Freeman Wills Crofts

Author Guide: Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts was one of the most popular writers of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s but fell out of the public attention in the decades that followed. Part of the reason for this is surely his dismissal as one of the ‘humdrum’ writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction – that is to say a writer who is focused more on the creation of puzzles than developing characters or rich themes in their crime fiction.

I do not think that label is particularly fair or helpful though I do think that Crofts’ plotting is his greatest attribute as a writer of mystery fiction. His stories usually contain an impressive amount of detail both in the commissioning of a crime and in its solution. I think it is also fair to say that his series detective, Inspector Joseph French, is not a character brimming with personality.

The biggest problem I have with the humdrum label is that it conveys a sense of formula which is simply not present in Crofts’ fiction. His style constantly evolves as he tries out new ideas. Take his inverted mystery novels (which include The 12:30 From Croydon, Mystery on Southampton Water, Antidote to Venom and The Tragedy at Little Wokeham) – each feels quite distinctly plotted, finding different balances between the part of the story where we follow the criminal and those in which we follow the detective.

In addition to those inverted stories, his work includes examples of thrillers, the more classic detective story and the locked room mystery. While I was slow to love him (as you will see in my notes about Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon), I find I return to Inspector French again and again – he is my most frequently reviewed writer on this site – and I have only rarely been disappointed by the quality of his plots.

My strongest recommendation from the novels that have been reprinted so far would be The 12:30 From Croydon but if you ever come across an affordable The End of Andrew Harrison or The Affair at Little Wokeham (most likely under their US titles), do snap them up – they are excellent!

Note: One of the complications in trying to find copies of Crofts’ work is that the books were often published under separate titles in the UK and US. Where a book is currently out of print I have given both titles below but where a book has been recently reissued I am only using the UK title.

Inspector French

Inspector French’s Greatest Case

Inspector French #1

A diamond merchant’s clerk is found dead beside an open, empty safe and the jewels are missing.

I have not yet read or reviewed this title.

The Cheyne Mystery

Inspector French #2

An aspiring writer is approached by a man who says he knows of his ambitions and takes him to lunch where he is drugged but when he wakes nothing is removed from his person.

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.

Read the review here

The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

Inspector French #3

A woman who takes care of her invalid uncle takes up an offer of a trip to York but when she gets there learns that there was a fire at their home at three corpses have been found.

The Starvel Hollow Tragedy is not a book that contains many shocks or surprise revelations.

Read the review here

The Sea Mystery

Inspector French #4

A man and his son discover a crate when fishing and on opening it find a body inside.

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.

Read the review here

The Box Office Murders

Inspector French #5

A woman tells Inspector French about her involvement in a criminal enterprise and about the supposed suicide of a friend she believes was murder.

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.

Read the review here

Sir John Magill’s Last Journey

Inspector French #6

A wealthy Irish industrialist disappears on a train journey and foul play is suspected when his bloody hat is found.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

Mystery in the Channel

Inspector French #7

A pleasure yacht is found drifting in the channel with two bodies on the deck.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

Sudden Death

Inspector French #8

A housekeeper feels that something is wrong at her new place of employment. Soon an unexpected death confirms her intuitions.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

Death on the Way

Inspector French #9

An apparent railway accident results in the death of a man but a witness claims to have seen a figure running from the scene.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

The Hog’s Back Mystery

Inspector French #10

A doctor vanishes from a village, followed by a nurse and then a third party. It seems to be murder but there are no bodies.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

The 12:30 From Croydon

Inspector French #11

An industrialist in need of a cash windfall to support his lifestyle and enable him to propose marriage. To do this he plans to kill a wealthy family member…

…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.

Read the review here

Mystery on Southampton Water

Inspector French #12

An attempt at industrial sabotage results in murder.

…while the mystery side of the story was relatively straightforward, fans of solid, logical policing will likely enjoy the way it is proved.

Read the review here

The Crime at Guildford

Inspector French #13

The board of a jewelry company meets at the home of its managing director on a weekend. On Sunday morning they discover one of their number dead.

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.

Read the review here

The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’

Inspector French #14

A series of explosions sends the ‘Jane Vosper’ to the bottle of the ocean. The insurance company sends a detective to investigate but when he goes missing they notify the police.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

Man Overboard

Inspector French #15

A man disappears during a ship’s crossing from Belfast to Liverpool. His body is discovered by fishermen and the coroner passes a verdict of suicide although murder is suspected.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

Found Floating

Inspector French #16

The Carrington family take a lengthy cruise during which there is a murder.

The bigger problem is that French does not solve the case himself. In fact I would argue he does very little to actually bring about the novel’s conclusion at all, even if the reader may infer that he had the information necessary to work out the killer’s identity.

Read the review here

Antidote to Venom

Inspector French #17

The director of a zoo commits murder to stave off financial ruin.

George struck me as a convincing character, even if his plan for dispatching his victim seems ludicrously convoluted.

Read the review here

The End of Andrew Harrison

Inspector French #18

A prominent financier disappears in France. Several days later he sends word that he is fine and returns to Britain where he throws a party on his houseboat. The next morning he is found dead inside a locked cabin.

…I found The End of Andrew Harrison to be a thoroughly engaging read, both as a detective story and also, more specifically, as an example of a locked room.

Read the review here

Fatal Venture

Inspector French #19

A young man covers up a crime related to a cruise ship to protect his girlfriend.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

Golden Ashes

Inspector French #20

French investigates a house fire that destroyed most of a priceless art collection.

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.

Read the review here

James Tarrant, Adventurer

Inspector French #21

An assistant chemist is poisoned and a nurse who vowed revenge when he proposed to another woman is accused of the crime.

I have not read or reviewed this book.

A Losing Game

Inspector French #22

A blackmailer’s death appears to be an accident but when it is shown that he was dead prior to a fire being set it becomes clear it is murder.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

Fear Comes to Chalfont

Inspector French #23

A marriage of convenience between Richard and Julia Elton fails when she falls in love with Frank Cox. Richard and Frank set up a secret rendezvous but when Frank arrives he finds Richard has been murdered.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

The Affair at Little Wokeham / Double Tragedy

Inspector French #24

A wealthy man is beaten to death with a lead pipe and suspicion falls on the family members set to inherit.

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.

Read the review here

Enemy Unseen

Inspector French #26

Following a theft of copper wire and explosives from the Home Guard stores a man is blown to bits on a Cornish beach.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

Death of a Train

Inspector French #27

A train secretly carrying supplies vital to the British war effort is attacked and French is sent to investigate.

…it would be hard to think of any aspect of the plot that the reader has any chance of working out prior to French.

Read the review here.

Silence for the Murderer

Inspector French #28

A frail old man is found shot dead, apparently having committed suicide out of remorse for something bad he did in the past. French suspects murder instead.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

French Strikes Oil

Inspector French #29

The discovery of oil on an estate divides the family and soon the member blocking the development is found dead.

I have not read or reviewed this title.

Many a Slip

Inspector French #30

A collection of inverted short stories.

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…

Read the review here.

Anything to Declare?

Inspector French #31

When a smuggling racket is threatened with blackmail the gangsters believe they have eliminated the blackmailer but that is just the start of their problems as French is on the case.

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.

Read the review here


The Cask (1920)

A woman’s body is found in a cask along with a sum of gold sovereigns.

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,

Read my review here

The Ponson Case (1921)
The Pit Prop Syndicate (1922)
The Groote Park murder (1923)
Murderers Make Mistakes (1947) – a short story collection
Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express and Other Stories (1956)

Author portrait in header image by Bassano Ltd. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used under Creative Commons 3.0 licence. This photograph has been slightly cropped.