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.