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.

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 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!

 

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

AntidoteAntidote to Venom is an example of a crime fiction sub-genre that I have absolutely fallen in love with over the past year: the inverted crime novel.

While I had been aware that there were mystery stories written from the perspective of the criminal, in the past year I have come to read several really excellent examples of this form, several of which are from this range of British Library Crime Classics. When written well, this allows the reader to experience the crime from the perpetrator’s perspective, understand their decision making and watch them sweat as the detective seems to get closer and closer. As the reader knows who did the crime and how, the question they must consider is just how the detective will manage to piece everything together.

Our criminal in this book is George Surridge, the director of the Birmington Zoo. At the start of the novel we learn that he is trapped in a marriage that has turned loveless and cold because he and his wife are unable to afford their lifestyle on his small salary. George feels sure that if only he could receive a promised inheritance from his Aunt, all of his problems would be solved…

A recurring theme of the inverted mystery form is that the events begin to spiral out of the murderer’s control, forcing increasingly reckless actions. When George meets a sweet and charming young woman he falls hopelessly in love with her and ends up making her his mistress, only exacerbating his financial woes. Ultimately these pressures all build on George and push him to commit murder in the hopes of staving off ruin and starting a new life for himself.

Crofts’ approach to writing is extremely methodical and, at times, seems to be a little ponderous and heavy-handed. This is particularly true of the end of the book which incorporates some spiritual reflection that can feel a little preachy and heavy-handed but the conclusion of the novel benefits from the clear and careful buildup as Wills is able to clearly explain to the reader what has happened and why.

George struck me as a convincing character, even if his plan for dispatching his victim seems ludicrously convoluted. He does some very grubby things in the course of this narrative, not least committing murder, yet I could understand his feelings of hopelessness and empathize with his desire to feel loved and a sense of affection.

The scheme that he utilizes to dispatch his victim is rather ingenious and quite memorable. It is certainly an original enough scheme that it threatens to stump Crofts’ series investigator, Inspector French, who finally shows up in the narrative’s final third to attempt to piece things together by being incredibly methodical and diligent.

The author, Freeman Wills Crofts, has something of a reputation as being quite a dull writer which I think is not particularly fair. I certainly have found several of his stories to be quite exciting and to be based on some interesting ideas. Yet while I think that descriptor is unfairly applied to the writer, I certainly think it can be used about his series detective.

I find it quite mystifying that a character such as Inspector French managed to appear in such a large number of books and yet seems so devoid of personality. While there is no questioning his brilliance at solving mysterious murders, I never feel he has a life beyond the narratives he gets caught up in. Here it is interesting to observe how he works to piece this case together when the murder method seemed so foolproof.

So, if the writing can be ponderous and the investigator is a bore, why do I like this book? Firstly, I think that the zoo setting is fun and quite memorable and I liked the way the zoo itself figures into the crime that is committed.

Secondly, George is an interesting and complex character. He does a terrible thing in the course of the story and yet we understand part of what has driven him to that place. While I think the elements of the ending reflecting issues of faith are heavy-handed, I did appreciate that Crofts is trying to introduce some ideas and a process of introspection for a character that are quite unusual in the genre.

Finally, the concept of the crime here is rather clever and it is the sort that sticks in the head. I was quite impressed by the way George attempts to set up the crime scene to hide his own involvement and I was curious to see how French would seek to piece things together.

Is it Crofts best work? No. Nor do I consider it to be even his best inverted mystery. Still, the story is quite pleasing in spite of its flaws and I resolved on completing the book that I would try to give French another shot soon.