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.