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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.