Tag Archives: Freeman Wills Crofts

Buried For Pleasure

A review of Buried for Pleasure by Edmund Crispin – 230227

If you enjoy your murders laced with humour and not a little farce, as I do, then Robert Bruce Montgomery, who wrote under the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin is an author not to be missed. Buried for Pleasure, which takes its rather incongruous title from a line of a traditional refrain, “Buried on Thursday, buried for pleasure”, is the sixth in his series featuring amateur sleuth and Oxford professor of English Literature and Language, Gervase Fen. It was originally published in 1948 and is a riot. The good news is that the final three novels in the series have just been reissued.

I got the sense that Fen was eager to give vent to his comedic and absurdist spirit and that the murder mystery, which is well worked and satisfying in itself, is but one of the delights to be savoured in the book. No po-faced, scrupulously litany of every avenue pursued by the sleuth à la Freeman Wills Crofts here. Fen’s investigative style is as impressionistic as is his approach to life in general and to politics. Astonishingly, as a break from writing a definitive volume about Langland he puts himself forward as an independent candidate at a by-election in Norfolk. His approach to electioneering under the direction of his agent, the raffish Captain Watkyns, is suitably eccentric and when it looks as though victory is there for him to take he tries to sabotage his chances with a speech that epitomises the attitudes of politicians and their electorate in terms that are as true today as they were, presumably, then. It is one of the highlights of the book.

But there is so much more. Fen stays at the local pub, The Fish Inn, whose landlord is systematically demolishing it, although he thinks he is making improvements. Inevitably, the pub falls down at the end of the book. Amongst its delights is a large painting which the locals spend hours discussing and arguing over its nautical subject matter. Then there is the non-doing pig, one of the funniest of Crispin’s animal creations, a pig that eats everything but steadfastly refuses to put weight on. The rector is haunted by a poltergeist who assaults him and there is an inmate from the local mental asylum on the loose whose penchants include exhibitionism, a glove fetish, and thinking he is Woodrow Wilson. Glorious stuff.

As to the murder mystery, Mrs Lambert, she of a racy past, was being blackmailed. She paid the first demand but upon receipt of the second, goes to the police. Within twelve hours she receives a box of chocolates which have been poisoned. Fen bumps into an old Scotland Yard acquaintance, Busy, masquerading as Captain Crawley. He informs the Oxford sleuth that he is investigating the circumstances of Mrs Lambert’s death undercover as something in the circumstances does not quite gell.

Within short order, a young woman also staying at the pub has stepped out in front of a noisy lorry and is seriously injured. When it appears she is about to regain consciousness, someone breaks into the hospital and tries to give her a shot of insulin, although the attack is foiled. Bussy, who believes he is on to something, asks Fen to meet him at a hut on the golf course at midnight. When Fen gets there, he finds that Busy has been murdered.

Fen is assisted in his investigations by Wolfe from the local police and Humbleby from the Yard. The clues are all there and the plot is not complex but Crispin’s art is to immerse the reader in a wealth of comedic episodes that it is difficult to keep the wood firmly in view for all the trees. The ending is a little abrupt and the culprit, if you have been lulled by the ludicrousness of the scenarios Crispin has conjured up, might come as a surprise, but it is there for all to see.

Even the car chase and the eventual demise of the culprit is hilarious, but Crispin has not done with his reader yet. Fen’s electoral blushes are spared thanks to a technicality in the accounting of election expenses. At least the sanctity of the ballot box and the electoral process was respected in those days.

This is the perfect antidote to a police procedural. The other three in the series are already on my TBR file.

The Loss Of The “Jane Vosper”

A review of The Loss of the “Jane Vosper” by Freeman Wills Crofts – 230224

One thing you can say about Freeman Wills Crofts is that you know what you are going to get – a logical, well-crafted puzzle which more than makes up for what it might lack in excitement in a satisfying whole. This is the case with the Loss of the “Jane Vosper”, originally published in 1936 and the fourteenth in his Inspector French, a tale of maritime disaster, fraud, and theft.

The highlight of the book is the opening chapter, a low-key but gripping description of a disaster at sea, the eponymous ship hit by four mysterious explosions in its No 2 hold and despite the calm and earnest endeavours of the crew, led by soon to retire captain James Hassell, it has to be abandoned and sinks to the bottom of the sea. The ship was behind schedule – a telling point – and amongst its cargo is a shipment insured by the Land and Sea Insurance Company for £105,000 (about £8 million at today’s values), the loss of which represents a major blow to the insurer’s balance sheet and dividend prospects.

Like all good underwriters, the insurers, whilst acknowledging their moral responsibility to meet the loss, look desperately for reasons to decline the claim. What had caused the explosions and why had this shipment exploded? The send their ace insurance investigator, John Sutton, to dig into the circumstances of the loss, but he mysteriously disappears without trace. It is at this point that Chief Inspector French of the Yard, who knew Sutton, is called in to find out what had happened to him.

What might have been a routine case of possible insurance fraud turns into a man hunt and French’s premonitions that Sutton had stumbled upon something for which he paid with his life prove well-founded. French is nothing if not diligent and thorough, no avenue too obscure to go down, no supposition too fanciful to ignore. It results in a lot of mind-numbingly tedious checking, double-checking, rifling through directories, visits, fruitless inquiries and much more, all of which Wills Crofts lovingly records in detail. It reads at times like a literary version of French’s investigative notes.

If there is one accusation that can be levied against French it is that he immerses himself so much in the detail that he occasionally cannot see the wood for the trees. He is full of enthusiasm over a new lead. One such, drawing inspiration from Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, is that a workshop and a large quantity of timber was used to dig a tunnel over the Royal Mint. He obtains authority to excavate the workshop and while there is no tunnel, he does find the body of the unfortunate Sutton whose head had been bludgeoned in. As the investigation nears its conclusion French often has cause to castigate himself for missing a vital piece of information that was staring him in the face. There is no attempt on Wills Croft’s behalf to paint his detective as an infallible genius.

The case ultimately falls into two parts – the murder of Sutton and the interception of the cargo to be sold to another party, a remarkably accommodating Russian government, while the substitute cargo is fitted with explosives to ensure that the deception is not detected. It all hangs together and makes for a satisfyingly logical puzzle.

The pace of the book marginally increases as the case reaches it denouement, including a car chase conducted at a speed of between twenty-five and 29 mph. It rather fits the tone of the book, some thrills and spills but conducted at a pace that will not scare the horses. Look out for some fascinating glimpses of post-Depression Britain and Crofts’ love of all things maritime shines through in a book that is worth persevering with.

Sudden Death

A review of Sudden Death by Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts started off his Inspector French series in 1924, which ultimately ran to 30 novels, the last published in 1957, with Inspector French’s Greatest Case, a title designed to lower expectations of the subsequent books if there ever was one. Sudden Death, originally published in 1932 and reissued by HarperCollins, if a tad expensively, could hardly be called one where French covered himself in glory. Although thorough in following all the leads and ingenious in discovering how the murders were committed, nonetheless it took an inadvertent slip of the tongue for the culprit to unmask themselves.

That said, it was an enjoyable story, Crofts treating his readers to two locked room mysteries in one book. Sybil Grinsmead, sickly and neurotic, is found in her gas-filled bedroom. The immediate suspicion is that is suicide, but French’s tenacity not only reveals that the unfortunate woman was murdered but also that the crime was committed by an ingenious, if somewhat Heath Robinsonish device. It would not be a Wills Crofts’ novel without a detailed drawing of the device, although, frankly, the more detailed look makes it seem even more incredible that it worked in the heat of the moment.

The second death is also staged to look like suicide, the master of the house, Severus Grinsmead, is found lying in his study, shot with a gun with his fingerprints on lying nearby. Of course, the study door had been locked and had to be broken down and there was no obvious way that the murderer could have left the room. However, though it looks like suicide, it is another cleverly staged murder and the resolution of how it was done is not as ingenious than the first.

Unusually for a Crofts crime novel, this is set in a country house, Frayle, where Anne Mead arrives to take up a job. Although Mrs Grinsmead is a little satnd-offish Anne strikes up a rapport with her and is convinced that she was not disturbed enough to have taken her own life. There are precious few suspects and there is a marked change in approach from other books of Crofts that I have read, where the canvas is broad and the investigations are wide-ranging. Instead of poring through railway and tide timetables, French has much more of an opportunity to make a character study of each of the residents, including household staff, but, even so, struggles to take a definitive view of whodunit, although towards the end the light begins to dawn on him.

I imagine that Crofts had hoped that the revealing of the culprit at the end would take most readers by surprise, but the attentive reader, and I find with him that it pays to be attentive, will have noticed the odd clue along the way. The motivation for the murders, though, is less well signposted.

In novels such as these I enjoy the little period details. It is set in the Depression when jobs are hard to come by. Uppermost in the minds of the two principal servants, Anne Mead and Edith Cheame, with unemployment figures so high is the terrifying prospect of having to enter the labour market again, if the house is shut down following the deaths, first, of the mistress and then the master.

Stylistically, Crofts decides to narrate the proceedings through the eyes of two of the principal character, Anne Mead and Inspector Joseph French. This breaks up the narrative, allowing us to see fresh perspectives and ensures that detailed investigations into alibis and the following up of clues that usually end up at a dead end is not as wearing as in some of his books. I got the sense that having set up his stall as a writer who specialised in the construction and breaking of cast-iron alibis, Crofts was experimenting, trying to break out.

He has succeeded in writing a novel that is both enjoyable and entertaining and, because of the dual perspective of the narrative, is lighter and less tiresome than some, but it is not as ingenious or as complex as when he is on top form.

The Pit-Prop Syndicate

A review of The Pit-Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Crofts

At his best, Freeman Wills Crofts can be a bit of a challenge, but this early effort, originally published in 1922, is enough to try the patience of even his most fervent advocate. It falls distinctly into two uneven parts, both in terms of length, interest, and quality. The first half, entitled The Amateurs, is so dated to modern eyes that it is almost unreadable and is written in a Boys Own Paper, gung-ho British adventurer style. The second part, The Professionals, is a more conventional, and more satisfying, police procedural.

One of our amateur protagonists, Seymour Merriman, is on a motoring holiday in Bordeaux, runs out of petrol, and gets a lift to a nearby wood mill that produces pit-props. Two things happen to him that shape the rest of the story. He spots a driver of a lorry change its number in suspicious circumstances and he espies the factory manager’s daughter, Madelaine, with whom, astonishingly, he falls in love.

On his return to Blighty, Merriman interests his friend, Claud Hilliard, who happens to be a Customs man, in the goings-on in the wood outside Bordeaux. Hilliard is immediately suspicious, thinking that there may some form of liquor smuggling racket going on, the discovery of which would boost his career aspirations no end. Hilliard immediately proposes a sailing trip to France, as you do, to take a closer look at the pit-prop factory. Merriman agrees, anxious to see his beloved again and, if Hilliard’s suspicions are well-founded, to rescue her from danger.

The duo’s adventures in Bordeaux border on high farce with them staking out the joint for days on end, secreted in a cask into which they have bored two eye holes. They are convinced that something fishy is going on and that Madelaine’s father is a reluctant participant. However, they are far from certain what the pit-prop business is a front for, perhaps smuggling spirits or counterfeit notes, but they do trace the English side of the operations to Ferriby where they also carry out some inconclusive investigations. It is the murder of Madelaine’s father in a London cab that persuades Merriman to take what would have been the obvious course of action, to alert the police, and brings Inspector George Willis into the story.

Willis, too, has fun trying to crack the gang’s operations, staking out the Ferriby factory and engaging in a bit of wiretapping. Although he is more professional and structured in his approach, he finds his opponents are slippery and manages to fall into their traps with monotonous regularity. Oddly, the murder is solved in a matter of pages, the culprit having obligingly left a clear set of dabs on the connecting phone in the cab and is really a minor sideshow in what is a mystery about how a pit-prop syndicate can find it economically viable to send their goods one way without a return cargo.

Eventually Willis cracks the gang’s mildly ingenious modus operandi, all the culprits are arrested and, naturally, Merriman wins his girl.

Some of the characteristics that make Crofts’ novels so distinctive are already in evidence. There is a well-considered scheme, ingenious in its construction, there is an endless obsession with modes of transport and the minutiae of timetables and the precise speeds that would need to be travelled to get from A to B in a given time. It is not enough for Crofts to put his character on a train. The reader is told which train and even where it might stop. Willis, in a rush, frets whether the car will be capable of maintaining an average speed of 30 mph, a bit of an eye-opener for the modern reader.

However, what does for this book is that it is overly long, very dated, and utterly dull. It might have worked as a short story or even a novella, but much of what Merriman and Hilliard do really does not move the story on and could have been excised with little impact on the integrity of the story.

Sadly, there are better ways of spending an evening than with this, not least with a glass of brandy!

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.