Inspector French’s Greatest Case

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.

The Warrielaw Jewel

The Warrielaw Jewel – Winifred Peck

Winnifred Peck only wrote two murder mystery novels and The Warrielaw Jewel was the earlier of the two, originally published in 1933 and now reissued for a modern readership to discover by the indefatigable Dean Street Press. I must confess I found this one a bit hard going to get into, perhaps because there were too many Warrielaws to get my head round and partly because of a faint irritation with Peck’s choice of narrator.  

The story is set in Edinburgh in 1909 and seen through the eyes of Betty Morrison, the newly married bride of John Morrison, a solicitor who represents the Warrielaws. The Warrielaws are a family at war with resentments that have seethed and festered for generations. They are mad, if you were being charitable you might say highly eccentric, famed for their piercing gold-green eyes and have a valuable jewel in their possession. Their petty feuds centre around who is going to inherit what and what is going to happen to jewel.

There enough Warrielaws to go around, a couple of elderly sisters, Jessica and Mary, the loose-living, artistic Neil, the force of nature that is Rhoda, Cora and to provide the obligatory love interest, the beautiful Alison. The book’s action is kickstarted by the death of one of the sisters, leaving Betty as the holder of some information which may unlock the mystery, and the disappearance of the jewel. The burden of much of the investigation falls upon a private investigator, Bob Stuart, drafted I at the insistence of John Morrison and Betty’s brother, Dennis, who inevitably falls for the charms of Alison.

I suppose my irritation with Peck’s choice of narrator centres around the fact that Betty is for much of the time peripheral to the action and so the investigation and the plot is moved on either by debriefings by the principal characters or Betty witnessing an incident first-hand. She is also reluctant to spill the beans, prolonging the unfolding of the mystery for longer than would otherwise have been the case.

The book is well-written and is stock full of characters who, once I had worked out their relationship to each other and their role in the saga, the main characters were well drawn. Less care and attention was taken in breathing some life into the minor characters, particularly those from the lower orders. The pace of the book does not stall, but I found it slightly undercooked, missing a certain spark or an element of humour that other writers of the period were able to inject into their mysteries. Even the major set-pieces seemed to lack a certain something. I was left with the impression that it could have been better.  

I think the sense that Peck viewed this as more of a puzzle than a fully developed novel was heightened by a device about four chapters from the end. The reader is presented with a large “Stop” sign and advised that all the clues necessary to solve the mystery have been revealed and the reader was invited to try their luck at solving the mystery. Whether you take up the challenge or not it leaves a certain sense of anti-climax as you realise that there is not going to be a big reveal at the end. I’m not sure this device worked.

For the modern reader there are some fascinating insights into life and attitudes of the time, not least Betty’s pride at having a car and the fact that prisoners on remand were not allowed to smoke. It is worth a read but there are better Golden Age Detective novels from the period.        

The Lost Game Of Pank-A-Squith

It is a curious thing but the leading lights of the Women’s Social and Political Union not only found the time to prosecute a campaign to win the vote for women but also turned their minds to inventing board games as a means of raising funds. We have already looked at Suffragetto which was produced in 1908. It was followed a year later by Pank-A-Squith, an ungainly name conjured out of the surnames of the two principal proponents in the suffrage struggle, Emmeline Pankhurst and the then Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.

First advertised in Votes for Women on October 22, 1909, the game was designed to teach people about the issues around the struggle for women’s suffrage but also to raise much needed funds as well as brightening up a dull evening. The set consisted of a board, a die, six suffragette figurines made from lead, and a set of instructions. Each of the figurines holds a rolled petition and wears a sash prominently displaying the green, white, and purple colours of the movement. The board also displays the suffragette colours and has “printed in Germany” stamped on the back.

The board contains 50 squares in a circular spiral pattern leading to the middle one which marks the Houses of Parliament, the arrival at which was the pinnacle of achievement for the movement. The object of the game, suitable for two to six players, was to move from the outer edge of the board to the centre and was rather like snakes and ladders. A throw of the die determined how many squares the player could move. The pictures on the board vividly illustrate some of the perils a determined suffragette could anticipate encountering.

The sixth square showed a group of women throwing rocks at the windows of the Home office, landing on square 16 required the player to send a penny to Suffragette funds, and square 18 had a picture of the Bow Street magistrate’s court. On square 25 there was an illustration of Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested after striking a police officer and squares 32 and 43 showed Holloway Prison and the practice of force-feeding, respectively.

Although there was a vein of humour running through the game, it also shed light on the darker side of the campaign with its images of police brutality against women protestors and the force-feeding of imprisoned hunger strikers. It was a novel and innovative way of popularising the cause and the movement’s colours as well as raising funds for the cause. A complete set was sold recently for just under £5,000.

A Nation Of Sausage Dogs

The management guru, Peter Drucker, once wrote that “plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work”. Never was this truer than in lockdown. How many of us have set out with good intentions, to take more exercise, to learn a new skill, to read War and Peace, only to slide into apathy, unable to resist the lure of another box set or a tasty snack? Even those working from home are not immune, 49% of them admitting that their snacking has increased. Inevitably, the lockdown lard appears around our midriff.

Sadly, it is not just humans that have been piling on the avoirdupois. Research just released by that inestimable charity, Guide Dogs, has revealed that the nation’s pooches have become sausage dogs over the last year, piling on an average of 3.3 kilograms, the equivalent of 100 jumbo jets if the results are extrapolated across the nation.

The reasons are revealing. Counter intuitively, respondents to the survey reveal that they are taking their furry friends for walks less often than before, partly because of the demands of juggling working from home and home schooling, the inability to call upon the services of a professional dog walker and concerns over dog theft. Absence of suitable spaces to exercise the dog means that London dogs have piled on a whopping 5kg whereas those in Yorkshire and East Anglia are positively anorexic, with a 2.4kg weight gain.

Then there are the doggy treats. Spending more time with their dog, the inability to resist their puppy dog eyes, the need to keep it quiet when on a conference call or when someone turns up at the door or the guilt of having a snack oneself means that respondents all too readily reach for the doggy treats. Male owners are more susceptible to taking the easy way out, their dogs averaging a 4.1kg weight gain compared with those owned by women that have added just 2.8kg.

With the better weather and the gradual, and dare we say irreversible, easing of lockdown restrictions, help may be at hand with 44% of respondents claiming that they will get their dogs out more, perhaps even ensuring that they get the one hour of exercise they need a day.    

To reinforce their message about the need for exercise, Guide Dogs are launching in May their Walk Your Socks Off challenge, challenging us all, with or without pooches, to set a step target and raise funds to support children and adults in the UK with sight loss. You never know, your furry friend could soon be as fit as a butcher’s dog.

For details of the initiative, follow the link below:

Penis Of The Week

If you are prone to penis envy, imagine what it would be like to have three. Diphallia, being born with two, is a relatively rare condition, occurring once in every five to six million live births and the supernumerary organ is usually removed early in the child’s life.

My go-to journal for matters medical, the ever-popular International Journal of Surgery Case Reports, reported the first ever documented case of triphallia. According to Dr Shakir Saleem Jamali, a Kurdish baby from the Iraqi city of Duhok was born with three penises. As only one could be called a true penis since the others did not possess urethrae, the other two were snipped off. The baby suffered no after-effects, although it may rue the loss of an ice breaker at parties in later life.

Back in 2015 there was a report of an Indian boy also with triphallia, although this was never verified in an academic journal.  

No explanation has been offered as to what caused this condition to occur, just the roll of the dice, perhaps.

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