Tag Archives: Inspector French

The 12:30 from Croydon: Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)

“All this morality business was just an old wives’ tale.”

The 12:30 from Croydon, a 1943 crime novel from Freeman Crofts Wills, refers, not to a train schedule as I first thought, but to a flight from Croydon to France. The plane carries a handful of passengers on board: Andrew Crowther, his son-in-law Peter Morley, Peter’s daughter Rose, and Crowther’s butler/manservant Weatherup. The family members are making an emergency trip to Paris following the news that Crowther’s only daughter Elsie, Peter’s wife, has been knocked down by a taxi. However, when the plane lands, Crowther is dead. Crowther was a sickly man, and so at first it’s thought that he died of natural causes, but following an autopsy, poison is the known cause of death

This British Library Crime Classic reprint is not concerned with the mystery of the killer. The book steps back in time and quickly reveals the murderer to be Andrew Crowther’s nephew, Charles Swinburn, a middle-aged man whose business is about to go bankrupt. Swinburn hits his uncle for a loan–after all reasons Charles, he’s going to inherit half of his uncle’s estate. Everyone is of the opinion that Andrew Crowther doesn’t have many months of life left in him, and so reasons Charles, where is the harm of advancing the money in order to keep him afloat?

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Andrew Crowther is shown to be crotchety, unreasonable and completely out-of-touch with the 30s economy, and he thinks bankruptcy can be avoided if everyone just works harder, so it’s easy for us to have sympathy for Charles’s dilemma when faced with his uncle’s irrational objections. At the root of Charles’s distress is a woman–he’s head-over-heels in love with a local heiress, the coldly materialistic Una. He doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning her hand, and yet sadly he thinks he does as long as he can stay solvent. There’s also a degree of sympathy roused for Charles when his peers begin avoiding him yet hypocritically re-friend him when they learn that he won’t go bankrupt after all.

How strange it was, Charles ruminated, that the useless and the obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early!

The 12:30 from Croydon, a very strong entry in the British Library Crime Classics oeuvre is primarily a psychological novel. First murder is contemplated as an abstraction but then Charles hatches a plan. The plot follows Charles’s reasoning as he argues himself into murder, and then meticulously follows the plan which Charles is sure is foolproof. …

Author  Freeman Wills Crofts shows complete mastery over the plot as he creates each stage of Charles’s emotions; we see his anxieties, his paranoia and then his joy when he thinks he’s got away with murder, but then Chief Inspector French from the Yard arrives on the scene. There’s a lot of detail here as we move through the preparation for the crime, two inquests, jury selection and a murder trial. Apart from the last couple of chapters, we always see things through Charles’s eyes, and what a convincingly deluded Dostoyevskian view it is.

Once again Charles felt a wave of bitterness sweep over him. If his uncle had only acted with reasonable decenecy. this horrible enterprise into which he had been forced would have been unneccesary. Well Andrew had only himself to thank. 

Antidote to Venom is my favourite Freeman Wills Crofts to date followed by The 12:30 from Croydon and then The Hog’s Back Mystery. 

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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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