Death of a Train by Freeman Wills Crofts

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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.

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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.

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

Golden Ashes by Freeman Wills Crofts

Golden Ashes
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1940
Inspector French #20
Preceded by Fatal Venture
Followed by James Tarrant, Adventurer

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

The Starvel Hollow Tragedy
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1927
Inspector French #3
Preceded by The Cheyne Mystery
Followed by The Sea Mystery

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)

Found Floating by Freeman Wills Crofts

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Found Floating
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1937
Inspector French #16
Preceded by Man Overboard
Followed by Antidote to Venom

I have been on something of a good run with Freeman Wills Crofts’ work but all good things must come to an end. As much as I had hoped to enjoy Found Floating, I have to say it is the first story of his that I would classify as a flop in spite of it containing a few interesting points.

The novel begins by outlining the tense relationships within the Carrington household and helping us to understand their origins. The head of the household is William Carrington who had been the head of a successful works before unexpectedly retiring on grounds of ill-health.

It might have been expected that William would appoint his nephew Jim to replace him as he had been employed at the firm as his deputy for some years but he surprises everyone by cabling to Australia to summon his eldest brother’s son, Mant. This causes considerable resentment and creates a palpable sense of tension at family gatherings.

The first third of the book details the strange events of William’s birthday party during which an attempted poisoning occurs. The second sees the family deciding to take a lengthy cruise during which a murder takes place with the final hundred pages being devoted to Inspector French’s investigation.

While I said that I regard the book as a whole to be a flop, the first hundred pages are actually pretty promising. The circumstances of the poisoning are intriguing and I think those who appreciate Crofts’ style of methodical, deductive investigations will appreciate the way the circumstances of the crime are pieced together even if we are offered no solutions at this point in the tale.

Things begin to fall apart in the second section of the novel as the family board the cruise ship and embark on their journey around the Mediterranean. I can best describe this part of the novel as being like being invited around to a friend’s house for dinner to be regaled with a lengthy side-show of photos from their most recent holiday (not to mention the enthusiastic explanation of how the ship is powered which takes up a whole chapter).

As much as I usually enjoy Crofts’ writing, I do not regard him as being a particularly sensual writer. He is great with the technical details of a crime but he is not suited to describing the sights and sounds of foreign travel and so instead we get sequences of destinations, details about the dining arrangements and the sleeping arrangements in the cabins. It is all of the tedium of travel without any of the exoticism or fantasy.

All might be forgiven if the circumstances of the murder were interesting. Unfortunately even the sequence in which the body is found feels anticlimactic, happening out of the reader’s view and being reported after the fact. We are then kept waiting while the family and ship’s captain discuss the practicalities of claiming the body, making funeral arrangements and who will travel back to Gibraltar to pay their respects.

This leads us into the final third of the book, French’s investigation. While I found the lead up to the murder frustrating, there were at least some points of interest in the death itself. French has to piece together who had the opportunity to kill the victim and how it could have been done when each of the suspects seem to have solid alibis.

Unfortunately I think this is the most problematic section of the novel.

The first issue I have with it is the needless recap we get of the plot up until this point. Much of the hundred pages is made up of characters telling us things we have already been told while contributing little new to our understanding of what happened. This is frustrating but at least it does make a point of clarifying a few details and closing off some possible solutions.

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.

Instead Crofts gifts us the killer’s identity, their back story including their motivation and a detailed explanation of how it was done. It is an elaborate plot that justifies Martin Edwards’ description of it as ‘quite complicated’ and like him I did not find the passage in which all is revealed to be at all gripping although I was at least surprised by the murderer’s identity.

The problem for me is that while the killer’s explanation tidies everything up very nicely, I do not see how French would possibly have been able to deduce every element of that solution from the information he has. Too much information is gifted to the sleuth and unlike the other French stories I have read, there is little sense of him making logical deductions from the evidence. In short, even if you are a fan of French’s investigations I think you may well be underwhelmed by his efforts in this case.

If you do decide to tackle this in spite of my reservations, one thing that may keep you going is Crofts’ eccentric decision to name the novel’s romantic lead Dr. Runciman Jellicoe, a name which surely must rank amongst the most ridiculous I have ever encountered in a non-comic work. It is not written as though it is intended to be comedic yet it completely undermines any tender moments between the young couple.

Sadly any entertainment it gave me seems to have been purely accidental on the part of the author. Though Crofts has some good ideas, the book feels unbalanced and less than the sum of its parts. He has certainly written much better books than this, many of which are actually in print, so I would only recommend it to Crofts completists.

The End of Andrew Harrison by Freeman Wills Crofts

AndrewHarrison
The End of Andrew Harrison
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1938
Inspector French #18
Preceded by Antidote to Venom
Followed by Fatal Venture

Freeman Wills Crofts is perhaps not the first name that will spring to mind if you are asked to list Locked Room mystery novelists and with some good reason. Out of the dozens of novels he wrote, just two are locked room mysteries and neither of these are currently available in print.

It seems strange though that he did not write more widely in the subgenre because based on this and my previous experiences reading his work it seems like a natural fit for his methodical, reasoned approach to detective fiction. Certainly the locked room devised here is of a high quality and I thoroughly enjoyed following how it was solved.

The prominent financier Andrew Harrison disappears after arriving back in England following a business trip to Paris. This prompts speculation in the papers that his company was in financial trouble and he has absconded. After waiting in the hope that he would send a message, the family contact Scotland Yard who task French to the case.

Everyone is surprised when Harrison suddenly sends word a few days later that he is fine and that a message he sent had failed to arrive. A short while later however Harrison throws a small party on his houseboat and when he cannot be roused in the morning he is discovered dead in his locked cabin of an apparent suicide. French is back on the case and suspects foul play!

The locked room element of the story is very cleverly conceived and explained with superb clarity. The murder takes place in Harrison’s cabin which is deadbolted from the inside. Testing demonstrates that there is no way to pull the deadbolt closed from outside the room. The only other physical entrance to the room would be the porthole but this presents its own difficulties as it has been tightly closed. The porthole which only opens inwardly is designed to prevent it being swung shut and has to be pushed securely into place with force as there is no handle on the outside of the glass.

The physical boundaries to this room are clearly established and I will admit that I was thoroughly stumped as to how Crofts would explain this murder. I was curious how Inspector French would handle a locked room mystery but I should not have been surprised that it would be with methodical, careful experimentation and testing of different theories. In just forty pages the detective is able to work through this puzzle with impressive reasoning to reach a very neat explanation that proves both that it was murder and also how the crime was worked.

Once French knows how the crime was done he proceeds to focus his efforts on understanding who could have carried out the crime. Certainly there are plenty of suspects on hand as Harrison, while not monstrous, is a cold, hard man who has fractious relationships with all of his family. On top of those suspects we must also consider business rivals and disgruntled investors.

The question of whodunit is far from an afterthought and I would suggest it is just as cleverly devised as the locked room itself. French believes that there must be some link between Harrison’s strange disappearance and the financier’s subsequent murder yet the timeline makes the nature of that connection are hard to understand.

Here Crofts’ plotting is quite sublime and, much like I found with The Sea Mystery, the case steadily evolves throughout the novel to become something quite different from  what seemed likely at the outset. If you are not a fan of the author’s style then this is not likely to convert you to the cause but those who appreciate his incremental, detail-driven approach will find a lot to enjoy here.

Sometimes I have been frustrated by the pacing of a French investigation, feeling that the logical path he follows means that the alert reader may be far ahead of the detective but here I feel Crofts sets his pace perfectly. There are regular discoveries of information as French tests new theories and once Crofts provides the reader with all they need to solve the case he moves quickly to the conclusion. Against expectations based on those previous experiences, this is one of the most tightly plotted Crofts novels I have read to date.

That is not to say that every aspect of this works perfectly. One problem I have with the novel is that a character who is introduced to us as a character we are meant to relate to at the start of the story is essentially dropped at about the halfway point, apparently being forgotten.

In one sense this is understandable as the character has little else to contribute but does serve a role as the outsider who is needed to start things in motion by reporting the disappearance to the Yard. The frustration for me is that the character is one of the more interesting and likable in the book and having been encouraged to care about him, we are left wondering what would have become of him. It did strike me that, if this were a Carr novel, he would almost certainly be ending the novel married off and while I can grumble about that happy-couple finish, it does at least provide some closure.

The other significant complaint would be that French is given rather a large piece of help from a character as we enter the concluding portion of the novel that helps him identify the killer. Some may feel that this in some way suggests that the detective doesn’t really solve the case himself. I would argue that he works out all of the most important features of what happened and he is responsible for figuring out what had happened, even if he needs a little help in identifying the culprit.

Overall 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. Crofts engineers his problem well, coming up with a striking and credible solution, and working a strong mystery around it. I came away feeling impressed by Crofts’ approach to the subgenre and wishing that he had returned to it more frequently. Sadly he wrote just one other locked room novel, Sudden Death, and given the prices of that one and the lack of library copies available I doubt I will be getting around to it any time soon. Maybe some day, though..

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: On a mode of transportation (Where)

This book was released in the United States as The Futile Alibi.

The Sea Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

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The Sea Mystery
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1928
Inspector French #4
Preceded by The Starvel Hollow Tragedy
Followed by The Box Office Murders

After 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.

The Box Office Murders by Freeman Wills Crofts

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The Box Office Murders
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1929
Inspector French #5
Preceded by The Sea Mystery
Followed by Sir John Magill’s Last Journey

It 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 Affair at Little Wokeham by Freeman Wills Crofts

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The Affair at Little Wokeham
(aka. Double Tragedy)
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1943
Inspector French #24
Preceded by Fear Comes to Chalfont
Followed by Enemy Unseen

I 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 [Update: 9/21/19 – Apparently there is at least one other inverted mystery novel, Anything to Declare].

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

MysteryonSouthampton
Mystery on Southampton Water
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1934
Inspector French #12
Preceded by The 12:30 From Croydon
Followed by Crime at Guildford

As 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 [Update 9/21/19 – Apparently this list omitted another inverted mystery novel, Anything to Declare?].

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

FromCroydon
The 12:30 From Croydon
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1934
Inspector French #11
Preceded by The Hog’s Back Mystery
Followed by Mystery on Southampton Water

At 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!