Tag Archives: Freeman Wills Crofts

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.

Sir John Magill’s Last Journey

A review of Sir John Magill’s Last Journey by Freeman Wills Crofts

The best and the indifferent of Freeman Wills Crofts’ murder mysteries are on display in this the sixth in his Inspector French series, originally published in 1930 and reissued as part of the Collins Crime Club series. It contains a well-constructed puzzle which is as much a howdunit as a whodunit, has an excellent opening and a gripping denouement, but is bogged down in the middle as French gets to grips with the minutiae of railway timetables and calculations as to how far a boat could travel a certain distance given its maximum speed constraints.

There are some intriguing historical insights. Much of the novel takes place in Northern Ireland, which Crofts knew well, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) cooperate with Scotland Yard in the form of French in solving the mystery of the disappearance of retired linen businessman, Sir John Magill, who was travelling from London on a rare visit to Belfast. Crofts clearly admires the RUC and is confident that the recent troubles, the war of Independence leading to the founding of the Irish Free State, is behind the country. He does grudgingly admit that Dublin has spruced itself up. Through the lens of historical perspective, this optimism, and the belief in the probity of the RUC, seems sadly misplaced.

The investigation is conducted at a leisurely pace, on sleeper trains, and ferries, and communications between London and Belfast are conducted by telegram, the occasional letter and by phone. French certainly clocks up the miles, selflessly shuttling across the Irish sea, along the Cumberland coast, and Dumfries and Galloway. His investigative style is people-orientated, he is always pursuing witnesses, obtaining statements, checking claims and assertions. No chance remark or clue is missed or not tested. At times he, along with the reader, seem to be going round in circles. The clues are all there to solve the mystery, Crofts is always fair with his reader, but he does not make it easy with his penchant for gritty detail.  

Of course, Magill has been murdered but by whom and why? Hs son, Major Malcolm Magill, and his nephew, Victor, both of whom stand to inherit in the event of Magill’s demise, both have money problems. Magill was lured to Belfast to further his attempts to develop a new product, a mix of silk and linen. There were no plans or papers relating to his invention on his person. Magill’s body is found on Malcolm’s estate and several incidents on the day of his disappearance point the finger of guilt in Malcolm’s direction.

Victor, on the other hand, was away on a sailing trip and seems to have a rock-solid alibi. However, as French’s investigations proceed, matters become more complicated with suggestions that there was a gang involved in trying to steal Magill’s invention. Did it go wrong and was Magill’s death an inevitable consequence of that? The plot twists and turns and while there are precious few suspects and while the identity of the killer is fairly obvious, the mystery lies in the timing and the why of the murder.

French works well with his Irish counterparts, especially M’Clug – there is a curious and irritating convention in the book to replace Mc or Mac with M’ – and there are moments of genuine humour which serve to leaven proceedings. What saves and makes the book for me is the denouement, which has a touch of a thriller to it. In what French claims to be his most complex case, as opposed to his greatest which was the subject of his first adventure, justice ultimately prevails.

If you want to sample just one of Crofts’ books, Sir John Magill’s Last Journey is a perfect example of his style and approach.

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.

The Ponson Case

A review of The Ponson Case by Freeman Wills Crofts

It is often with a sense of foreboding that I pick up one of Freeman Wills Crofts’ novels as no matter how expertly the plot is constructed and how intricate the mystery, there will be periods where the narrative gets bogged down and the reader will wonder whether it is worth persevering with. However, The Ponson Case, published in 1921 and the second of four novels Crofts wrote before introducing his signature police sleuth, Inspector French, seems to navigate around more of the aggravating features of the later works of his that I have read.

To give him his due, Crofts is a good storyteller, and he has an unerring knack of constructing seemingly bullet-proof alibis which will withstand even the most painstaking investigation, the timing of journeys by motor car and by foot and the inevitable consultation of Bradshaw’s railway timetables. In a bow to modernity, Inspector tanner, the ‘tec in charge of investigations, even flies to Paris from Croydon Airport, seconds a fast car and with minutes to spare makes his train connection which takes him to Lisbon.

Crofts also plays fair with the reader, one of the advantages of being meticulous in his description of the investigations is that the reader has available to them all the clues that enable to work out whodunit, if not why it was done. He also takes time to delineate his principal characters and they are believable, not the stereotypes that populate many novels of this genre and time. I particularly enjoyed the tobacconist, who certainly knew his tobaccos and filters.  

Inspector Tanner is certainly an honest, hard-working detective for whom no minutiae that the case throws up should go ignored. The storyline centres around the discovery of Sir William Ponson’s body in a river near his home. Ponson is a rich, self-made industrialist. At first glance, it looks as though it was either suicide or a tragic accident in which Ponson lost control of his craft and was swept away by the tricky current in the area, but the discovery of a savage blow to the back of his head, leads Tanner to suspect that he was murdered.

Tanner’s problem is that the principal suspects who stand to gain most from the death of Ponson, son Austin and playboy nephew Cosgrove, both with money problems and both wanting to marry women the pater familias disapproves of, have rock solid alibis, which Tanner spends the first half of the book scrupulously investigating and testing, even travelling up to Montrose to check a single point. For all the signs of the dawning of modern age that appear in the book, the use of a telephone as a means of interrogating a suspect does not appear to be one.

Tanner is struggling to make progress, even if there are only three plausible suspects, the third being a mysterious stranger who left footprints at the boathouse. Satisfied that he can at least make a case against Austin, Tanner arrests him, an action which provokes a change of perspective in the second part of the novel, with the introduction of Austin’s fiancée, Lois Drew and her solicitor cousin, Jimmy Daunt. They try to prove Austin’s innocence and do their own investigations into the pair’s alibis and discover that for all of Tanner’s meticulous work, he has missed a trick.

This together with the discovery of the identity of the mysterious stranger, necessitating a visit by Tanner to Portugal to collar him and affording Crofts to engage in a bit of xenophobia, moves the story along to its denouement. Along the way we discover blackmail and unwitting bigamy. The actions of Ponson and his two relatives all make some sort of sense as the resolution of the mystery is revealed, leaving no loose ends, but the climax is more than a tad disappointing after such an exhaustive investigation.   

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but it could easily have been much shorter.

Inspector French And The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

A review of Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy by Freeman Wills Crofts

I always find that I have to take a deep breath before I plunge into a book by Wills Crofts. They can be hard going at times with Crofts’ penchant for a detailed unravelling of the methods deployed in a usually exquisitely plotted crime. In this, his seventh, originally published in 1927 and also known as The Starvel Tragedy, the third to feature Inspector Joseph French, the tone is quite different and makes for an entertaining and page-turning read. It is the best of his tales that I have read.

French can be guilty of being a tad vainglorious, several times during the book musing that his successful resolution of the case will almost certainly guarantee him promotion, and also a little slow on the uptake, having been handed a clue that would speed up his enquiries and failing to recognise its import until almost too late and not realising that one of the characters upon whom he is relying to snare the culprit is not all that he seems. The denouement of the case is dramatic, partly because of the latter failing, but French manages to get out of a situation which could have been curtains for him and the culprit is left with an appointment with the hangman’s noose. The moral of the story is a nick will get you nicked.

The plot is complex, as you would expect, although it hardly seems so at the outset. Starvel is a house out in the wilds of Yorkshire and lived in by a miser, Simon Averill, his niece Ruth, and their two servants, the Ropers. Ruth who has led a miserable life, brightened only by an incipient courtship with Pierce Whymper, is invited to stay a week in York with a family she barely knows. Her visit is curtailed when she receives the tragic news that the house has been burnt down in a ferocious fire and that the three occupants have been killed. Worse still, Averill’s money, which he kept in a safe and was estimated to be in excess of £30,000, had been burnt to cinders.

What looks like a tragic accident takes on a different complexion when the local bank manager sometime later reveals his suspicions about the loss of the money as the safe was fireproof. A note, whose number tallied with one that the bank had recently sent to Averill, is found in circulation and is traced to Whymper, who has cooled his relationship with Ruth. Scotland Yard are called in by the local force and French is sent to investigate.

What he unravels is a complex, long-planned crime which involves theft, the murder of three, and eventually a tally of five, as well as a spot of coffin robbing and blackmail. French’s investigations take his to Scotland and France as well as seeing him shuttle back and forth from London to Yorkshire. Although he makes several major mistakes, French’s genius is to see the bigger picture while methodically and painstakingly investigating every lead, no matter how unpromising, to wherever it leads him, often a dead end. He is stoical when frustrated and moves on with a sigh but with enthusiasm undiminished to the next lead, often supplied to him from conversation he strikes up with one of the chatty locals.   

Crofts has constructed a story that is packed with incident and even though the bones of the plot and possibly even the culprit is evident midway through its telling, there are plenty of spills and thrills and red herrings to keep the reader on the edge of their settee until the dramatic end. Justice is served and not only the baddies but also the good guys get their just desserts.