Death On The Way

A review of Death on the Way by Freeman Wills Crofts

You know what you are going to get when you open a book penned by Freeman Wills Crofts. It will be a carefully plotted, well-worked mystery, but there will be periods of longeur as Inspector French explores every possibility before the solution, often ingenious, is revealed. In this, the ninth in Crofts’ Inspector French series, originally published in 1932 and reissued by Collins Crime Club to celebrate the centenary of the publication of his first novel, The Cask, in 1920, the story is not as heavy-going as some that I have read, but my overall impression was that of mild disappointment.   

There are several reasons why I felt a bit deflated as I reached the end. Although the mystery has moments of ingenuity, and it was clever to intertwine fraud with murder, the bones of the fraud, the falsifying of quantities of material excavated as the Southern Railway Company widens the Redchurch to Whitness line in Dorset, was a little too technical and, dare I say it, dull to get too many juices flowing. Crofts was an engineer by training and clearly knew his stuff. For this reader it was sufficient to know in broad terms rather than tedious detail how it was pulled off.

Two deaths amongst the engineers, both seemingly suicides, bring the worthy French into the story. He realises that they are, in fact, murders staged to look like suicide, one involving the coshing of Ackerely before he is left on the railway track to be run over, and the poisoning of Carey before he is hung. Seemingly cast-iron alibis and the lack of any immediately obvious motive makes his task difficult, but it is hard not to conclude that French makes a meal of this case. It is far from his greatest case.

Like a dog with a bone, he will pursue every snippet of a clue to its very end, but this case has him foxed as he repeatedly follows the wrong trail. To make matters worse, when he plucks up the courage to arrest a culprit, he makes a hash of it by feeling the collar of the wrong person. His blushes are only spared by the separate investigations of a clever young woman who is convinced of the innocence of her beau. French missed the killer clue, the distinctive typeface of a portable typewriter, for the rather lame excuse that it was not there to examine when he called round.

Also known as Double Death, the book does have some redeeming features. Crofts’ technical knowledge is peerless and his plain, straightforward prose simplifies and makes comprehensible what is a technical and complex subject. There are fascinating insights to be learned about railway engineering and the operation of a train line. The description of what it was like to ride on the plate of a steam engine is one of the book’s highlights, second only to discovery and reclamation of the bicycle from the sea. The conchologist is one of the few characters who come to life and injects some much-needed levity into a book whose overall tone is that of gloom.

Crofts also understands the dynamics of office life, its petty jealousies and rivalries, its tedium, and the reality that promotion is only achievable by waiting for dead men’s shoes. What is fascinating is how the employees embrace what would have been the cutting edge of technology at the time, such as a planimeter and comptometer. There is love interest, unusually for a Crofts novel, and for once the principal female, Brenda Vane, is not only one of most interesting characters but also the brightest.

In this book Crofts is alive to the impact of what we would now know as PTSD on veterans from the First World War and the pressures caused by having to scrape by on barely enough to live, an increasingly common aspect of life in the 1930s. And unusually fir the genre, the person with the weakest alibi is not the culprit.

There are redeeming features in this book if you are prepared to search for them.

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