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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.