Mystery On Southampton Water

Mystery on Southampton Water – Freeman Wills Crofts

Published in 1934 with the alternative title of Crime on the Solent in the States, this is the 12th in the Joseph French series and was reissued last year (2020) to celebrate Crofts’ centenary as a published author. This is another inverted mystery, in which Crofts excels, where the reader is first introduced to the crime and the culprit(s) before following the work of the police in unravelling the mystery and unmasking the criminal.

The book starts from what seems, superficially at least, unpromising beginnings, concerning itself with the manufacture of concrete. Dull as this may seem, Crofts has managed to construct a compelling and fascinating story, involving industrial espionage which goes wrong. The Joymount Cement Company is in financial difficulties, an eventually that could spell ruin to its senior management team, as we would know the, now. Their local rivals, Chayle’s, on the other side of the Solent, have stolen a march on the competition by developing a new form of concrete which is cheaper to make.  

King, Brand, and Tasker, from Joymount, decide to try and replicate the formula as a last throw of the dice before the company is wound up. The scientist, King, struggles to come up with the formula and suggests to Brand that they should take a more direct route by breaking into Chayle’s and steal the formula. This they do, although Chayle’s unfortunate security guard dies during the initial attempt. Through a rather elaborate, and probably unnecessary, plan King and Brand try to make the guard’s demise look like suicide. Once he has his hands on the formula, King is able to replicate the cement and the day appears to have been saved.

Through their market intelligence, the big wigs at Chayle’s realise that Joymount have their hands on the formula and attempt to blackmail them into agreeing a substantial royalty fee. After the final meeting at which an agreement is concluded, the Chayle’s senior management team board a boat to sail to the other side of the Solent, making an unscheduled stop en route. An explosion rips through the boat, killing two of the three, Mairs and de Havilland, but crucially not the third. Have Joymount escaped the consequences of the onerous penalty clause in their agreement?

They quickly realise it is a false dawn as Inspector French doggedly disproves the suicide theory and works out how the explosion on the boat was carried out and by whom. Critics of Crofts will point out that he is exhaustive in his attempts to explain the rationale behind his detective’s deductions. It can be wearisome, not as much as in a second-rate Thorndyke tale, but, if you are prepared to roll with it can provide some intellectual rigour to the solving of a knotty problem, even if at the expense of some entertainment.

That said, it is a well-crafted tale and more entertaining than a brief synopsis may suggest. Murder at the time carried with it the death penalty and Crofts plays on the psychological impact that that prospect has on Brand, in particular, and to a lesser extent on King and Tasker. The other thing that might strike the modern reader as a tad odd is the leisurely pace at which the incident is investigated. No screeching of tyres and Sweeney-like acts of derring-do. French and his team are content to travel by train, ferry and even bus. Innocent days.  

I enjoyed the book and will read more of Crofts.

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