Inspector French’s Greatest Case – Freeman Wills Crofts
I am in two minds about Freeman Wills Crofts as a writer. When he is on form, he is undeniably good but all too often he seems to get bogged down in the minutiae of the case, explaining in excruciating detail how the solution was arrived at through the examination of tide tables, railway timetables and the like. In this 1924 tale, Crofts’ fifth but the first in which his long-standing ‘tec, Inspector Joseph French aka “Soapy Joe”, appears, French does a lot of travelling, following a lead that almost inevitably peters out into a dead end, and the reader is regaled with details of the route and the towns and cities through which his train takes him. Surely it is enough to say he got from A to B by x.
My other bug bear is with French himself. He is not a brilliant detective who relies on a flash of inspiration or highly tuned deductive powers, but rather a plodder. We know he will get there in the end, and, as the rather odd introduction in my edition penned by Crofts in 1935 admits, we know that whatever perilous situation he finds himself in, he will survive. “I have to admit that he’s not very brilliant: in fact, many people call him dull”, Crofts comments. Police investigative work, and bear in mind French is a professional policeman, not a gifted amateur sleuth, is all about putting in the hard work, being completely methodical, following leads to wherever they may take you. French personifies this approach.
Interestingly, it is an amateur who provides French with his inspiration and a different angle to viewing the set of problems before him, his wife, Emily. The long-suffering woman, who seems to be content to play the housewife, is regaled with the details of the case her hubby is working on, when he deigns to come home to put his feet up, smoke a pipe and eat his meal. Was this use of Emily recognition by Crofts that his main man was a little too predictable and that the plot needed a bit of a jolt if it were ever to reach a satisfactory conclusion? Inspiration is more entertaining than hard graft, after all.
The case itself is relatively straightforward, at least at the outset. Mr Getting, the head clerk of a firm of diamond merchants in Hatton Gardens, Duke and Peabody, is found murdered late at night on the premises, the safe door is open, and diamonds to the value of £33,000 and £1,000 in cash is missing. French is called in to investigate. The plot is not overly complicated but, despite having a number of clues and a small pool of suspects to work on and doggedly pursuing each lead, taking him to Switzerland and on board a ship en route to Brazil, French is under increasing pressure to produce a result.
The reported death of Mr Duke, who has led a double life, expedites the conclusion of the case. French gets there in the end, but it took a mighty long and circuitous path to get there.
There are better French tales and better Crofts’ stories than this, but it is entertaining enough. While the sums involved in the murder and robbery are large by the standards of the time, I’m not sure quite why the book merits the title it has. If you are going to embark on a series involving a single character, it is probably not the smartest move to suggest that the reader’s first encounter with him is as good as it is going to get.