Tag Archives: Inspector Joseph French

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.

Inspector French’s Greatest Case

Inspector French’s Greatest Case – Freeman Wills Crofts

I am in two minds about Freeman Wills Crofts as a writer. When he is on form, he is undeniably good but all too often he seems to get bogged down in the minutiae of the case, explaining in excruciating detail how the solution was arrived at through the examination of tide tables, railway timetables and the like. In this 1924 tale, Crofts’ fifth but the first in which his long-standing ‘tec, Inspector Joseph French aka “Soapy Joe”, appears, French does a lot of travelling, following a lead that almost inevitably peters out into a dead end,  and the reader is regaled with details of the route and the towns and cities through which his train takes him. Surely it is enough to say he got from A to B by x.

My other bug bear is with French himself. He is not a brilliant detective who relies on a flash of inspiration or highly tuned deductive powers, but rather a plodder. We know he will get there in the end, and, as the rather odd introduction in my edition penned by Crofts in 1935 admits, we know that whatever perilous situation he finds himself in, he will survive. “I have to admit that he’s not very brilliant: in fact, many people call him dull”, Crofts comments. Police investigative work, and bear in mind French is a professional policeman, not a gifted amateur sleuth, is all about putting in the hard work, being completely methodical, following leads to wherever they may take you. French personifies this approach.

Interestingly, it is an amateur who provides French with his inspiration and a different angle to viewing the set of problems before him, his wife, Emily. The long-suffering woman, who seems to be content to play the housewife, is regaled with the details of the case her hubby is working on, when he deigns to come home to put his feet up, smoke a pipe and eat his meal. Was this use of Emily recognition by Crofts that his main man was a little too predictable and that the plot needed a bit of a jolt if it were ever to reach a satisfactory conclusion? Inspiration is more entertaining than hard graft, after all.

The case itself is relatively straightforward, at least at the outset. Mr Getting, the head clerk of a firm of diamond merchants in Hatton Gardens, Duke and Peabody, is found murdered late at night on the premises, the safe door is open, and diamonds to the value of £33,000 and £1,000 in cash is missing. French is called in to investigate. The plot is not overly complicated but, despite having a number of clues and a small pool of suspects to work on and doggedly pursuing each lead, taking him to Switzerland and on board a ship en route to Brazil, French is under increasing pressure to produce a result.

The reported death of Mr Duke, who has led a double life, expedites the conclusion of the case. French gets there in the end, but it took a mighty long and circuitous path to get there.

There are better French tales and better Crofts’ stories than this, but it is entertaining enough. While the sums involved in the murder and robbery are large by the standards of the time, I’m not sure quite why the book merits the title it has. If you are going to embark on a series involving a single character, it is probably not the smartest move to suggest that the reader’s first encounter with him is as good as it is going to get.

Book Corner – November 2020 (6)

Mystery in the Channel – Freeman Wills Crofts

Published initially in 1931 and reissued as part of the inestimable British Library Crime Classics series, Crofts combines a version of a locked room mystery with a tale of financial skulduggery. His go-to ‘tec, Inspector Joseph French, is called upon to solve the mystery and put all to rights, in what is the seventh tale he features in.

I enjoyed this book less than the others by Crofts I have read. In part this is because French, worthy, methodical, hard-working, meticulous as he is, is a tad dull compared with some of his more illustrious rivals such as Holmes, Wimsey or Campion. He has little in the way of panache or flamboyance. Secondly, much of the sleuthing takes the form of a meticulous deconstruction of seemingly cast-iron alibis. Crofts betrays his engineering background by immersing the reader in the world of ferry timetables, ocean currents and wind directions. Thorough as the methodology may appear to be, it doesn’t make for a scintillating read. Apparently, though, this book is a classic example of that type of approach to problem solving. I will leave it to you to consider whether that is something in the book’s favour or not.

Thirdly, the list of suspects is a short one and I think my enjoyment was spoilt when it dawned me fairly on whodunit and, frankly, I was not over bothered how the murders were committed. My boat had well and truly left port by then. It is also a surprisingly monochrome book, with no female characters of any note. Many Golden Age crime novels relegate females to playing distracting love interest parts or subservient roles. Here, they do not even make the cut in one of these guises. Perhaps that is because the backdrop to the book is the world of high finance, a world in which women barely feature.

The book was written two years after the Wall Street crash, when the security of banks and one’s investments was uppermost in one’s mind. A Newhaven to Dieppe ferry stops to investigate a yacht adrift in the middle of the English channel. Captain Hewitt sends a boarding party on to the yacht who discover two bodies, both shot but with no sign of a murder weapon or, indeed, a murderer. Shortly afterwards, John Patrick Nolan arrives on a motor launch and identifies the dead duo as his colleagues, Paul Moxon and Sydney Deeping, chairman and vice-chairman respectively, of Moxon General Securities. It transpires that Moxon are on the verge of collapse, they do indeed, and that £1.5 million of the firm’s assets have been salted away, near on £100 million in today’s value.

The plot has more red herrings than you would find in the stretch of the channel where the murders took place, but French works his way to establishing the hows and whos of the case. Perhaps, as tellingly, the revealing feature of the book is the disapproval reserved to those who perpetrate financial fraud. Writing of the Assistant Commissioner, Crofts notes, “But for the wealthy thief who stole by the manipulation of stocks and shares and other less creditable means known to high finance, whether actually within or without the limits of the law, he had only the most profound enmity and contempt.

It is a fascinating insight into attitudes of the time, but insufficient to save the book from being little more than a slightly above average example of the genre.

Book Corner – August 2020 (3)

The 12.30 from Croydon – Freeman Wills Crofts

This superb reissue, part of the British Library Crime Classics series, was originally published in 1934, and a cracking story it is too. I hadn’t read any of the full-length books of Dublin-born writer, Crofts, before but this was a beautifully crafted story and a good place to start. Although Crofts was a railway engineer by training and his stories often featured the railway, the 12.30 from Croydon referred to in the title is an air flight, from the airport there to Paris, although, because of fog, it was cut short at Beauvais.

Structurally, this book is very similar to Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt, also published in 1934, in that there is no mystery, from a reader’s perspective, anyhow, as to whodunit and the majority of the book is written from the murderer’s perspective, showing his planning of the crime, its execution and his attempts to cover it up. Unlike Hull’s book, though, where the fate of the perpetrator is not revealed until the last page, Charles Swinburn is arrested midway through the book and faces a trial for his life. There is courtroom drama as the narrative follows the twists and turns of the case, Charles’ hopes continually raised and dashed as the evidence and the legal arguments are rolled out.

Unusually, once the verdict has been passed, the focus and pace of the book changes completely and focuses on the detective acumen of Inspector Joseph French, Crofts’ principal detective. Seated comfortably in a club after dinner, French gives his audience, including Swinburn’s defence team, a blow by blow account of his meticulous investigation and the flaws in Swinburn’s planning and execution of his nefarious acts. This section invites the reader to compare and contrast the account of Swinburn’s meticulous planning and his confidence that he had thought through all of the angles. With murder, as with most things, less is more, it would seem.

The ending does sit rather oddly with the rest of the book and some have considered it to be an unnecessary addition, an attempt to bring French, who had spent the rest of the book pottering away in the background, asking strange questions and, from Swinburn’s perspective at least, being widely off the mark, back into the centre of things. I disagree, the device giving the reader a different and balancing perspective to the events hitherto seen previously through Swinburn’s perspective. I think it concludes a fine story in a satisfying style.

The story itself is straightforward. A retired industrial manufacturer, Andrew Crowther, is found dead when the plane he is travelling on lands in Beauvais. Murder is suspected by way of prussic acid secreted into one of his indigestion tablets. Prime suspects, Charles Swinburn and Peter Morley, stand to gain from the deceased’s will and both are beset with financial problems because of the economic downturn. Both applied to Crowther for loans with varying success shortly before his death. Who did it, how and what did the butler, Weatherup, see?

The book takes a little while to get going but once the tale is underway it is a page turner, well written, the plotting believable and the psychological insights into Swinburn fascinating. If you haven’t read any Crofts, this is a good place to start.