The Cheyne Mystery

A review of The Cheyne Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

This is the second in Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French series, originally published in 1926, and quite different from the others that I have read in that it is more in the way of a thriller than a murder mystery. French himself does not appear until around the two-thirds mark of the book. There is little in the way of alibi-busting, a hallmark of the later Crofts’ books, although French does have to get the international Bradshaw out along with a continental hotel gazetteer to try and work out a likely venue for some channel-hopping.

Central to the story is a sealed envelope which has been entrusted into the care of Maxwell Cheyne and which a gang of determined criminals seem to want to get their hands on. When the envelope is opened, it contains a complicated cipher, replicated within the text with a tacit invitation to the reader to apply their wits to the problem. As it would require an atlas with navigational charts it all seems too much of a faff and I was happy to let French do the legwork for me. It marked the location of some gold, moved to a safe location by a U-boat captain during the First World War in what can only be described as a heinous war crime.

Wills, as always, is as much interested in the mechanics of a crime as the who and whydunit. There is an explanation, complete with diagram, of the flask used to drug Cheyne at a hotel in Plymouth, an incident which kicks off an unhappy string of incidents for the rather naïve hero. Full of British bulldog spirit he is a bit of a nincompoop. Falling into a trap once is unfortunate and forgivable but to do so twice more with increasingly perilous consequences is the epitome of stupidity. Instead of taking the wise course of contacting the police, he decides to establish what is going on himself, aided and abetted by a young lady by the name of Merrill whom he picks up along the way and with whom he inevitably falls in love.

Cheyne wonders how the gang know so much about him, not realizing that the obvious answer is that there is a mole in his household. He blunders from one scrape to another, any sentient thought lost to the thrill of the chase. He gets so deep into the case that he engages in a spot of housebreaking, vandalism as he smashes up an escritoire, and theft, all to little avail. The deeper he gets sucked in, the more difficult he finds it to call in the police.

It is only after the third incident when an attempt is made on his life and Merrill is abducted that he calls into Scotland Yard and the fearsome intellect of Joseph French is brought to bear on the problem. During the course of his investigations French finds a discarded fragment of a hotel bill which he painfully reconstructs, leading him to visit Bruges on what was a wild goose chase and then Antwerp – the two languages spoken in Belgium add an intriguing complication to the problem – and works out what the cipher is all about.   

The recovery of the gold and the reuniting of Cheyne with Merrill is achieved more by luck than judgment. There is no honour among thieves and where there is the prospect of riches, greed will rise to the surface. What was a well-crewed ship resembles the Marie Celeste by the time French and Cheyne arrive there and all ends happily ever after. French even scoops a handsome share of the reward, £1,000 or about £65,000 in today’s terms.

Crofts writes an engaging, if rather light, story in a straightforward, occasionally amusing style, allowing the natural pace of his tale to carry the reader along. It certainly is not as heavy as some of his stories can be and bears all the hallmarks of a writer finding his feet with his chosen genre.

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