The 12.30 from Croydon – Freeman Wills Crofts
This superb reissue, part of the British Library Crime Classics series, was originally published in 1934, and a cracking story it is too. I hadn’t read any of the full-length books of Dublin-born writer, Crofts, before but this was a beautifully crafted story and a good place to start. Although Crofts was a railway engineer by training and his stories often featured the railway, the 12.30 from Croydon referred to in the title is an air flight, from the airport there to Paris, although, because of fog, it was cut short at Beauvais.
Structurally, this book is very similar to Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt, also published in 1934, in that there is no mystery, from a reader’s perspective, anyhow, as to whodunit and the majority of the book is written from the murderer’s perspective, showing his planning of the crime, its execution and his attempts to cover it up. Unlike Hull’s book, though, where the fate of the perpetrator is not revealed until the last page, Charles Swinburn is arrested midway through the book and faces a trial for his life. There is courtroom drama as the narrative follows the twists and turns of the case, Charles’ hopes continually raised and dashed as the evidence and the legal arguments are rolled out.
Unusually, once the verdict has been passed, the focus and pace of the book changes completely and focuses on the detective acumen of Inspector Joseph French, Crofts’ principal detective. Seated comfortably in a club after dinner, French gives his audience, including Swinburn’s defence team, a blow by blow account of his meticulous investigation and the flaws in Swinburn’s planning and execution of his nefarious acts. This section invites the reader to compare and contrast the account of Swinburn’s meticulous planning and his confidence that he had thought through all of the angles. With murder, as with most things, less is more, it would seem.
The ending does sit rather oddly with the rest of the book and some have considered it to be an unnecessary addition, an attempt to bring French, who had spent the rest of the book pottering away in the background, asking strange questions and, from Swinburn’s perspective at least, being widely off the mark, back into the centre of things. I disagree, the device giving the reader a different and balancing perspective to the events hitherto seen previously through Swinburn’s perspective. I think it concludes a fine story in a satisfying style.
The story itself is straightforward. A retired industrial manufacturer, Andrew Crowther, is found dead when the plane he is travelling on lands in Beauvais. Murder is suspected by way of prussic acid secreted into one of his indigestion tablets. Prime suspects, Charles Swinburn and Peter Morley, stand to gain from the deceased’s will and both are beset with financial problems because of the economic downturn. Both applied to Crowther for loans with varying success shortly before his death. Who did it, how and what did the butler, Weatherup, see?
The book takes a little while to get going but once the tale is underway it is a page turner, well written, the plotting believable and the psychological insights into Swinburn fascinating. If you haven’t read any Crofts, this is a good place to start.