Category Archives: Crofts Freeman Wills

More Anatomy of Murder: Sayers, Iles,Crofts (1936)

“As for the academic question of whether the association of a young man with a woman considerably older than himself is to be regarded always as harmful to the young man, that is debatable.”

In More Anatomy of Murder, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts, respected authors of detective fiction, each discuss an infamous murder case. Sayers, Iles and Crofts were all members of the Detection Club (Sayers and Crofts were founders). Sayers considers The Murder of Julia Wallace, while Iles examines The Rattenbury Case, and finally Crofts, in a much shorter piece, discusses A New Zealand Tragedy.

More anatomy of murder

The biggest issue for readers of More Anatomy of Murder is that these three cases (or at least the first two) were headlines in 1933 and 1935, and so some prior knowledge of these murders is assumed. Fortunately for this reader, I was familiar with the Rattenbury case through the film Cause Célèbre. But back to the first section: The Murder of Julia Wallace. (The bones of this case reminded me of Celia Dale’s Helping with Inquiries. ) Julia Wallace’s husband, who claimed to have been lured from his home at the time of his wife’s bludgeoning murder, was arrested and tried for the crime. In the second case, the Rattenbury murder, Francis Rattenbury was murdered by his much younger wife’s lover (the wife initally confessed), and the third case, The Lakey murder, involved the murder of a married couple by a neighbor. So three very different types of murders.

Each of the authors takes a different approach to the case under examination. Sayers, for example, states that the law is interested in “one question only,” … “Did the prisoner do it?” while the crime novelist asks “if the prisoner did not do it, who did.” Sayers’ approach is heavily psychological as she peels away the layers and complications of the case. At each step of the evidence, she presents the possibility of Wallace being the murderer, or whether or not the murderer was another individual.

In The Rattenbury Case, Iles references the hanging of Edith Thompson and compares Alma Rattenbury to Edith Thompson, and the two cases appear similar on the surface. Iles argues that while husbands were murdered by their wives’ lovers in both instances, there are differences. Since married women seeking sex with young lovers loomed large in both cases, Edith Thompson and Alma Rattenbury’s behaviour scandalized the public, and Mrs. Rattenbury’s temperament is much discussed along with that of her 18-year-old lover/chauffeur, Stoner. Iles makes a good argument for the case that Mrs. Rattenbury and Stoner fed off each other’s unstable temperaments.

Iles also discusses Miss F. Tennyson Jesse’s transcript and commentary of the trial, and Iles argues that while Jesse “finds it difficult to account for Stoner’s crime,” and calls the crime “a gesture conceived in an unreal world,” he disagrees:

Where personal advantage looms so large if a certain person can only be knocked out of the path, the consequent knocking out bears a very solid relation to real life. 

The final case follows the standard police procedural as Freeman Wills Crofts tackles the evidence in the Lakey Murder Case.

I liked the way each author took a different approach, and Sayer’s wit bolstered the tame drabness of married life between Julia and William Wallace. She notes that while the couple’s married life seemed superficially happy, there are hints that life was not what it seemed:

Nothing will ever bring her back, and however much I want her or however much I miss her loving smiles and aimless chatter …

After reading this section, I had my own theory. The Rattenbury Case with its unstable, erratic household, morphia, lashings of alcohol and cocaine was a good contrast. Iles even spends some passages explaining why he is fascinated by the case.

(F. Tennyson Jesse wrote A Pin to See the Peepshow which is a fictionalised account of Edith Thompson and the Ilford Murder Case.)

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Blood on the Tracks: Edited by Martin Edwards

I have a suspicion that most crime readers enjoy books that are set in, or revolve around, trains. Blood on the Tracks, from British Library Crime Classics, includes an introduction from Martin Edwards, and he discusses reasons why trains make “such a suitable background for a mystery.” 

Part of the answer surely lies in the enclosed nature of life on board a train–the restrictions of space make for a wonderfully atmospheric environment in which tensions can rise rapidly between a small ‘closed circle’ of murder suspects or characters engaged (as in the enjoyable old film Sleeping Car to Trieste) in a deadly game of cat and mouse. 

Edwards covers many wonderful examples of train mysteries in this introduction, so there’s plenty for the aficionado to investigate, but back to this collection which includes:

The Man with the Watches: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Mystery of Felywn Tunnel: L.T Meade and Robert Eustace

How He Cut His Stick: Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway: Baroness Orczy

The Affair of the Corridor Express: Victor L. Whitechurch

The Case of Oscar Brodski: R. Austin Freeman

The Eighth Lamp: Roy Vickers

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem: Ernest Bramah

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L. Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

Mystery of the Slip-Coach: Sapper

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage: Ronald Knox

Murder on the 7:16: Michael Innes

The Coulman Handicap: Michael Gilbert

I’m not going to discuss all the stories–some I enjoyed more than others (and I learned that gold teeth seemed to be, at least in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, an American thing,) but my three favourites are

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L.Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

In The Unsolved Mystery of the Man With No Face, a train compartment full of passengers returning home after the Bank Holiday discuss a savage murder which occurred on a remote beach at East Felpham. This story shows how a train carriage throws together an assortment of people who would not otherwise be found in the same room. In this case, “an overflow” of third-class passengers crowd into the first class carriage. Various opinions rage forth about the crime, but as fate would have it, one of the passengers is Lord Peter Wimsey. Detective Inspector  Winterbottom, also in the carriage, pays close attention to Wimsey’s theories of the crime.

Blood on the tracks

F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Railway Carriage, is a supernatural tale which finds Solange (a series character) inside a carriage with two other passengers– an elderly Cockney woman and a “small, insignificant-looking man” who carries a large black bag.

The commonplace little man, with his shaven cheeks and his deft, stubby fingers, had seemed unusual in a way that was not altogether good, but no message of evil such as had so often told her of harm, had knocked upon her senses when he entered the carriage. Yet it was only since he and the old woman had been in it together that she had felt this spiritual unease. Something was wrong between these two human beings–and yet they apparently did not know each other.

Solange’s unease grows, and she’s relieved when the train stops and picks up other passengers who then enter the carriage. These passengers leave shortly after another stop, and Solange is left alone again with the two morose strangers in an atmosphere heavily laden with turmoil….

Another favourite is The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts. The story opens with Dunstan Thwaite planning to kill his blackmailer. Thwaite, an accountant at a large steel business dipped into company funds when he courted the wealthy Hilda Lorraine. He always meant to return the money, but another man is blamed for the theft and Thwaite thinks he’s home free until an unpleasant, obsequious blackmailer comes into his life. By this time, Thwaite is unhappily married to the demanding heiress, who as it turns out, wasn’t as rich as he assumed, plus she demands to be kept in an affluent lifestyle. Pressures mount, and between the demanding wife and the slimy blackmailer, Thwaite decides he can take no more and so turns to murder.

This collection is a lot of fun to read for anyone who enjoys the combination of crime and trains. Some of the stories make use of the closed carriage (there’s no corridor to exit to) and also the class divide melts as passengers surge, often dashing to catch a train, into whichever carriage can hold them.  Murder is discussed and murder takes place. In one story, a train is even the mode of murder. Each story is prefaced with a short bio of the author so eager readers can follow up on favorites.

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The Hog’s Back Mystery: Freeman Wills Crofts (1933)

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 Hog's back mysteryThe 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.

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Antidote to Venom: Freeman Wills Crofts (1938)

Time for another British Library Crime Classic: Antidote to Venom from Irish author Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957). Published in 1938, Antidote to Venom is a gem from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. For brilliant plotting, structure, characterization, and sheer ingenuity, Antidote to Venom is a marvelous read–a book I was loath to set aside, so for readers out there who have any interest in crime fiction of this period, do yourself a favour and grab this book.

In the introduction, Martin Edwards describes Antidote to Venom as “ambitious and unusual,” and the book is certainly both of those things, and yet when a book is described as ‘ambitious’ there’s often a subtext of failed effort. There’s no failure here in this highly readable, engaging, inventive, and unpredictable crime novel.

Edwards explains that in the years before he wrote this book, Crofts had been experimenting with his detective fiction, “trying to escape from the predictable.” In Antidote to Venom Crofts used what he called “an ‘inverted story’ in which events are seen at first from the perspective of the culprit.” Crofts’ structure is sheer wizardry, for the book begins with the story of George Surridge, the Director of the Birmingham Zoo. The zoo, which boasts a phenomenal snake collection, is moving onto more modern enclosures for the animals, and one of George’s headaches is concern for safety. He’s given permission for an elderly professor, who’s experimenting with venom as a cure for cancer, access to the most poisonous snakes, and when the book opens, George has the painful duty of firing a night watchman for leaving the zoo unattended.  George is a decent man, devoted and conscientious with his work, but married to an unpleasant society woman whose constant demands have worn George down to plodding unhappiness. He meets another woman, falls in love, and driven by an ever encroaching financial need is drawn into murder.

antidote to venomThat’s the basic plot, and the book’s focus in on George and his predicament for about 2/3’s of the book, and then at that point, Crofts’ Inspector French enters the scene and the action focuses on the investigation. Antidote to Venom is full of twists and turns–not the least of which is: who is George going to murder? His obnoxious wife, Clarissa? Or his aged Aunt– who has left almost her entire estate to her nephew upon her death? But remember this book is unpredictable, so the crime isn’t the one you expect.

While drawn slowly into George’s life, Crofts shows us exactly how George finds himself on a path towards crime, and as is so typical with a man who considers himself ‘decent,’ and ‘law-abiding,’ George doesn’t start his journey in crime with its conclusion in mind. Instead he takes one step on a slippery moral slope, and gradually finds himself increasingly compromised. It’s fairly easy to have quite a bit of sympathy for George, at least initially, although for me, sympathy wore off as he began wishing his aunt dead:

 But really, when people reached a certain age their usefulness was over. And in his opinion she had reached and passed that stage. She could not enjoy her life. If she were to die, what a difference it would make to him!

Of course, George tends to feel bad after these sort of thoughts, but nonetheless, it’s true; his aunt is elderly and ill and once she dies his inheritance will ease all of the financial pressure he feels. Or so he thinks ….

The novel explores the psychological side of murder. George finds himself in a position of thinking that murder is the only acceptable alternative. He knows that he is “faced with one of the major decisions of his life“– an act that cannot be reversed, and yet at the same time he’s trapped and under a great deal of pressure. George can’t confide his problems to anyone and while he rationalizes his acts, he can’t imagine the post-crime burden of guilt or the many places this seemingly perfect murder can go wrong.

Here’s a quote which illustrates how skewed George’s thinking has become. Here he is pre-murder trying to simplify his problems down to a) losing his mistress and facing financial ruin b) murdering some innocent person. And at the same time he avoids the fact that his choice, “the lesser of two evils,” involves the death of an innocent person. Somehow that doesn’t even enter the equation.

The sweat formed on George’s forehead as he considered these alternatives. It was not, he told himself, a question of doing right or wrong; whatever he did would be wrong. It was a choice of two evils. Which was the lesser?

The solution to murder involves discovering 3 essential things: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. In the murder under investigation, the police while sniffing that they are investigating a murder rather than an accidental death, cannot tie all three elements: Motive, Means, and Opportunity to the most likely suspect, and so the inquest closes the case. Then Inspector French from Scotland Yard becomes involved, and the book shifts to his investigation.

All too often when police investigate a past crime, a great deal of the book is given over to the detective’s wordy explanation of exactly how the crime was committed. Not so here. When Inspector French arrives on the scene, he must convince the Birmingham police that his skepticism  about the case’s solution has merit, and he argues logically, laying out all possibilities for each step of the crime, so much so, that we can only admire French’s logical and methodical thinking. Once he’s convinced the Birmingham police that his doubts are valid, he moves forward into the investigation, going over the details of the case once more, and instead of sticking with the inquest conclusion, French toys with various ways a murder could have been committed. Character and psychology play important roles for French in any investigation, so he asks himself questions such as: is it likely that a certain person would have acted in such a manner? Who stands to profit from the death? But above all, for French, the solution to a crime is an intellectual exercise, a puzzle to be solved.

Inspector French, a series character, is admirable indeed. A bloodhound on the trail of any murderer, nonetheless, there’s humanity there too:

This was a part of his job which he absolutely loathed. The running down of a criminal was a different matter. There was the intellectual problem, the slow search for facts with which to build up and prove a theory and the excitement of the chase, all throughly interesting, if occasionally somewhat exasperating. But when the affair became personal, when instead of dealing with a factual jigsaw, French found himself bringing terror and despair into human eyes, he wished he was out of it. There was no use reminding himself that his victims had usually done the same thing to someone else and with less cause: he was always distressed by their distress.

Sometimes with detective fiction from this era, class snobbery plays a role, and while it’s true that the less advantaged members of society have their moments of being under suspicion, that suspicion makes perfect sense. The novel’s only weakness is the unconvincing religious redemption at the end.  Antidote to Venom, in spite of the fact that it was published in 1938, is fresh and adds a great deal of ingenuity, originality, and craftsmanship to the genre.

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