The excellent, clever innovative Antidote to Venom–illustrates how a decent, conscientious man can be led, by bad choices and the pressure of circumstances, to murder. This novel was so good, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I picked up a second book from author Freeman Wills Crofts, and that brings me to The Hog’s Back Mystery, another crime entry in the British Crime Classic series. Published in 1933, this novel from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, precedes Antidote to Venom by 5 years.
The Hog’s Back Mystery concerns, at least initially, a disappearance, and the novel opens with the arrival of Ursula Stone who has travelled to Surrey from Bath to visit some friends she’s known for decades. She stays with Julia Earle and her husband, a much older retired doctor, and also visiting is Julia’s sister, novelist, Marjorie. The visit promises a great deal of catch-up conversation especially since Ursula has other friends who live by–the sisters of Doctor Campion, the man who has taken over Dr. Earle’s practice.
The visit is almost immediately clouded by domestic discord. The Earles haven’t been married for very long, and this is Ursula’s second view of the Earles’ domestic life. By dinner time, Ursula “realized with some small feeling of regret that what she had anticipated during her previous visit had come to pass.” Fondness and affection has morphed into “little consideration,” and Ursula concludes that the Earles “had missed a companionship which they might so easily had.” The next day, events at the Earles’ home take on a more sinister hue:
It was indeed on that very next day that the first of those small incidents occurred which were to lead up to the awful culmination which spelled tragedy for the party and gave a thrill to the entire country.
An unpleasant occurrence causes Ursula to conclude that Julia Earle, a woman who “couldn’t live without male attention,” is having an affair with her much younger, unmarried neighbor. Ursula tries to mind her own business, but Julia’s sister Marjorie also expresses concerns about the Earles’ marriage along with her fear that Dr Earle won’t tolerate Julia’s behaviour much longer. With this troubled domestic climate established, Ursula then has reason to believe that Dr Earle may also be involved in a dalliance with another woman. It’s a difficult position for Ursula as a house guest, but the situation heats up when Dr. Earle inexplicably disappears. …
Detective Inspector French from Scotland Yard (who is also in Antidote to Venom) is called in to investigate, and in his usual, methodical way he approaches the mystery logically. He concludes that there are “three possible solutions to the mystery: Earle had either disappeared voluntarily, or he had met with an accident, or he had been kidnapped or murdered.” Without a body, French quite quickly dismisses the accident theory, so that leaves him with the possibly of murder or voluntary disappearance. Taking those two possibilities, French approaches the case trying to disprove one and prove another.
One of the key elements to be investigated is the identify of the mystery woman seen with Dr Earle. The discovery of her identity involves some painstakingly methodical, geographical calculations as well as a train timetable thrown in for good measure. Author Freeman Crofts Wills was, at one point in his career the Chief Assistant Engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway, and in the introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that the author’s “love of railways meant that train timetables often featured in the unravelling of his culprits’ alibis.”
While French agonizes over the details of the disappearance of Dr. Earle, the case suddenly takes a much more sinister turn….
The Hog’s Back Mystery is a much more traditional detective novel than the later Antidote to Venom, and it’s clear that with the later novel, Freeman Wills Crofts was experimenting with the genre. While The Antidote to Venom builds a story which shows how a decent, conscientious man gradually finds murder an acceptable option, The Hog’s Back Mystery is a police procedural complicated by questions of just how various crimes were carried out. While I guessed one of the fundamental elements of the mystery (no spoilers so I can’t explain) French did not, and I wanted to haul French back to this point and show him a connection I’d made.
The Hog’s Back Mystery is painstakingly methodical in its execution, and it could be used as a textbook for detection, so it should perhaps come as no surprise that when the mystery unravels, the author actually gives us page numbers which correspond to key elements of the investigation. While the details are occasionally exhaustive, it’s clear that the author intends us to follow French every step of the way and perhaps even solve the mystery ourselves. French is a wonderful character, and it was easy to relate to his frustrations, his inability to concentrate on a book, and that dreaded acknowledgment that it was possible he’d made a mistake. I enjoyed the images of French borrowing a bicycle as he rode down country lanes to question witnesses, catching trains and all the labour intensive methods of investigation in an age when cars and phones were scarce and our modern technology nonexistent. To French, a crime is first and foremost a puzzle to be solved, and it’s a puzzle that eats away at him until he has the precise solution.
He was not like an inventor working on what might really be an insoluble problem. He was more like a man trying to solve a crossword puzzle, the antecedent condition of the work being that the puzzle had a solution. Equally certainly, this case had a solution: more certainly, in fact, because in the crossword there was always the possibility of a misprint. In real life there was no possibility of error, unless such error as he had made himself.
With The Hog’s Back Mystery, it’s also easy to see how ‘cozy’ mysteries evolved from The Golden Age of Detective fiction. We have some of the elements of a cozy mystery here–a gathering at a country house, and a genteel cast of characters but The Hog’s Back Mystery doesn’t contain the assurances or humour of a cozy mystery novel. There are some very dark factors at play here and hideous, heartless crimes I didn’t predict.