The Hog’s Back Mystery – Freeman Wills Crofts
Crofts can be an exasperating writer. He produces superb plots, well considered, immaculately described, but his sheer dogged determination to tale the reader through all the minutiae of a police investigation and to leave no stone unturned can produce a wearisome read. The Hog’s Back Mystery, his fourteenth novel, published originally in 1933 and reissued for a modern audience as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics imprint, is a case in point. You cannot fault it for its construction and plotting but upon completing the final page I was left with the impression that it was about a hundred pages too long.
As a story it is a product of its time, concerning middle class people in the years between the two World Wars, who had maids, chauffeurs, cooks and gardeners that a thorough detective can interview, where chemists still make up prescriptions according to a doctor’s scrip and where everyone seems to go to a café for tea in the middle of the afternoon. Inspector French, Crofts’ detective creation, has an unhurried but painfully thorough approach to investigation, travelling from place to place either on foot, bicycle, or train. No fast cars, screaming sirens and flashing blue lights here.
Crofts does not go in much for characterisation. What makes Inspector French tick is as much a mystery at the end of the book as the start. He is a conscientious, determined policeman who always, after some effort, gets his culprit. No detective’s intuition, just hard graft here. All the other characters are given as much colour as is necessary to make them believable for the part they play in the story but no more. Crofts is more interested in the intricacies of his plot than in developing a rounded novel.
His determination to be seen to play fair with his readership is exemplified in the final two chapters. When French is recounting how he pieced together the clues to link not one but four murders – you certainly get your money’s worth in body counts in this tale – and to arrive at whodunit, each clue is cross-referenced with a page number allowing the reader, if they so wish, to go back and satisfy themselves that the clue was really there. I had worked out halfway through the story whodunit and, frankly, I would have thought that a detective as clever as French would have done too, although how it was all done was another matter. Here, Crofts meticulous eye for detail and timing, he was an engineer before turning his hand to writing, comes to the fore.
As the title suggests, the story is set in the Hog’s Back area of Surrey, not too far from where I live, and I am always fascinated to learn how the area looked before it underwent substantial suburbanisation. The disappearance of a doctor, James Earle, kicks the story off. It was substantiated that he had not intended to leave the house because he was still wearing his slippers and had not taken his hat and coat. Unhappily married, French initially suspects that he was having an affair with a nurse who also disappears on the same night. A fortnight later Ursula Stone, a friend of Mrs Earle and who was staying at the house, and who had spotted Earle meeting a woman in London surreptitiously also disappears and French begins to suspect murder. And what do these disappearances and deaths have to do with the recent death of a wealthy man, Mr Frazer?
It all makes sense in the end and, despite all my comments, it was an enjoyable if heavy read. Crofts is a master craftsman when it comes to the ingenuity of and the unravelling of a crime and should be appreciated as such.