The Sea Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

TheSeaMysteryAfter working through each of the inverted Inspector French stories, about two months ago I had my first taste of a more traditionally structured Crofts story with The Box Office Murders. While I liked aspects of that story, I had found French to play a frustratingly passive role in that adventure so I was happy to see that here he is right in the thick of things.

A man and his son are out fishing on the water when their lines snag a large object. Eventually they manage to pull it up to the surface and find that it is a crate. When it is opened a body is discovered inside with its face so badly disfigured it is impossible to identify it. Inspector French is sent from the Yard to try to discover the dead man’s identity and uncover what has happened.

I thought the opening was really intriguing and I appreciated Crofts’ point that were it not for the accident of the fishing line this would have been a truly ingenious and likely undetectable murder. I was struck by just how well Crofts manages to reserve information to build that sense of curiosity in the reader about just what is going on or where this story is headed.

The early part of the novel are procedure and mechanics-driven as Inspector French sets about working out the likely point and method by which the crate entered the water based on the timing of the tides. This sort of thing that has the potential to feel quite dry so I was very pleasantly surprised by just how lively this portion of the investigation is. Crofts does a very good job of providing the reader with enough information to understand what is happening without bogging them down in the exact calculations and details.

Once we get past the first phase of the investigation Crofts introduces us to a small cast of characters but it is initially far from clear who is a suspect or why they would have sought to murder the victim. I was pleased that these characters have pretty distinctive personalities and that a limited cast size does not result in a limited whodunit.

The genius of this story is that it does not confront us with a problem in chapter one that the reader will solve at the end of the book but that it is a slow evolution of problems, each emerging from the last. This not only creates a sensation of methodical, logical progress but it also means that it is hard for the reader to predict just where the tale is headed.

Once we have established the mechanics of how the body made its way down river the question turns to trying to establish the identity of the victim and the possible motives for that person’s death. While the investigation is still very methodical and focused on opportunity, I was pleased that importance was placed on trying to establish the killer’s motivation. I also appreciated the way that our understanding of characters’ relationships evolves over the course of the book, making the reader reassess what they may have assumed they knew.

The actual solution to the story is quite clever and while I think the logical, methodical path French follows means that it is unlikely the solution will wow anyone, I did appreciate Crofts’ use of misdirection earlier in the novel. I also appreciated that the methods French does use are quite varied ranging from some physical experiments to some crafty interrogation techniques. As with The Box Office Murders, he seems willing enough to employ some extra-legal methods to acquire information (French’s felonious exploits in search of truth ended up being the focus on conversation in the comments on that post).

So, what doesn’t work? Honestly it is hard to think of much. Had I read The Cask already which supposedly utilizes a number of the same plot points I imagine I might feel frustrated that the author was repeating themselves so soon. I might add that I think one character’s pigheadedness is taken to extremes but I found that to be understandable enough given their personality.

While this is not my favorite Crofts title that I have read so far, I do think it is very successful and a really strong detective story. I appreciated how varied the investigation becomes and think it does show the strengths of French as a character and of Crofts’ skill at making a complex puzzle seem clear and easy to understand.

Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards

bloodonthetracksThe latest British Library Crime Classics anthology is a collection of railway mysteries from the Golden Age of crime fiction. As always editor Martin Edwards has managed to find a mix of different styles and approaches from adventure-type stories to inverted crimes.

Most of the stories in the collection feel like good matches for the railway theme though the links in a couple of cases are somewhat tenuous. For instance The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face is one of the strongest stories in the collection based purely on entertainment value but probably does the least with the train theme.

Among the highlights of the collection for me were The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch and The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman. The other stories are generally of a high standard and most are paced pretty well with just a few falling short of the mark.

The Man with the Watches by Arthur Conan Doyle

A curious tale that features a seemingly impossible crime where the body of a passenger who hadn’t been seen on the train turns up in a compartment while the train is in motion while passengers who were there seemed to have vanished. I didn’t find it the most engagingly written story I have ever read by Doyle though it does have an interesting premise and I appreciated the construction of its solution.

The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

In this story the detective is being consulted about a seemingly inexplicable death that has taken place in the early hours of the morning at a section of railway. The night watchman is found dead near the tracks with a severe blow to the back of his head. Suspicion has fallen on a young man with whom he was feuding yet the man recounting the tale does not believe he would be responsible though he cannot think of another explanation.

Arguably the story could have been a little more concisely told but the concept is quite clever and logical.

How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

This Dora Myrl adventure sees her consulted about the matter of a theft of several hundred pounds that was being transported from one bank office to another. The clerk responsible was supposedly travelling in the compartment alone but we are let in on the secret of how the robbery was managed. What remains a mystery however is how the thief managed to get off the moving train.

It’s quite an entertaining read and I did find Dora quite a likeable, lively heroine so I would be interested in reading some of her other adventures. The story though is not really fair play in that some of the details necessary are not fully described while the surprise identity of the villain will shock absolutely no one.

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway by Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner tells Miss Polly Burton about a murder that had been committed on the Underground some time before where the Police were certain that they had identified the killer yet were unable to prove their case. He explains how the murder was actually carried out and why the Police came to their incorrect conclusion about the guilty party.

As with each of the previous stories in this collection, this is a tale recounted but the difference is that all of the action has taken part in the past, meaning that there is no movement or action in the story. To me that led to it dragging a little which is a shame as I thought the way the crime was executed was quite smart.

The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch

A clever little tale that unfolds at a good clip. Mr. Hazell is approached by a school master who had been tasked with escorting a student by train after he was summoned by telegram. During the journey the student steps into the corridor and disappears. The master investigates and conducts a thorough search of the train but the child has vanished in spite of the train not having slowed down or stopped at all since the disappearance.

Whitechurch lays out the information very clearly and it is a pleasure to piece together what has happened. The explanation is quite simple and I appreciated the tightness of the resolution.

The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman

Arguably the first inverted mystery written in English, The Case of Oscar Brodski is a story told in two parts of unequal length. The short opening identifies the murderer and explains the choices that he makes that lead to him taking a life and we see him staging the scene to try to mask his guilt. At the end of this section we are, in effect, challenged to imagine how he might possibly get caught.

The second part reveals that Dr. Thorndyke happened to be travelling on the railway line on the evening of the murder and became aware of the investigation into the death. While he does not have his full laboratory with him, he does have a small green case packed with smaller versions of many of his instruments and his systematically analyses the evidence to build up a picture of just what happened.

The investigation is compelling because the evidence is convincing and easy to follow. Thorndyke may not be the most dynamic investigator but it is interesting to see just how he works and his acknowledgement that his success was down in part to fortunate timing as had he been later on the scene much of the evidence would have not been there.

The Eighth Lamp by Roy Vickers

In this story a signalman agrees to take on the duties of performing final clean up on the platform of a circle line station at the end of each evening. As he extinguishes the last light however he sees a train running through the station without any lights and slowly a dread grows within him about fulfilling those duties.

The story feels tightly written, building a very effective sense of tension and drama. The reader may well guess where the story is headed but I think it is very well paced and packs a strong conclusion.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A Max Carrados story in which the detective is consulted by his friend Mr. Carlyle about a case he is working on to try to determine who was responsible for a catastrophic train collision. The driver swears that he was following a signal while the signalman says that the driver ignored him.

Aspects of the solution are rather clever and the concept and themes of the story feels far more modern than you might expect given it was written in 1914. That being said, I did find the way the story was told a little dry.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face by Dorothy L Sayers

Lord Peter is travelling on a train when he hears about a strange case of a man found strangled on an isolated beach wearing just his bathing costume with nothing to identify him. There are just one set of footprints leading to the body though lest you think this an impossible crime story, Lord Peter solves that within a few paragraphs (it’s a good explanation too).

The story is quite cleverly constructed and has a fairly unconventional ending. Based on entertainment value it is one of the strongest stories in the collection though I might grumble and point out that the train setting is quite incidental and used in just a fraction of the story.

The Railway Carriage by F. Tennyson Jesse

Jesse’s final story to feature occult sleuth Solange Fontaine is really more of a rumination on themes of crime, redemption and capital punishment than it is a traditional detective story. I am not particularly fond of supernatural elements in my crime fiction so this one was perhaps not for me though I think the revelation at the end is quite chilling.

Mystery of the Slip-Coach by Sapper

A story in which a gambler and moneylender is found shot dead within a train carriage with a broken egg near them. This story can boast a devilishly clever solution but you may well wonder whether it could actually work in practice and why on earth anyone would conceive of such a ludicrous way of killing someone.

The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts

Having believed myself done with Freeman Wills Crofts’ inverted stories, I continue to be delighted by finding new short stories in these collections. This one is a good one, focusing on an accountancy clerk who is intending to kill a man on the railroad tracks.

The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage by Ronald Knox

A very acceptable Sherlockian pastiche which sees the detective consulted by the servant who voices her concerns that her master intends to commit suicide. Holmes travels down by train only to find that during the journey he disappears. What I do think it captures well is Doyle’s ability to set up a seemingly complicated scenario and then to have Holmes reduce it to something quite simple and understandable but while it entertains, there is nothing special to set it apart from the countless other Holmes pastiches.

Murder on the 7.16 by Michael Innes

Forget trying to solve this one yourself – its brevity means it is a little lacking in clues – but the story is a clever one, even if Appleby could never prove it with his evidence. The director of a film is found dead inside a reproduction train cabin on set.

The Coulman Handicap by Michael Gilbert

Detectives attempt to track a woman who they believe is involved in fencing stolen goods but manage to keep losing her. Unfortunately I found the premise less than thrilling and it struck me as one of the weaker entries in the collection.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. Blood on the Tracks is already available in the UK and will be published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press on July 3, 2018.

The Box Office Murders by Freeman Wills Crofts

BoMIt has been a few months since I last tackled an Inspector French book and, now that I’ve read all of his inverted mysteries, I had big plans to pick up one of the books I received at Christmas. Instead, just as I was about to pick one of them up, a super-affordable copy of The Box Office Murders fell right onto the top of my to read pile. Sorry, The Hog’s Back Mystery, but you will have to wait a little longer…

The Box Office Murders is a difficult story to summarize, not because its plot is particularly complex but because so many of its keys points are established quite a way into the narrative. Rather than risk spoiling people’s enjoyment of the story, I am opting to be a little vague about what exactly it entails.

What I can say is that this story begins with a solicitor referring a young client to Scotland Yard to speak about her experiences. This woman tells Inspector French of how she became involved in a criminal enterprise and also about the fate of a friend who was thought to have committed suicide but who she believes was murdered. When the young woman herself is found dead the following day, French starts looking into the circumstances of these deaths in earnest.

This introduction reflects one of the most significant issues that I had with the book – namely that Crofts gifts a lot of information to our hero in the form of long conversations in which key characters lay out what they know and who he should suspect. Now, I would certainly acknowledge that the way he manipulates the witness showcases some of his skills and I would also accept that this is exactly the way that the sort of crime we have here would be detected. The problem is that it will cause French to play a curiously passive role at some key points in the proceedings and so his chief contribution to this story would be to work out what the gang’s scheme is.

This is the earliest French novel I have read by quite some way and so I am not sure if this is typical of the role he played in earlier titles. It certainly presents some challenges as an approach because it runs contrary to the idea that your protagonist should be driving events. Crofts invites us to empathize with him, to share in his worries, and to follow his actions but without the actions of a secondary character he wouldn’t even know who to consider a suspect, let alone catch them. It feels rather unsatisfactory.

This is a shame because the scheme itself is an unusual one. It is perhaps not one that the modern reader can be prepared to guess because it is so grounded in the practices of the time period in which it was written but I think it is quite charmingly practical, imaginative and well thought-through.

Turning to French himself, I was rather struck by a few uncharacteristic moments of wildness in the character. Here he bends interrogation rules, breaks into houses without warrants and, in a moment of exaltation he grabs a young woman who is most definitely not his wife, kisses her twice on the lips and tells her ‘My word… but you’re the goods!”. Now, he does immediately reference that he is married but this is not the Inspector French I am used to, methodically comparing the marks made on parking tickets or examining train timetables.

As I referenced earlier, there is an important secondary character in the book who will carry out some very important work in this investigation. I liked this character quite a lot, and appreciated the time taken at the end to sum up how they were left as a result of the investigation. I appreciated that they were not just placed in a position where they needed to be rescued but were able to exert some agency on the events, coming up with a good scheme of their own. I just wish that French had been a little more ingenious in his own efforts rather than waiting for the telephone to ring.

At the end of the case, French sums it up as being ‘an unusually troublesome and disappointing one’. This is of course a gift of a phrase for anyone who wishes to criticise it but, though I have issues with the role it gives its sleuth, I do think that it scores some points for the originality of its crime. That being said, I would strongly suggest that you not make this your first taste of French as this isn’t his most ingenious case, nor the best showing of this character.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by drowning (How)

 

The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

LongArmI have mentioned before that I am a bit of an unbeliever when it comes to short stories. I understand and respect the craft and I know that it can actually be far harder to write a really effective short story than a novel. I just have not found many that I could get all that excited about.

The Long Arm of the Law is one of the more recent short story collections published as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Once again Martin Edwards has curated the collection, writing a general introduction explaining the themes of the book and individual shorter introductions for each story.

I would say that on the whole this is an enjoyable read, though I think there are a number of stories here that feature policemen as a character rather than being about the police investigation. The good ones though are superb and well worth your time.

The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew

A fairly straightforward story in which Inspector Vane is approached by a butler who is worried his master is secretly poisoning his wife. Expect to see the twist coming though it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Silence of PC Hirley by Edgar Wallace

I couldn’t get into this somewhat open-ended story about a case of blackmail that escalates into murder. The most memorable thing about the story was one character referring to his wife as being ‘very seedy’ which apparently has a secondary meaning that I was unaware of.

The Mystery of a Midsummer Night by George R. Sims

A very thinly veiled fictionalized account of the Constance Kent case that you can find out more about in Kate Summerscale’s excellent The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. This is quite a readable story but given it draws such heavy inspiration from a real case, the revelation at the end makes little impact.

The Cleverest Clue by Laurence W. Meynell

Told in the form of a barroom reminiscence, this story involves an academic who is developing an anti-aircraft defense being caught up in some intrigue. I liked the background to this and thought the resolution was good, though I think it gets a little cute with the titular clue.

The Undoing of Mr Dawes by Gerald Verner

Cute and unlike the previous story the policeman plays an important part in this one. The story involves a jewelry heist and the policeman’s efforts to see the mastermind put away for the crime. The way it is managed is quite clever and it is a pleasure to read. I’d be interested in trying more Verner so if anyone has any recommendations, please share!

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers

Given my love of inverted mysteries it will come as no surprise at all that Roy Vickers has been on my radar for a while. I have a volume of his Department of Dead Ends mysteries that has sat near the top of my To Read list since Christmas. If this tale is anything to go by I’ll have to push them higher.

The story concerns a woman working on the stage who contrives to marry a Marchioness through a Becky Sharp-style piece of manipulation. Later she gets a couple of cruel surprises that lead her to commit murder.

The development of her case features some entertaining twists and reveals while the resolution is superb. I might, if I were nitpicking, complain that I think the police get their solution without a strong base of evidence but I was entertained by the conclusion. One of the gems of this collection!

The Case of Jacob Heylyn by Leonard R. Gribble

The most noteworthy thing about this story for me was that one of its characters happens to rubbish a key element of the previous story. I was curious whether its respective placement was coincidence or intentional.

The mystery certainly isn’t bad but it lacks the distinctive characters or lively plotting of some of the other stories in this collection.

Fingerprints by Freeman Wills Crofts

Hooray! Just when I thought that I had exhausted all of Crofts’ inverted tales I stumble on this gem. It is an incredibly short tale that gives use the basic details of what leads Jim Crouch to give himself away when he murders his uncle. Inspector French turns up and in just a few paragraphs he is able to point out why this is not the suicide it appears to be. Clever and entertaining.

Remember to Ring Twice (1950) E. C. R. Lorac

One of the shorter tales in the collection, this concerns a policeman overhearing a conversation at the bar and then shortly afterwards being called to a crime scene that is linked to one of the participants in that conversation. I can’t say this gripped me but the mechanics of how the crime is committed and its inspiration are interesting enough.

Cotton Wool and Cutlets by Henry Wade

I have been on a bit of a Henry Wade kick lately and I must confess to having been drawn to read this by the inclusion of one of his short stories. Unsurprisingly I found this to be one of the stronger crime tales in the collection, both in terms of the depiction of the police and also in the case itself.

With regards the former, one of the things I think this gets right is it shows you some of the ego and competition involved in any workplace. In terms of the latter, the premise of the faked suicide is handled exceptionally well and is undone through some simple evidence. It is interesting to discover how the crime was worked and the motivation behind it.

After the Event by Christianna Brand

{Whoops – my comments on this story were missed when I first posted this review. Thanks to Kate for indirectly prompting me to realize this!}

This story made me realize how I hope that at some point there may be a theatrical mysteries collection. This story is recounted by the Great Detective many years after it took place and involves a strangling taking place after a performance of Othello.

It all hinges on a rather simple idea but it is brilliantly executed and I was caught completely by surprise. One of the highlights of the collection.

Sometimes the Blind by Nicholas Blake

This is one of the shortest stories in the collection but it packs a lot into just a few pages. The tale is recounted by a policeman who is using it to illustrate how there are many cases where the police know who was responsible for a crime but cannot prove it sufficiently for the criminal to ever be charged with it. The story explores the motivations of the killer convincingly and I thought the ending was superb.

And now I’m kicking myself for having yet to get around to reading any of the Blake novels I have on my Kindle…

The Chief Witness by John Creasey

A superb story that packs an emotional wallop and manages to pack a neat revelation in that genuinely caught me by surprise. The story concerns the death of Evelyn Pirro who is found strangled in her bed. The immediate assumption is that her husband, whom she had started arguing violently with, was responsible though no one can understand what caused a seemingly devoted and loving couple to turn on each other.

The story is exceptionally written and Creasey manages to create three dimensional characters in just a handful of pages. The use of the child is particularly effective, the character being written as innocent but still able to provide some important information.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert

A bit of an odd one, though I found it to be quite entertaining. The owner of a sweet shop is killed by a car in what seems to be a hit and run accident. The Police are called to look at his basement where they find something that shouldn’t be there and hints at a crime.

The story was highly unpredictable and handled very well. The ending is not unexpected but I think executed very effectively.

The Moorlanders by Gil North

I found the action in this story impossible to follow which surprised me as I had little problem following the Cluff novel I tried recently. It’s not a dialect thing or a lack of familiarity with the characters that’s to blame – it just doesn’t communicate its ideas. To illustrate: I had to reread the story to pick up that there had been a motorbike accident. Unfortunately it ends the collection on a somewhat disappointing note.

The Affair at Little Wokeham by Freeman Wills Crofts

DoubleTragedyI feel a little sad knowing that having now read Crofts’ fourth and final inverted mystery that no more will await me. Happily though I can say that I did save the best to last as The Affair at Little Wokeham or, to use its American title, Double Tragedy is my favorite of Crofts’ efforts in this field.

One of the things I am most impressed with is that Crofts does something different with each of those four mysteries, lending each its own unique feel. What sets this novel apart is that it is told from a number of different perspectives and that we are not sure at first which of the characters will be the one to kill Clarence Winnington. Indeed, the only thing we know in reference to the crime from the early chapters of the book is that a physician, Dr Mallaby, has aided the murderer in some fashion and is feeling a profound sense of guilt and professional shame but even in that case all may not be as it seems.

Mallaby has been a resident of the area in which this is set for some years, finding his situation in a small country medical practice to be comfortable but unrewarding either monetarily or in terms of satisfaction, considering himself a failure. Life in the village is fairly static and so there is much excitement when the locals learn that Clarence Winnington and his family have purchased one of the vacant large houses and are moving in.

The aging Doctor is among the crowd who first go to welcome the family to the area and while he intends to only give a short hello and be on his way, he is charmed to be asked to tea and soon starts making repeated calls to the house. He is charmed and enchanted by one of Clarence’s young nieces and though doesn’t believe that she could possibly return his affections, he does notice how unhappy she seems to be living with her uncle and starts to wonder if he she might accept him after all.

What Mallaby does not know is that she, her married sister and brother are all named as beneficiaries in the case of Clarence’s death and that she would stand to inherit some twenty thousand pounds. He first learns about this from her drunken brother early on the evening on which, by chance, that uncle will be found murdered and is utterly appalled, fearing that she might think he was interested in her for the money. He intends to withdraw his proposal of marriage to save her any embarrassment but before he can do so he learns that the old man’s body has been found in his library, beaten to death with a lead pipe.

I do not want to share much more about the story beyond Mallaby’s experience of these events because a huge part of the enjoyment of this book is in seeing how Crofts develops his story, figuring out which character will kill Clarence, why and also how Mallaby will perform that cover up that is referenced at the start of the novel. While I enjoyed the whole novel, these early chapters are particularly satisfying as we may wonder why the doctor would risk his professional reputation and the possibility of going to jail as an accomplice to murder.

The reason that I have focused so much on Mallaby is that the character and their role in this story is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the novel. The doctor’s involvement in these events complicates them as, while we know he played no role in performing the killing, what he says will have a significant impact on French’s investigation. Knowing exactly how he has influenced the investigation means that we are already far ahead of the sleuth so the question will become how will French recognize this misdirection and reason his way to the correct solution?

While one of the characteristics of the Crofts inverted mysteries has been a reduced role for his series sleuth, the multiple perspectives approach adopted here allows him to get involved much more visibly in investigating the crime. As always, Inspector French approaches the investigation with an exhausting attention to detail, using reason and logic to try to explain each element of the crime but because Crofts is frequently shifting perspective, we get to see the case from multiple perspectives which helps to keep things interesting.

The second half of the book focuses on the killer’s attempts to cover up their involvement in the crime and while their plan is far from the most ingenious Crofts has devised, that honor going to Antidote to Venom, I think it has some very interesting moments. Part of the reason for this is that Crofts does not indulge too heavily in attempting to justify the killer’s actions the way he did in his previous inverted stories. This person does not perceive themselves to be the hero of their own story and so the passages where they reflect on what they have done are less melodramatic than in his previous works.

Instead of focusing on the killer’s emotional journey, our focus is drawn to the choices they make and of the plans they devise. This contrasts nicely with the scenes we see from French’s perspective and makes their relationship feel more antagonistic in spite of the fact they probably spend less time interacting than the villain and sleuth do in any of Crofts’ other inverted stories. Though their plan is not breathtakingly smart or original, the killer has the same methodical approach to committing their crime that French has in solving it.

It is that sense of balance within the narrative that I think is why I found this the most successful of Crofts’ four inverted mysteries. Between the frequently changing perspectives, the cat and mouse game being played by killer and sleuth as well as the introduction of a likeable supporting character who finds themselves drawn into the case, the book offers multiple points of interest and avoids repeating itself too much.

Sadly it is currently out of print but I do hope that with more of Crofts’ works becoming available again in the past few years that someone will choose to publish this one again. I certainly think it deserves to be rediscovered.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by blunt instrument (How)

This book was released in the United States as Double Tragedy.

Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

MysteryonSouthamptonAs regular readers of this blog will know, I have something of a fixation with the inverted mystery and have been actively seeking out examples of the form. Recently I came across a list of Freeman Wills Crofts’ four inverted mysteries and, having already reviewed Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon, I have made completing the set a priority.

Actually getting my hands on a copy Mystery on Southampton Water proved to be quite a challenge until I learned that it had been released in America under the name Crime On the Solent. Quite why Dodd, Mead & Company felt that would be more attention-grabbing with American audiences I am not sure. Incidentally, on the topic of the publisher, I would love an explanation of what the eight-point test Dodd and Mead gave to all mystery manuscripts they received was if anyone knows!

So, what is Mystery on Southampton Water all about?

While the story certainly can be described as an inverted mystery, that would only describe a portion of the text. Crofts structures his story in four distinct phases that alternate the focus between the criminals and French. In the first we see the criminals plan and execute an industrial espionage scheme that backfires, resulting in a body that has to be covered up. The second section features Chief Inspector French looking into the matter but being unable to connect everything together. The third returns the focus to the criminals who find themselves put under a new form of pressure while the fourth sees French investigating a related mystery and resolving the original case.

Structurally this is quite complicated but I felt it worked well. Essentially Crofts gets to have his cake and eat it to by providing us with both an inverted crime and a genuine whodunnit in the same book. As an added bonus, those who are not necessarily big fans of French as a character will appreciate the regular breaks this gives readers from his exhaustive brand of detection while, for those that are, there is a little bit of timetabling and mathematical reasoning to enjoy in that final section.

A distinction between this book and the two other Crofts inverted mysteries that I have read is that the novel features multiple would-be criminals working together. This does not mean that they are equally culpable in the decisions that get made but it is interesting to see how these characters manage to communicate and discover whether they will ultimately support each others’ stories. This cooperation which extends to support for each others’ alibis will also prove an intriguing complication for French to deal with as he attempts to piece the story together.

It was the relationships between these criminals that most interested me in the book and motivated me to power though the novel in a single sitting to see how this would resolve. Unlike many criminals, these characters seem to fundamentally quite like and respect each other and, without wishing to spoil the novel, I appreciated that their path to murder was not thought out and carefully planned which meant that some of the characters managed to remain quite likeable and easy to empathize with until the very end of the novel.

Each of the characters has a decidedly different personality and temperament in the way they respond to both events around them and, more specifically, to the investigation. This not only provides some conflict among the group as they get caught up in events and fall under suspicion from the Police, it also keeps the narrative from getting stale or becoming repetitive.

French himself is as diligent and hardworking as  ever, delivering a typically thorough and meticulous investigation. I was intrigued that Crofts takes the time here to reference some past events, if only fleetingly (don’t worry – there are no spoilers here), and we learn that he has recently been promoted to Chief Inspector but misses being able to immerse himself in a single case. French even has a little moment of character development as we learn that as a child French had a great interest in learning the distinguishing features of different types of boat. This passion remains with the adult French as we are told:

He was interested in shipping, and the presence of four of the world’s greatest liners grouped in one small area thrilled him.

Sounds about right.

While Crofts’ structure is complex, the case French is initially investigating seems relatively simple. There are no great revelations in that second portion of the book, just some pretty logical sleuthing although there are a few occasions where French dismisses alternate readings of the scene a little too quickly based on the ambiguity of some of the evidence.

The story really comes to life in the lively third section which not only introduces an additional but related crime for French to solve, it also introduces a more traditional mystery into the mix as we do not directly witness the events described. Sadly a few aspects of that case are quite straightforward and the solution to how the thing was achieved will likely stick out to regular GAD readers but I did appreciate that there was an additional element to the case that I had missed.

Overall I rather liked this story, although I do think it is the weakest of Crofts’ inverted stories that I have read so far. The use of multiple criminals was quite successful and I felt that the motivations were generally solid and believable. And while the mystery side of the story was relatively straightforward, fans of solid, logical policing will likely enjoy the way it is proved. It is definitely a second-tier work however for Crofts which likely explains why it has yet to be picked for a reissue.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book published under more than one title (What)

The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

FromCroydonAt the start of this month I published my thoughts on Antidote to Venom, a later novel by Freeman Wills Crofts that has some structural similarities to this one. Both titles are examples of the inverted mystery form in which we experience events from the perspective of the murderer as they plan and execute the seemingly perfect murder. Unfortunately both books feature bland detective Inspector French.

There is some good news however for those who are French-averse. The 12.30 From Croydon really keeps the detective in the background for almost the whole narrative as our murderer is largely in the dark about what French is up to.

The novel begins with a trip being made to France by aircraft when one of the passengers is found to have died during the flight. Crofts then has us jump back in time several months to see the events leading up to that moment from the murderer’s perspective.

As with many inverted mysteries, our killer is a character who finds themselves in need of financial relief. Charles Swinburn is the owner of a factory that is increasingly stretched as it struggles to survive an economic downturn. It is becoming increasingly clear that the company will not be able to compete for contracts without significant investment being made but Charles himself is stretched and keen to maintain his quality of life as he seeks to marry.

Charles needs a speedy windfall and he has an elderly relative who might just provide that. During those early chapters we see the character start to develop his plan, prepare to execute it and start to come up with justifications for his actions such as protecting the livelihoods of his employees. He is perhaps a little less sympathetic than George Surridge was in Antidote to Venom as it is quite clear that he is entirely the architect of his own destruction, but that does not make him any the less interesting.

Experienced from his perspective, Charles’ plan seems quite ingenious and almost undetectable. We might come to share his sense of confidence in that plan as he works through each step as, unlike in Antidote, the plan is entirely of his own devising and he has sole responsibility for its execution. Perhaps more importantly, because French’s investigation occurs largely in the background, we are unaware what he has learned and how he is piecing things together and so we may well wonder how French could possibly deduce Charles’ involvement and how the thing was managed.

The explanation occurs in an extremely well-managed conclusion and everything is laid out very clearly. Because some of that explanation is given by French it is still a little dry but here at least I can see some basis for JJ’s argument made in the comments of my previous review that French’s plodding style makes the strength of his deductive reasoning the focus rather than the detective’s flourishes of brilliance or dramatic gestures. Certainly I thought that the resolution to the story was extremely well managed and I was impressed by the detective’s chain of reasoning that leads him to his conclusion.

While I do think the resolution of this novel is far more entertaining than that of Antidote to Venom, I do think there are a few ways in which this story compares a little less favorably. For instance, while the murder method employed here is certainly more credible, it is also a little more straightforward and familiar. I also think that our sympathy for George gave his story an almost tragic quality yet in this novel Charles, for all of his attempts at justification, is clearly cast in the role of villain. As a result, this story feels a little less rich and complex and, judged purely as examples of the inverted mystery I would say that Antidote is the more interesting work.

If I was asked to pick between the two books however I would say that this is simply a more enjoyable tale to read. Partly that is because of French’s absence for much of the story but I also think that it comes down to a question of agency. Charles’ is ultimately responsible for his own actions and we feel closer to his thinking as he makes each decision that will ultimately lead him to destruction. After witnessing everything from his perspective, the ending has all the more punch. So much so that not even the inevitable tedious and long-winded explanation from French on the last few pages can spoil it!