Coming off of The Grapes of Wrath (one of those Great American Novels which up to now I’ve put off for too long), I wanted something nice and simple to read as a refresher. It seemed like a perfect time to finally try Freeman Wills Crofts, the pioneer of the humdrum mystery and the police procedural who has enjoyed a rebound in popularity these past few years. Last year I purchased the Collins Crime Club reprint of The Sea Mystery, which has been retitled as Inspector French and the Sea Mystery an which is part of Collins’ efforts to reprint the entire French series minus the titles already reprinted by the British Library Crime Classics series. I had chosen The Sea Mystery since it seemed to be a favorite Crofts online, especially of JJ’s over at The Invisible Event. Even though Crofts writes mysteries unlike just about any of the other GAD authors I’ve read, I still absolutely loved this book.
For a “humdrum” mystery, Crofts starts off with a bang. Mr. Morgan and his son Evan, while fishing at Burry Port in Wales, catch a large crate that has sunk in the water and bring it to shore. Mr. Morgan discovers a long dead and unidentifiable body in the crate, and calls in the police. Inspector French is put on the case quickly, and from his observation of small holes poked into the bottom of the crate, he embarks on a slow but steady journey across Wales and England which leads him to an office supplies company in Devon, the mysterious disappearance of two men, and a string of evidence that leads him from suspect to suspect.
After an explosive opening it seems like French’s point-by-point style of deduction should really slow down the narrative. He takes each clue at face value and works out each problem in his way routinely. He makes sure to test each conclusion he reaches in a practical way. This does not hamper the novel’s pace; rather I found myself engrossed with French’s slow progress, his ingenious experiments, and his slow procession through a short field of suspects (who are taken into consideration one by one over the second half of the novel).
I think that the reason the slow progress of French works so well is because French himself is such a likable character. Unlike most of his contemporaries, French is by no means a “genius” detective who looks at a baffling crime scene with little to no clues and after sitting around for the police to do their work comes up with the perfect solution. French is the police, and he never makes any leaps in his detection – he studies each point individually, considers each factor, makes timetables and lists of areas of inquiry, and he never moves on in his investigation without sure proof that his detection so far is sound and provable. And he has no extremely unique characteristics or eccentricities. His personality is seen when he enjoys a walk through the country while he waits for evidence, when he takes in a good meal at a hotel, or when he has to contain his excitement once he finds out key information from a suspect. All of these qualities quickly endeared French to me, and I found myself rooting for him as I read the book. Most other detectives, I just kind of assume they’ll figure it out eventually and enjoy their antics. But while I know that French will solve it by the end (it’s a detective novel, after all,) I still feel excitement when he stumbles across key evidence or proves a point in the most outlandish way, or when his timetable matches his suspicions so far.
French’s character perfectly complements the barrage of settings which Crofts gives him in this book. We start in Burry Port, slowly move across Wales as French finds the crate’s aqueous origin, then to Ashburton in Devon, and finally end in the heart of London. These places, along with others which French visits for shorter times, are all described beautifully, with the natural features and the industrial features explained in detail. French often admires the settings which he encounters, and it is through his eyes that we get to experience this story. The level of detail put into the description of the country mirrors the detailed investigation that encompasses this book, as well as the detailed descriptions of car motors, office supplies factories, trips across France, and many other times important to the story.
The mystery itself is very intriguing. The initial mystery posits a few questions: Who is the victim (whose face has been battered beyond recognition,) who killed him, how, why, and what was the purpose and execution of the body-removal-via-crate-in-the-sea? All of these questions will be answered at the end, but French slowly peels this juicy onion and finds morsels to each answer across his journey. There are some times when he seems to find a major answer but later has to revise it to better fit with newer, more solid evidence. As he learns more, there are extra questions put forward about specific things, such as the testimony of a night watchman, the seemingly impossible theft of a duplicator, and the possibility of doctoring a car engine given certain constraints. This constant stream of inquiry is much different from most mysteries, where the main questions are given at the start of the investigation and while maybe a few mysteries are solved during the middle of the book and a couple others raised, the bulk of the mystery is solved in the last chapter or two. Another difference is in how the suspects are presented. In most mysteries, we get to meet the suspects very early on, usually in very quick succession or simultaneously, whether it is a closed circle mystery or a crime in the open with a few key suspects more likely to have dunnit. Crofts, however, plays his game different, and we don’t even meet nay of the suspects until about a third of the way through when his detection finally takes him to the Vida Works in Devon and the apparent deaths of two men, Berlyn and Pyke, on the Devon moor. French concludes that one of these two men must be the victim (although it takes some time to prove) and originally suspects that the other must have been the murderer. However, at least three other people are seriously considered either as the murderer or as an accomplice, and each of these suspects is given attention in a 40-or-so-page stretch by themselves. Eventually, French gloms onto who he believes to be the true murderer, but there are still a few chapters and a couple extra surprises to be found.
Crofts’ sole weakness that I can find is that his characters besides French can often come up as flat. None of them are really shown to go through any development, and although they may be painted nicely through description, many characters often function to give a shred of testimony or lead French to another place in his investigation. However, I think that this kind of character-writing makes sense given the type of mystery Crofts wrote, specifically the police procedural. This isn’t a mystery where six or so people are thrown together by a murder and we simultaneously see the detectives progress and the suspects’ actions and reactions. This is solely about the detective and how he makes his way from the discovery of a body to the apprehension of the guilty party or parties, and the people involved are either suspects, witnesses, or helpers. This is French’s story, not really anybody else’s, and as such the other characters are just vessels to further his investigation. In that regard the lack of characterization does not really bother me that much, if at all.
One other thing I liked about The Sea Mystery was its connections to Crofts’ previous works at that point. The setup itself (body found in crate) mirrors that of his monumental debut, The Cask, and French himself mentions the case as a parallel (although, rather annoyingly, he blatantly spoils it for the reader.) We see French reminisce on his recently completed case in The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (which is thankfully not spoiled) and we get a short update on one of the main characters from The Cheyne Mystery. I know I haven’t read any of those works, but it was still nice to see Crofts connect his novels without requiring readers to read his work chronologically in order to understand pivotal character motivations as seems so common nowadays.
I’m really glad that this was my introduction to Crofts, as I can see that it contains many of his strengths and hallmarks while at the same time presenting a strong mystery. Inspector French is clearly one of the most thoughtfully created detectives from the GAD era, and I’m glad that after so long a time of neglect (thanks, Julian Symons,) he will be rediscovered by many thanks to these recent reprints. I have some other mysteries that I want to read in the next couple of weeks, but I’ll be sure to try and return to Crofts and French before the year is out. As of right now, on top of The Sea Mystery, I own Inspector French’s Greatest Case, Sir John Magill’s Last Journey, The 12:30 from Croydon, and the stand-alone The Pit-Prop Syndicate. It seems that of these SJMLJ is the most revered, although Croydon seems to be appreciated as Crofts’ first inverted mystery (although outshone by its successor Mystery on Southampton Water.) I guess we’ll see which one I choose!
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection (Mike Grost)