, I found it pretty engaging. The book’s third section is much quicker paced, focusing on the actions of our criminals as they are placed under stronger pressure while the last one returns to French and sees him taking on a different but possibly related case.

One of the reasons this book works and is able to channel a little ambiguity is that Crofts omits to describe the details of exactly how the young men’s plans end up going so disastrously wrong. This is the mechanism that allows the book to shift into a more traditional whodunit structure towards the end, marrying these two styles together quite effectively, and it allows the reader to have the psychological focus of the inverted style while still enjoying the traditional puzzle mystery form.

Similarly I appreciate how much sense the plot makes. It is one of his most credible crime stories, based on an understanding of human nature and the idea that sometimes things just don’t go to a well-laid plan. It’s a good idea, executed well and I think it speaks to Crofts’ willingness to experiment as a writer. As I have remarked often, Crofts’ inverted stories each feel quite distinct in style meaning there is never a sense that the writer is repeating himself.

Even if this particular Crofts title is not for you however, I would suggest that a vote for it is really a vote for any (or all) of the six titles reissued this year. Several of those six books have been relatively rare in recent years and so in republishing them, the Collins Crime Club has not only done a wonderful job of honoring the legacy of one of the Golden Age’s most important crime writers, it has also performed a service for fans of vintage crime fiction. Thanks to their efforts, there are now six more titles that have been made accessible to readers once again. And that, I feel, is something worthy of celebration.

For more information on this year’s Reprint of the Year awards check out Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrime. The post announcing the award and seeking nominations can be found here.

The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally published 1920

The unloading of a consignment of French wine from the steamship Bullfinch is interrupted by a gruesome discovery in a broken cask leaking sawdust and gold sovereigns. But when the shipping clerk returns with the police, the cask and its macabre contents have gone. Following the clues to Paris, Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard enlists the help of the genial French detective M. Lefarge to check motives and alibis in their hunt for evidence of a particularly fiendish murder.

Somehow I had managed to overlook that this year marks the centenary of the first publication of The Cask, the very first novel by Freeman Wills Crofts. Those who have followed this blog for a while will know that while it took me a while to warm to his work, I found my appreciation for him steadily growing to the point where I now consider him one of my favorite authors from the Golden Age.

I bought a copy of The Cask some time ago but I had passed over it, being put off by the page count (it is one of the author’s longer works), a few negative comments I had read and the knowledge that it would still be there waiting for me to read it later. Once I learned about the anniversary though I decided that I could not let it pass unmarked and so I would make a special effort to ensure that I blogged about it before year’s end. I started reading it one lunchtime last week and found myself staying up to the early hours that same night to finish it. Which probably gives you some indication of how I liked it.

The story begins with a group of workmen unloading casks of wine from a French ship. They discover that one is broken and that, upon closer inspection, it is not part of that shipment at all but that while it has been labeled as statuary, it seems to have been filled with sawdust and gold sovereigns. And then one of the workmen notices a woman’s hand.

Before they are able to report the matter however a man purporting to be the addressee turns up to attempt to retrieve his shipment. Attempts are made to stall him while the Police are being summoned but somehow he manages to slip away with the cask, forcing the Police to try and track him down and examine the body themselves.

Crofts structures his story as a series of three linked investigations, each led by a different character. The first section focuses on the efforts of the Police to trace the movements of the cask and determine whether the reports are accurate and, if so, whether the man who collected the cask was aware of its contents. The next section sees Inspector Burnley head to France where he gets the help of a representative of the Sûreté in trying to identify the body, why they were murdered and understand how the cask came to make its way across the channel. The final section introduces us to a new character who also conducts an investigation (and yes, that’s as much as I’m going to give you about that section).

While I enjoyed the book as a whole, I think the most successful of the three sections is its first. Part of the reason for that is Crofts manages to create a sense of constant discovery in these early chapters as the investigators learn new details about the cask and the individual who collected it, some of which are quite wild and can quite dramatically alter the reader’s perceptions of a character or the situations they find themselves in.

The next phase of the novel is far more focused on corroborating details and introducing us to the other characters involved in the matter. This cast of characters is pretty small so I think the killer will likely stand out for many readers but in spite of that the reader will have questions about motive and the means by which the matter was arranged. I would also add that while it is tempting to view this book in the context of subsequent works of detective fiction, it really should be compared with the mystery fiction published in the previous decade did not feature multiple suspects but a more readily identifiable villain. This does bridge the two styles, adhering to the idea of playing fair with the reader, but those who are only interested in playing whodunit may find themselves disappointed.

I have more of an issue with the general pacing of this middle section which often feels quite leisurely. Some of that reflects that this is a very early form of a procedural crime story and so comparing stories and paying attention to the details of the case are obviously more important than in some other forms of mystery novel, resulting in a slower storytelling style with a focus on attention to detail. Personally I enjoyed the space to mull over the information we had been given but some may feel there is not as much to discover here as it initially seemed.

I also have some issues with the final section of the novel. In particular, I think that the introduction of some thriller story beats in the conclusion fall flat and feel rather underbaked – a pity because so many other elements of the book work wonderfully. Still, the change of perspective works nicely and I found I didn’t mind revisiting some details we already knew because we got to see them from another viewpoint, throwing new light on them and on the characters involved. I found it to be largely successful because of the extra space it gives for the characters to grow and develop.

Crofts’ decision to use multiple detectives may mean that there is no one figure dominating the story, though Inspector Burnley does at least feature throughout the book providing at least a little continuity, even when he comes to play second fiddle to M. Lefarge. More importantly though it allows the book to more accurately mirror the structure and beats of an investigation, creating a more realistic procedural in which we are encouraged to focus on the details of the case rather than the personalities of the investigators.

The cast of suspects and witnesses are a little more richly realized and while several do tend to speak in a rather crisp and formal manner that can feel a little forced, the content of what they say is interesting and does set up a complex puzzle for the reader to solve. That puzzle is fair play with a solidly reasoned solution. Some may suggest that a few conclusions will be obvious to detective fiction fans but that ignores that some of the familiar ideas were much newer at the time of writing. When judged against actual contemporaries I find this to be a far more intricate and cleverly reasoned solution and one which left me feeling quite satisfied.

Other than the issues of pacing, the only other complaint I have about the book relates to the manner of the ending. Putting it in general terms in the hopes of minimizing spoilers, I find it frustrating that after lots of slow, detailed detective story buildup, the ending switches pace and tone to become something much more familiar and frankly rather underwhelming. It is not so much that it is bad, just that it feels sudden and uninteresting.

Overall then I have to confess myself pleased with the book, particularly in the context of it being an author’s first novel. I think Crofts clearly had some excellent ideas that he does justice to and while I think he would soon refine and improve on some elements of style in his writing, this was an excellent base point to do that from and a pretty good story told well.

The Verdict: Boasting an inventive start and some clever characterization, The Cask is certainly worth your time although with the caution that it is quite unlike much of his later work.

Five to Try: Railway Mysteries

There are two settings that I identify strongly with the golden age of detective fiction. The first is the country house mystery along the lines of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The idea of a location where everyone gathers to relax or see friends and family turning murderous is one of those ideas that gets used again and again, particularly in contemporary works that seek to evoke that “Agatha Christie-style mystery” feel.

The other setting I associate with this era of crime fiction is, as you have no doubt guessed, the mystery set aboard a train. This is a less common setting but one that I would suggest is much more closely tied to the original golden age period. Yes, people still write works set on trains but in doing so they often trying to evoke or reference one of the most famous mysteries of all time, Murder on the Orient Express (which, as a friend noted on Twitter, will be the next title on my Poirot read-through).

I think there are several reasons that the train as a setting has such appeal to me. The first is that, unlike the plane, it is easy to move around and socialize on a train. The space becomes all the more important to the story as we become obsessed with whose cabin is next to the murder victim’s or who was sat in which seats in the dining car. It is a diagram lover’s dream – all those lovely rectangles, many of them with numbers associated with them. When you consider the possibilities for locked spaces the train offers a staggering variety of options for the crime writer.

Another reason is there is that sense of the space around the train itself. The landscape can really matter and you often have a sense of the train rushing through tunnels or through snowy, mountainous terrain that will almost certainly force the train to stop at some point. A plane or boat is obviously occupying a space but how often is it truly important to the story?

The train could be glamorous, comfortable and practical. It offered a location in which the middle and upper classes mixed, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Little wonder there are so many wonderful mystery stories set aboard them.

In the post below I share five mystery stories I most enjoyed that are set on or around the world of trains. I have tried to avoid the most obvious picks on the basis that they are already known and loved. Rather than trying to offer a ranking of the five stories I consider the best, I have instead attempted to pick five stories that illustrate different ways that this setting has been used in the genre. Okay – I cheat a little and mention a few others along the way… I may very well not mention one of your favorites. If so, I would love you to share the stories you love in the comments below and the reasons you love them.

Photo by Gabriela Palai on Pexels.com

Dread Journey (1945) by Dorothy B. Hughes

The train as an enclosed space

Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dread Journey features a group of characters from the world of Hollywood making a coast-to-coast journey. As a consequence of being in close confinement with each other within a carriage, tensions rise and grievances are aired. It is clear that not everyone who boarded the train will live to disembark at the other end and that one character, an actress who is about to be dropped by her producer, is playing a very dangerous game…

There are multiple aspects of this book that I really responded to. The discussion of the casting process in Hollywood during this era seems horribly familiar while Hughes creates an interesting cast of characters to fill her Pullman carriage.

Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain

The train as the means of death

In spite of what the cover image shown here may suggest, the train in Double Indemnity is perhaps less of a feature than in the other stories I have listed. In fact very little of the book takes place in or around a train yet when it does feature it does so in a very important way. It serves as the means that Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger use to dispose of her husband as part of an insurance scam. Given that this is a noir story however do not expect all to go well for the couple.

I think it is easy to forget that a train itself was an enormously powerful object that could, with some careful planning, be used as a means to kill. After all it does have a habit of hiding other injuries that the victim may have sustained. For an example of that idea take a look at E. and M.A. Radfords’ excellent inverted detective novel The Heel of Achilles.

Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing (1935)

The sudden entry into a tunnel providing the opportunity for murder

Todd Downing’s Vultures in the Sky takes place on a train travelling across the border between the United States and Mexico. After US customs service agent Hugh Rennert learns of a strange threatening conversation between passengers on the train he is alert to the possibility of trouble.

During the journey the train passes through a tunnel and the lights do not turn on, throwing the carriage into darkness. When the train emerges on the other side the man who had issued the threat lies dead but with no signs of violence it is not even certain if he has been murdered. Soon however further killings will clarify that matter.

Downing is an excellent descriptive writer, able to make you feel what it is like to be on that train – particularly later in the book where it becomes stranded in the middle of the desert. It is not only a thrilling read, it is an excellent puzzle mystery which I thoroughly recommend.

For those interested in another take on this theme, check out Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel from the British Library Crime Classics series.

Great Black Kanba (1944) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

An accident on board a train leading to trouble…

Great Black Kanba reminds us that travelers could often be meeting someone for the first time.

We meet the main character of this story after she has been injured in a baggage accident, causing her to lose her memory of who she is and where she is travelling to. Fellow passengers tell her who she is based on some items found in what is presumed to be her baggage and she sets out to complete the journey she is told she is on, hoping that her memory comes back as she does so.

Another novella that mixes an accident on a train, albeit a much more serious one, with questions about identity is Cornell Woolrich’s wonderful I Married a Dead Man. In that story an unmarried woman who is eight months pregnant gets in an accident and is mistaken for a pregnant woman who was traveling to meet her in laws for the first time. It is a truly great slice of noir fiction.

Death of a Train (1946) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Not all trains are passenger trains

Of course I had to include something by Freeman Wills Crofts who is a particularly appropriate choice for this topic given his own background as a railroad engineer prior to becoming an author. He uses trains as elements in several of his books and while train timetables are not as vital to Crofts’ storytelling as some would have you believe, he certainly had a strong appreciation for the railroad and he does sometimes get rather technical.

Death of a Train takes place during the Second World War and involves a secret plan to transport important supplies without them falling into enemy hands. A special train is laid on but when an attempt to seize it is foiled only by chance it becomes clear that there must be a leak somewhere in the War Cabinet. It falls to Inspector French to try and seek out the guilty party.

This is not the most interesting of Crofts’ railroad mysteries but I selected it as a reminder that not every train carried passengers and that while goods trains may not be as glamorous, they could still offer intriguing possibilities for storytelling.


So there you have my five suggestions for Golden Age detective and mystery novels that feature trains. What are some of your favorite stories to feature trains? Feel free to break away from the Golden Age and include more recent titles!

Death of a Train by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally Published in 1946
Inspector French #26
Preceded by Enemy Unseen
Followed by Silence for the Murderer

There are only enough radar valves for the Home Forces or for North Africa, not for both. The only means of distribution is a special train and the only person who can prevent information being revealed to the enemy is Inspector French.

Published in 1946, Death of a Train is set at the height of the Second World War and sees Inspector French taking on a case which has profound implications for the whole British war effort.

Crofts begins by detailing discussions in the War Cabinet in which the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Severus L. Heppenstall, is asked to decide on how to allocate Britain’s dwindling stocks of radio valves. There are nowhere near enough to serve the needs of the British army both at home and on the African front so the decision is made to try to sneak them out of the country by train to Plymouth then by boat.

The early chapters follow the preparations as they are made and we learn exactly what measures are being taken to disguise the shipment. The point that the reader will take on board is that only a couple of figures had knowledge of the shipment and its movements so when an attack occurs on the line it creates a panic that there must be someone leaking from high office.

These early chapters feature a lot of technical discussion of the train and the logistics of assembling and loading it. This clearly was of enormous interest to the writer who takes pains to try and explain these elements to the layman who may be reading the book to allow them to follow what is happening. These efforts are, in my opinion, only partly successful. Certainly I think the reader can follow the action without any specialist knowledge but progress can feel a little slow and, quite frankly, I felt a little bored.

That feeling changed however for me when we get to that moment where the train is attacked. Crofts gives us a dramatic and quite visceral description of what happens to the train that brings that moment to life and communicates a sense of the enormous power and force of the train. I rarely think of action-writing as one of the author’s strengths so this was a nice surprise and, after chapters of slow build-up, it does move us into the more interesting territory of an investigation.

After a brief inquest, Inspector French is dispatched to investigate what is going on. However, because of the sensitivity of the investigation, he cannot be seen to be directly involved in the case as to directly investigate would tip off those responsible that they were suspected. The solution is that a second case will be investigated at the same time, albeit one that is wholly fictitious, that will justify him asking questions in the area.

Crofts’ depiction of wartime Britain is excellent in many respects. He certainly captures the challenges of maintaining secrecy, even between government departments and cabinet colleagues, and I think he does a very good job of conveying the gravity of the situation, even if he is a little hazy at points about exactly why the radio valves are so important.

Other aspects of the period play an important part in the story at points such as civilians’ sense of duty and volunteerism, the attitudes of the soldiers working to load and unload goods as well as the blackout which both limits French’s choices and opens up possibilities for him at different points in the story. In general, I think Crofts makes good use of his wartime setting.

While the initial terms of French’s inquiry suggest that we are in whodunnit territory, it soon becomes clear that this is going to be a thriller rather than a fair play mystery. In fact it would be hard to think of any aspect of the plot that the reader has any chance of working out prior to French. This struck me as quite reminiscent of some of the earliest French stories like The Box Office Murders and I must say it is not my favorite style for Crofts to be working in. That being said, he does incorporate some interesting espionage elements and ideas that I do think were worth exploring.

One of the ideas that Crofts uses most successfully is the need to hide that the detectives are on the trail at all. Throughout the book there is a sense that someone might be watching and so he can never let on to how the investigation is progressing except to those in the highest authority. This, of course, is also the reason that a decision is made to commission a false crime to give separate grounds for French to come to the area and investigate.

This, for me, was the book’s most compelling idea but it is one that I think is not fully exploited. The sequence in which we see the elements of the phantom investigation being set up are quite fascinating and creative but once French is on the scene he doesn’t really acknowledge his reason for being there and he is never really forced to find a way to creatively maneuver ask questions about his real purpose as the setup seemed to hint he would.

This book also explores the idea of French as the wartime hero and his willingness to push the boundaries of what he is allowed to do in order to achieve his goals. Many of the earliest French novels show the detective purposefully misleading interviewees or engaging in covert actions using his skeleton keys and that side of his character is certainly on display here. What is different is the extent he is willing to take things to.

There are several instances in this story where French makes decisions for what he deems to be the greater good of the country and some of those risk significant harm to innocents and, in one memorable instance, to himself. This results-driven French is always interesting to read and Crofts handles him quite well, making it clear that he is compromising his own moral comfort for the war effort. In one instance what he is willing to allow to happen to preserve the secrecy of his investigation is quite shocking and certainly pushes this idea far further than I have ever seen in a French story before.

This brings us to the ending and here, frankly, we have a bit of a mixed bag. Crofts’ depiction of his villain is rather bland, offering them little depth or definition and never allowing us to really get to know them. Still, the final few pages are actually quite thrilling and return to the book’s most successful themes, rounding things off quite well.

It makes for a solid end to a mid-level Crofts adventure that features plenty of wartime adventure and espionage but at the expense of any sort of a puzzle element. The heavily detailed early chapters may delight train enthusiasts but I found them hard going. Still, the wartime setting is interesting and the espionage elements are used well.

The Verdict: A solid wartime adventure story but as a puzzle mystery it disappoints.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set during WWI or WWII – wartime setting is obvious (When)

Many a Slip by Freeman Wills Crofts

First Collected 1955
Inspector French #30
Preceded by French Strikes Oil
Followed by Anything to Declare?

While I enjoyed reading through Crofts’ four inverted mystery novels, I felt quite disappointed when I realized that meant I had no more left to read [Update: 3/10/2020 – Since writing this, I learned that I have at least two more inverted mystery novels to read – Fatal Venture and Anything to Declare?]. You can imagine my delight then when I finally got around to reading this short story collection and found that it was entirely made up of inverted puzzle mystery stories!

Most of these tales are very short as they were written to be published in newspapers – a fact Crofts references in his introduction where he comments that he had to flesh some of them out for inclusion here. Accordingly most are designed to feature few characters and comparatively simple situations, though most feature either an apparently perfect crime or unbreakable alibi.

The ‘Many a Slip’ of the title refers to the idea that one small mistake can allow a diligent police detective to unravel even the most complex of alibis. After presenting us with a description of the events leading up to a murder, Crofts then provides a short epilogue, most of which feature his series detective Inspector French, in which he comments on how the case was solved. The format is a little reminiscent of the adventures of Boy Detective Encyclopedia Brown with most cases relying on some tiny incongruous detail, usually not directly related to the murder.

Many of those solutions are quite ingenious but they are not without their issues. A pretty common issue is that a few stories rely on information that may go a little beyond common knowledge as few stories directly describing the crucial clue. This isn’t a problem if your interest is chiefly procedural of course and in many cases you could probably work out what the issue is likely to be based on Crofts’ habit of using the principle clue for his titles. On balance I think most of the stories are fair and would have been even more so at the time they were written.

For the most part I found this to be a pretty entertaining collection but I do suggest that these may be best dipped into rather than read in one or two sittings. Crofts picks on several murder methods and themes and returns to them repeatedly. Usually he presents a different or interesting twist on those ideas but I think they would have more impact in small doses.

I would suggest that Crofts’ skills were perhaps better suited to the novel rather than short story format but in spite of that I think this is a solid collection with some highlights. A couple of stories stand out as particularly strong efforts. Mushroom Patties stood out for its fair play solution which I am happy to report I missed as did The Aspirins and The New Cement. My favorite tale in the collection though is The Photograph which I felt was exceptional, putting its inventive solution in plain sight.

Continue reading “Many a Slip by Freeman Wills Crofts”

Inspector French and The Cheyne Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally Published 1926
Inspector French #2
Preceded by Inspector French’s Greatest Case
Followed by The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

When young Maxwell Cheyne discovers that a series of mishaps are the result of unwelcome attention from a dangerous gang of criminals, he teams up with a young woman who is determined to help him outwit them. But when she disappears, he finally decides to go to Scotland Yard for help. Concerned by the developing situation, Inspector Joseph French takes charge of the investigation and applies his trademark methods to track down the kidnappers and thwart their intentions . . .

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)

Further Reading

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 .

Golden Ashes by Freeman Wills Crofts

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)

The Starvel Hollow Tragedy by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally Published 1927
Inspector French #3
Preceded by The Cheyne Mystery
Followed by The Sea Mystery

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)