Freeman Wills Crofts

This was first published in my Master’s thesis on the detective story, University of Sydney, 2011/12.  The reader should check out:

  • Mike Grost’s article on Crofts
  • Curtis Evans’ Masters of the “Humdrum Mystery”: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (2012).

REVISED: I have incorporated the notes into the text, rather than trying to have them as footnotes.


I: The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation

Crofts - photo.jpgThe meteoric rise and fall of the Northern Irish railway engineer Freeman Wills Crofts, master of the realistic police detective story and of the unbreakable alibi, is a cause for wonder.

At the peak of his career, during the 1920s and 1930s, he was seen as one of the leading writers in the field, one of the Big Five group of detective writers that included R. Austin Freeman, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and either H.C. Bailey or John Dickson Carr.

Critics—including J.B. Priestley and T.S. Eliot—praised him for his plot construction, his ingenuity, and his logic.

Outlook considered him “undeniably the greatest of detective story writers”.  Michael Sadleir described him as “the master of the austere, unsensational but—to minds who enjoy stubborn but logical reasoning—enthralling type of puzzle fiction”.  J.B. Priestley considered Crofts “one of the best writers in this kind of detective story”.  Time and Tide “put Crofts on an eminence all his own”.  The New Republican (10 March 1926) thought that “Mr. Crofts is probably the soundest and most ingenious of those now writing detective stories.  He has a rigorously logical mind, and that ability to lay long fuses which explode at the right time which is essential in detective stories.”  Ralph Partridge (New Statesman, 20 May 1933) thought that Crofts and the American S.S. Van Dine were the two best detective writers after Agatha Christie.  H. Douglas Thomson (Masters of Mystery, 1931) described him as

the supreme technician…in construction…  No writer of detective fiction has ever produced a neater plot.  Every brick fits neatly into the edifice.  The plots of Gaboriau are not more exquisitely complicated.

He leapt into the front rank of detective writers with his first novel, The Cask (1920), while later works were also seen as masterpieces.  The Times Literary Supplement (25 September 1930) thought Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927) “the high-water mark of detective fiction”, while A.C. Bierce (Literary Review, 9 May 1925) thought The Groote Park Murder (1923) “the most exciting detective story … since [Doyle’s] The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1902).

From the mid-1930s in Britain, as the genre became more literary under Sayers’ influence, and as his own powers declined, Crofts’s work increasingly was seen as old-fashioned and boring.

In an otherwise admiring review of Crime at Guildford (1935), the Times Literary Supplement (16 May 1935) commented on his “increasing flatness and lack of distinction both in style and characterisation”.  Although the T.L.S.’s M.P. Ashley (16 September 1939) believed that he was “indeed an Old Master whose work still overshadows the products of most of the Bright Young Things”, he noted that Crofts’s “leisurely … development” and “romantic patches have an old-fashioned air”.  He had earlier (28 May 1938) recommended that he “should give more attention to his subsidiary characters if he does not wish to be considered a little old-fashioned”.  Rupert Hart-Davis (Spectator, 20 October 1939) called Fatal Venture

another unsweetened slab of Inspector French’s interminable activity.  One cannot avoid feeling some affection for this gigantic bore; he is like a tame elephant that never forgets.

Ralph Partridge (New Statesman, 27 March 1943), who had a decade before considered Crofts one of the two greatest detective writers after Christie, was by the early 1940s calling Crofts’s work “plain, nourishing stodge”, with “a glutinous satisfaction to be derived from wallowing every inch of the way to the solution”.

Although both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett admired his works, many American critics found him the supreme representative of the British boring school.

The New York Times (2 October 1932) described Inspector French as “perhaps the dullest performer in contemporary crime fiction, and his plodding labours are frequently more of a bore than a pleasure to follow”.

Crofts - Inspector French's Greatest Case.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

After WWII, his reputation plummeted to the point where LeRoy Panek (Watteau’s Shepherds, 1979), ignoring all history of the genre, could dismiss him as “a hanger-on”.

Julian Symons (Bloody Murder, 1974) paid him the rather back-handed compliment of considering him “not just a typical, but also the best, representative of what may be called the Humdrum school of detective novelists”, writers who had little literary talent but “some skill in constructing puzzles, nothing more”.

Because he is seen as the best of a bad lot, his reputation overshadows the other Humdrums, who were influenced by him, but superior in many ways.  There is no doubt that he is uneven; he lacks the Coles’ wit and style, Henry Wade’s characterisation, or J.J. Connington and John Rhode’s livelier story-telling.

Crofts’s best works, however, are classics of the genre, and his influence on the genre was considerable.  As Dorothy L. Sayers (Sunday Times, 25 February 1934), herself influenced by Crofts, observed:

When Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts wrote The Cask in 1920 he devised a formula and became thereby the only begetter of a numerous and distinguished detective progeny.  As the other great Freeman stands for precision of scientific statement, so he stands for accuracy of practical method.  He first made police routine fascinating and distilled romance from the pages of Bradshaw.  He is our cunningest fitter of jig-saws, our Time-table King and Master of the Alibi, and no one has ever yet wearied of his skill.

Crofts had a talent for constructing water-tight plots, and for making the laborious process of detection engrossing.  Such works as The Cask (1920), The Groote Park Murder (1923), Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927), and Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) are masterpieces of the pure detective story, and much pleasure can be gained from the straightforward method of his works and from the way in which all the details of the plot fit together.  In other stories, such as The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) or Death of a Train (1946), he is unreadably dull.


II: Two Freemen

In some ways, Crofts is the dreadful consequence of R. Austin Freeman‘s pure detective story taken to logical extremes. Freeman may not have willed Crofts, but Crofts is the product of his will. As his literary heir, Crofts inherited from him a firm belief in the primacy of detection; the examination of material clues in minute, even painful, detail; an avoidance of psychological clues; and the use of such devices as the inverted story, physical trails of evidence, the disposal of the body, and the breakdown of identity.

Freeman’s influence on Crofts

Freeman influenced many of Crofts’s 1920s works.  The situation in Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924) derives from Freeman’s Red Thumb Mark (1907), involving the theft of diamonds from a London jeweller’s.  The emphasis on physical evidence in the book—fingerprints, type-written documents, forged signatures—comes from Freeman.

The inverted stories—The 12.30 from Croydon (1934); Mystery on Southampton Water (1934); Antidote to Venom (1938); and The Affair at Little Wokeham (1943)—are all modelled on the technique Freeman established in The Singing Bone (1912); indeed, Crofts directly refers to that work in Croydon.

Crofts used Freeman’s ‘breakdown of identity’ technique in several works in the 1920s.  In The Groote Park Murder (1923), SPOILER (highlight to read) the main suspect turns out to be the ‘victim’ in disguise.  In The Sea Mystery (1928), SPOILER the murderer kills his victim, makes people think that his victim’s body is his own and that he has been killed by the victim, and assumes the role of his (dead) cousin.

Crofts - Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927) is the most Freemanesque of his works: French poses as a representative from an insurance company (much as Dr. Thorndyke is medico-legal adviser to ‘The Griffin’), and the plot involves such Freemanian staples as arson, charred bodies, and SPOILER substitution of corpses.  Elements of the story recall A Silent Witness (1914) and The D’Arblay Mystery (1926): what happens to Giles’s body, the death certificate, and exhumation (the coffin contains only earth).  This is confounded by the discovery of Giles’s body (supposedly substituted for Roper’s and burnt in the fire)—if Roper is the murderer, and Giles’s body is accounted for, then whose is the third body?  Crofts uses one of Freeman’s favourite ideas—the burnt and unrecognisable corpse turns out to belong to someone else; the ‘victim’ is still alive—as misdirection.  The murderer intends the police to think that this is what happened; in truth, the body belongs to the man it was originally identified as belonging to.  (Roper, however, thought that this was the plan, and murdered Giles with Dr. Philpot’s help, to substitute Giles’s body for his own.)  Crofts uses this idea to produce a series of overlapping, seemingly correct theories—each solution is partly true, but neither wholly true nor the whole truth:

  1. Whymper
  2. Philpot (by making French suspect him so early in the book, Crofts effectively clears him in the reader’s mind)
  3. Roper—killed in fire
  4. Roper faked his own death
  5. The truth: Dr. Philpot helped by Roper

Many of Crofts’s murderers attempt to protect themselves by laying elaborate trails, with circumstantial evidence pointing to other people.  In The Sea Mystery, SPOILER suspicion falls on both Berlyn (really the victim) and Colonel Dromlio (deprived of an alibi and lured into the countryside in the middle of the night).  In Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930), SPOILER the conspirators frame Magill’s son, and lay a trail to suggest that Magill was killed in Ireland several days after he was really murdered, on a train from London to the north of England.

Crofts also shows the influence of such Victorian writers as Fergus Hume and Israel Zangwill.  Hume’s Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) provides the model for many of Crofts’s earliest works: sober and methodical detection seen from a policeman’s perspective; detection first to build up a case against an innocent man, who is wrongly arrested, and then detection undertaken by his fiancée and a friend or lawyer to prove his innocence; and an emphasis on alibis, proving the accused’s innocence.  Crofts invokes Fergus Hume’s Mystery of a Hansom Cab as an influence on The Pit-prop Syndicate (1922).

Although Zangwill’s Big Bow Mystery (1891) is often seen as the earliest locked room story, and hence part of the Chesterton–Carr tradition, its detective approach is very similar to that Crofts adopted in The Cask.  The police build up a case against an innocent man; when he is arrested, amateurs and an ex-policeman (the murderer) work to clear him.  The story involves alibis based around transport, including cabs and trains.

Canon Victor L. Whitechurch’s Stories of the Railway (1912) anticipates Crofts in his enthusiasm for detail and plots revolving around the technicalities of trains.

Critics (Books (New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 20 February 1927; Vincent Starrett, 6 November 1927) also considered Crofts’s early books to be in the line of J.S. Fletcher, whose Middle Temple Murder (1919) Woodrow Wilson admired.  Points of similarity include methodical detection, followed by a melodramatic finale; circumstantial evidence incriminating an innocent party; attempts by friends of the wrongfully accused person to clear his name, and prove the guilt of the murderer; and murders committed for money.  There does not, however, seem to be much interest in alibis, mathematics, or technical detail.

The great difference between Crofts and Freeman is that Crofts was not a natural storyteller, and a poor hand at characterisation.  As Margaret Cole (Spectator, 9 May 1931) acidly remarked,

Crofts is the best known, almost the onlie begetter, of the puzzle convention; his characters are not characters at all; they are—to use a biological metaphor—extremely simple structures provided only with name-labels and impregnable alibis, which latter it is the business of the detective to break down.

Crofts - The Sea Mystery.JPG
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Crofts’s technique is fundamentally mathematical, unlike Freeman’s natural sciences, or Chesterton’s psychology.

There are lengthy passages in the Inspector French stories which seem to have been lifted from a mathematical textbook.

In Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930), Inspector French calculates the journeys of the boat, and the movements of the motor launch and the car.  A particularly important piece of evidence in Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) is the launch’s cyclometer, mathematical calculations from which are used to work out for how long the boat had been travelling when it blew up, and so where the bomb was planted.

In The Sea Mystery (1928), French uses engineering calculations and tide-tables to work out how and when a crate got into the sea, resulting in a passage that is too bad to omit:

First he added the weights of the crate, the body, and the steel bars: they came to 35 stone or 490 lb.  Then he found that the volume of the crate was just a trifle over 15 cubic feet.  This latter multiplied by the weight of a cubic foot of sea water—64 lb.—gave a total of 985 lb. as the weight of water the crate would displace if completely submerged.  But if the weight of the crate was 490 lb. and the weight of the water it displaced was 985 lb., it followed that not only would it float, but it would float within a very considerable buoyancy, represented by the difference between these two, or 495 lb.  The first part of his history was therefore tenable.

But the moment the crate was thrown into the sea, water would begin to run in through the lower holes.  French wondered if he could calculate how long it would take to sink.

He was himself rather out of his depth among the unfamiliar figures and formulae given on the subject.  The problem was, How long would it take 495 lb. of water to run through seven one-sixth inch holes?

Faced with this sort of thing, one can only applaud John Dickson Carr’s hatred of mathematicians.


III: Crofts’ alibis

Crofts is famous for his plots revolving around unbreakable alibis and railway timetables.  Grost classifies two types of alibi plots:

1.)  the “breakdown of identity”, which uses impersonation or confusion of identity

Many of Crofts’s alibis rely on impersonation, including The Groote Park Murder (1923), Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927), The Sea Mystery (1928), Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930), The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933), and The 12.30 from Croydon (1934).  These works show the influence of the Baroness Orczy, whose Old Man in the Corner short stories are strikingly modern for the turn of the century.  In many ways, they are the sort of thing the next generation would write in the ’20s and ’30s.  They are tightly focused, with the emphasis placed squarely on plotting and clueing; and a tone of sober realism, without the melodrama or romanticism of the Doyle school.  Many of the stories concern alibis (as the Old Man remarks in ‘The Mysterious Death in Percy Street’, “one of the greatest secrets of successful crime is to lead the police astray with regard to the time when the murder was committed”); impersonation; and white collar crime or murder for money.  Orczy may well be an ancestral link between Crofts and Agatha Christie; Christie admired the Baroness, whom she respectfully parodied in ‘The Sunningdale Mystery’ (in Partners in Crime, 1929); and stories such as ‘The Regent’s Park Murder’, with its ingenious alibi hinging on SPOILER illusion and a criminal partnership, look forward to Christie’s SPOILER Death on the Nile (1937) or They Do It With Mirrors (1952) as much as they do to the Inspector French stories.

2.)  Crofts’s speciality, ‘location and technology’ alibis, which rely on transport (trains, motor-cycles, boats, aeroplanes) and mechanical devices such as clocks, gramophones or cameras

At its simplest, in Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924), the murderer’s alibi is SPOILER that he is out walking from his solicitor’s to his home; in reality, he has caught a taxi to his office in Hatton Garden, where he kills his victim, and returned to Hampstead by tube.  A more sophisticated alibi is found in Mystery in the Channel (1931), in which SPOILER the murderer uses an outboard motor on his boat.  The murderer in Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) uses SPOILER a gramophone (an idea rather hackneyed by then—Sayers had written some years earlier that it should be given a rest)  to make people think that he is in his office typing.  In Fatal Venture (1939), the murderer’s alibi SPOILER hinges on a camera: he seems to have been taking photographs, but inspection of the flowers in the photograph show that they must have been taken some months before.  (J.J. Connington was the first to use a camera alibi.)

Crofts - Sir John Magill's Last Journey
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Perhaps the most ambitious and ingenious alibi scheme is Sir John Magill’s Last Journey, which involves SPOILER four conspirators in a boat, a car, and a train, impersonation, the wrong time of death, and the wrong place of death.

The approach in this work is very similar to that in Sayers’s Have His Carcase (1932).  SPOILER It is pretty obvious who the villains are, but they all have cast-iron alibis, and so cannot have committed the crime.  Sayers takes it one step further by bringing in haemophilia, which gives the criminals a faked alibi for the time when the medical evidence suggests the crime could not have been committed, and yet was committed, and cast-iron alibis for a time when the murder apparently was committed.


IV: Crofts’ settings

Some critics (e.g. Stephen Knight, Crime Fiction, 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity, 2004) maintain that the detective story presented a stable society, without any interest in “social conflict” (including big business) “outside the murder scene”, and that the murder almost always took place in enclosed settings (trains, planes, and big country houses) or fashionable London.  This is not true of Crofts or his followers.

Many of Crofts’ works concern:

  • professional criminals or their schemes, such as forgery and smuggling, along the lines of Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands (1905);
Crofts - The Box-Office Murders
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Notable examples include The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922), Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926), The Box Office Murders (1929), and Death of a Train (1946).  The criminal conspiracies, with three or four people committing a private murder for gain or security, found in Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930), Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), Crime at Guildford (1935), and The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) are closely related.

These are ancestral to the works of such writers as John Rhode / Miles Burton’s The Ellerby Case (1927), Tragedy at the Unicorn (1928), and The Secret of High Eldersham (1930), Death at the Inn (1953) and Robbery with Violence (1957); Gladys Mitchell’s Worsted Viper (1943), The Dancing Druids (1948), and Faintley Speaking (1954); the Coles’ Death of a Millionaire (1925), and The Great Southern Mystery (1931); Henry Wade’s The Missing Partners (1928); and works by Josephine Bell, Clifford Witting, and Michael Gilbert.

Many of these works involve codes and ciphers, for instance, Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924) and Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926).  Codes are also found in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Have His Carcase (1932), Murder Must Advertise (1933), and The Nine Tailors (1934); J.J. Connington’s Truth Comes Limping (1938); John Rhode’s Peril at Cranbury Hall (1930), and Death on the Boat-Train (1940); and Ronald A. Knox’s Footsteps at the Lock (1928).  The ancestor of these works is Conan Doyle, with such stories as ‘The Dancing Men’ and The Valley of Fear (1914).

  • big business (white collar crime and crooked businessmen)
Crofts - Mystery in the Channel.JPG
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These novels include Mystery in the Channel (1931), in which businessmen attempt to abscond with money before their company collapses, SPOILER and are murdered by one of their partners; Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), which involves the struggle between rival cement companies to secure a cheap process for rapid-hardening cement; and Crime at Guildford (1935).

White collar crime and financial schemes appear in the work of other Realist writers, notably the Coles (Death of a Millionaire, 1925; Big Business Murder, 1935) and Henry Wade (The Missing Partners, 1928; The Duke of York’s Steps, 1929); while other writers provide an inside look at big businesses (e.g., John Rhode’s Death on the Board, 1937).

These Backgrounds are ancestral to the institutions in Dorothy L. Sayers (the advertising agency in Murder Must Advertise, 1933), Gladys Mitchell (the convent in St. Peter’s Finger, 1938), Margery Allingham (publishing in Flowers for the Judge, 1936), Nicholas Blake (the government offices in Minute for Murder, 1947; the publishing company in End of Chapter, 1957), Cyril Hare (the life of a circuit judge in Tragedy at Law, 1942), and Michael Gilbert (the solicitor’s office in Smallbone Deceased, 1950).  Many of these writers bring their backgrounds to life more than Crofts did; their settings are often more interesting than Crofts’s board meetings or trains, and demonstrate a much stronger gift for characterisation.

  • forms of transport;
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Trains feature heavily in The Groote Park Murder (1923), Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930), Death on the Way (1932), and Death of a Train (1946).

Other stories have a maritime setting, notably Mystery in the Channel (1931) (corpses found aboard yacht, SPOILER murderer uses speed-boat), Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) (victims killed by a bomb in a motor launch), The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) (ship blown up to claim insurance on cargo), Man Overboard (1936), Found Floating (1937) (pleasure cruise of the Mediterranean, with one whole chapter devoted to the workings of the ship, including lengthy descriptions of the echo sounder, pumps, and furnaces), and Fatal Venture (1939) (off-shore gambling ship).  The title of The Sea Mystery (1928) is misleading, as the book opens off the Welsh coast with two fishermen finding a corpse in a crate, but most of the book is set in Devon or London.

Other forms of transport include cars, bicycles, and, in The 12.30 from Croydon (1934), aeroplanes.  In The Sea Mystery (1928), a breakdown lorry is used to transport an auto crane to throw the crate into the sea; and alibis depend on a faulty magneto in a car, and a bicycle.

  • travel around the British Isles or Continental Europe
Crofts - Mystery on Southampton Water
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Many of the stories feature maps, and are based on real locations, which appealed to contemporary readers by making it possible to visit the scene of the crime themselves (Thomson, Masters of Mystery, 1931).

Many of Inspector French’s investigations take the policeman to the Continent.  Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924) opens in London, but the action takes place in the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal.

France is the setting for parts of The Cask (1920), The Pit-prop Syndicate (1922), Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927), The Sea Mystery (1928), and Mystery in the Channel (1931), while Belgium is visited in The Cask (1920), Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926), and Crime at Guildford (1935).

Others are set in Ireland, including Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930), Man Overboard! (1936), and Fatal Venture (1939), while Found Floating (1937) takes place on a Mediterranean cruise, with the murder committed in Morocco.

Many other Realist writers set their detective stories in actual locations.  One thinks of Freeman himself (Julliberrie’s Grave in The Penrose Mystery, 1936), of Dorothy L. Sayers (Scotland in The Five Red Herrings, 1931), of Gladys Mitchell (who constructed many of her plots around Ordnance Maps), and of Henry Wade (Liverpool in The Missing Partners, 1928; London in Bury Him Darkly, 1936; and Lonely Magdalen, 1940).


V: Realistic police detection

Like Freeman, Crofts was a technical pioneer.  His detective, Inspector French, is the first modern policeman in the detective story.

NOTE: Although in all of Crofts’s post-1925 works, the detection is done by Inspector French, in his earliest novels, both the police and amateurs detect.  The Cask (1920)—a massive work whose structure seems architectural or symphonic—is built in three sections.  The first part takes place in Britain, and involves the hunt for the cask and the discovery of the woman’s body.  The second part is set in France, and concerns the establishment of the victim’s identity, the testing of two suspects’ alibis, and the arrest of one.  The third section combines the themes of the earlier parts: the action takes place in both countries, as well as in Belgium, and SPOILER the half-English, half-French detective clears the wrongly arrested Felix, and proves the guilt of the real murderer, the husband Boirac.  The murderer has devised an elaborate plan to disarm suspicion (an alibi relying on a mechanical device) and incriminate another man.

Other writers would use this structure, notably G.D.H. Cole in his solo first effort The Brooklyn Murders (1923), while many of Henry Wade’s works, such as The Verdict of You All (1926), The Duke of York’s Steps (1929), or The Hanging Captain (1932), focus on the movements of only one or two suspects.

Crofts - The Hog's Back Mystery
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Part of Crofts’ appeal to contemporary readers was the impression his work gave of following an everyday policeman on his investigations, showing routine at work.

As C. Day-Lewis (‘Nicholas Blake’) remarked, “no detective novelist has created a character more closely akin to the real flesh-and-blood Scotland Yard article”.  Punch, for instance, considered Inspector French “the most human sleuth to be found in the detective novels of to-day”.

In doing so, Crofts continued Freeman’s revolt against the hawk-faced supermen of the Holmes era, and his move towards plausibility.

Inspector French’s approach is based on methodical procedure, working slowly towards a solution.

As he explains in Mystery in the Channel (1931): “Detection is very much like any other constructive work.  The solution of every difficulty becomes the premise of a further problem.  Such work advances by the overcoming of a never-ending series of difficulties, each of which is raised by the preceding success.”

The reader sees all of Inspector French’s thoughts, and every deduction is shared with the reader as soon as it is made, so that there is—supposedly—an equal partnership between detective and reader.  Contemporary critics saw Crofts’ naturalistic, matter-of-fact approach towards detection, with every clue presented to the reader as soon as it appears, and every step of the journey trudged wearisomely with French, as the epitome of fair play, in contrast to Mason or Chesterton’s intuition.

Almost all police detectives owe much to Inspector French.  Prominent examples include: the Coles’ Superintendent Wilson, Cyril Hare’s Superintendent Mallett, E.C.R. Lorac’s Inspector MacDonald, John Rhode’s Inspectors Hanslet and Waghorn, Henry Wade’s Inspector Poole, the fatherly detectives in Agatha Christie, and, more recently, Michael Gilbert’s Superintendent Hazelrigg

Crofts, as Grost argues, also developed the “procedural”: a book which follows the step-by-step detection of professional sleuths, such as policemen or lawyers’.

Crofts influenced two key works in the sub-genre: Henry Wade’s Here Comes the Copper (1938) and Sir Basil Thomson’s P.C. Richardson’s First Case (1933).  These books take his low-key naturalist approach even further, abolishing ingenuity (cleverly devised alibis, scientific devices) and trying to make the cases as close to actual police experience as possible.

This realistic, documentary approach, if clumsily handled, can become sheer drudgery.  In Crofts’s weaker books, the plots are so predictable that the reader is usually several steps ahead of French.

Crofts’s detectives follow leads and investigate each suspect in turn.  There is not a group of suspects, as in the Intuitionist school that includes G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, S.S. Van Dine and John Dickson Carr.  Very few of Crofts’s stories are domestic or intimate affairs; instead, the characters are generally seen from the outside, through French’s eyes.

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Crofts’s murderers seldom kill for personal reasons, such as hatred, revenge or jealousy; the principal motive is nearly always financial, professional crime, or security (e.g., blackmail).  There is seldom any interest in character-based clues such as conversation or psychology, as there are in the works of G.K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie.  Instead, the evidence is largely physical (typewriters, return tickets) or mathematical (alibis), and is often used to prove the case in a court of law.

The problem with Crofts is that unlike Freeman, his books live or die by their detection and their plots alone.  Everything depends on their quality; when they are strong, the reader is drawn along by the tightness of the plot construction, the fascination of the unfolding plot, and the ingenuity of the solution.  When the plot is unexciting, or the detection ponderous, everything slows to a halt, like a train running out of steam and being shunted into a siding.

Other and better writers—whether ‘humdrums’ such as the Coles, Connington and John Rhode/Miles Burton, ‘crime queens’ such as Christie or Sayers, or the more character-driven writers of the 1930s such as Nicholas Blake and Ngaio Marsh—seized on his ideas and wove them into livelier stories.

12 thoughts on “Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Thanks for this, Nick; fascinating reading.

    Having spent several years gradually approaching the meat of GAD, and for most of that time being told what a spectacular dullard Crofts is, I’ve been delighted to discover him through the recent raft of reprints and find his detection brain — at its best, which I can’t evcen be certain I’ve read — to be virtually the ne plus ultra of ingenuity. That use of maths on the crate in The Sea Mystery is genius, pure and simple, and exploits the limits of the situation perfectly — his reliance on physical cause and necessity over genius deduction is something I love, having not really seen it used anything close to as rigorously elsewhere.

    Inevitably he’ll tail off in his later years, didn’t everyone? But for the time being I’ve found Crofts to be quite the tonic needed amidst all manner of genius amateurs and leaps nonsense ‘logic. I may get bored in due coure — ha! — but he’s my choice of poison at the moment. Sir John Magill’s Last Journey coming soon…

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    1. Glad you’re enjoying Crofts!

      Which Crofts novels have you read? SIR JOHN MAGILL is a clever one; I hope you like it!

      Crofts’ ingenuity and the steady accumulation of evidence can be fascinating. But he can also be downright dull, in a way only the Realists manage. It’s the plot, plot, and nothing but the plot approach to fiction. That concentration on the plot, though, can be a good thing; as Curt Evans points out, when he tries to go more literary, he lapses into Victorian bathos, and his characterisation is either flat or embarrassing.

      I first read one of his late books when I was 14, when I was first getting into John Dickson Carr, and found it excruciating; it kept me from reading him for another few years. (I’d also been put off by the highly technical opening chapters of JANE VOSPER and the short story “The Mystery of the Sleeping-Car Express”.) I picked him up again more out of a sense of duty – I knew that I liked John Rhode and Henry Wade, both of whom Crofts influenced, and thought I should read Crofts again, if only to understand his place in the genre. I discovered that THE SEA MYSTERY (ingenious, despite those dryly mathematical passages!) and THE STARVEL TRAGEDY were excellent detective stories.

      It’s extraordinary to walk into a bookshop today, and see Crofts – and other proper detective writers – on the shelves. I remember the bad old days when it was Agatha Christie, Sayers, and nothing else. Nowadays, Philip MacDonald, Miles Burton, and, of all people, Vernon Loder!

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      1. I’m still a newbie to Crofts, having read only The Sea Mystery, The Hog’s Back Mystery, and Antidote to Venom…so I appreciate I’m probably enjoying the “worthy of a reprint” stage of his career! Still, I tend to get a sense of an author pretty quickly, and AtV convinced me that there’s much to be found in his work that will be to my liking.

        I hope so, anyway, as I own — ahem — several of his other books, and may have suggested yet more s inspiration if people get stuck with Christmas approaching.

        I’m actually a little aghast at not having gotten to him sooner, when House of Stratus pout out his catalogue a few years back…those books are damned expensive now! Still, I kept hearing dull things about him and The Cask, and I was not quite so heavily into the Golden Age back then…so, meh, here’s hoping more reprints follow.

        Much like you, I found Carr and was under the imoression everything would always be that creative and brilliant, and it took me a little while to adapt to the more realistic GAD school of Connington (I’ve still nly read one Connington, and need to go back to him…), Rhode, MacDonald, et al. I almost feel that someone needs to write a graded intorduction to styles of GAD writing — “Love Carr? Then don’t jump feet first into Crofts! Warm up with some Rupert Penny first…”

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      2. Try Starvel; I think you’d enjoy it! The Cask’s very good, too.

        Which Connington? I prefer Connington, at least his early books. They’re faster and livelier than the 1930s ones, which are more Croftsian – methodical police detection. The Case with 9 Solutions is his best – more mathematical permutations – but Murder in the Maze and Jack-in-the-Box (scientific murders, and murderous mystics) are excellent.

        Or even warming up with Christopher Bush! Unbreakable alibis (Crofts) plus, at Bush’s best, a real sense of playing the grandest game and challenging the reader.

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      3. John Magill is the earliest of the ones I own, so I’m hoping to get to that before too long. Starvel has recently been reissued — the first 10 or 11 of his books have recently — and I intend to find and read them all, so I’ll definitely get there in due course!

        The Connington I read was…The Case with Nine Solutions. It was…fine, but then I wasn’t ready for that style of novel at the time, I think. I have various recommendations lined up — The Sweepstakes Murders, Murder in the Maze, probably some others — but my TBR keeps growing and I keep not getting round to him.

        And, yeah, with Bush recently reissued I’m definitely curious to try him. I’ve been reading Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder these last few days and he mentions The Perfect Murder Case which sounds like a lot of fun. Seems like we’re really lucking out now, the age of epublishing is bringing back a lot of GAD stuff to be excited about.

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      4. Now what we need is writers to start writing proper detective stories!

        With Bush, try TCOT APRIL FOOLS and CUT THROAT. PERFECT MURDER CASE is solid, but the others are cleverer.

        One more writer to add to your list: G.D.H. and M. Cole, Socialist economists who wrote detective fiction as a hobby. Their detective, Superintendent Wilson, is a policeman like French, but they’re livelier, wittier writers, and their best books feel like an early Christie. DEATH OF A MILLIONAIRE is terrific – almost Dickensian in scope, with skulduggery in high places, and flashbacks to Siberia. THE MAN FROM THE RIVER and DEAD MAN’S WATCH are excellent period detective stories, and the short story “In a Telephone Cabinet” is a gem.

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      5. Cool, much appreciated — I’ll buy one of those Bush titles and read it sometime in 2023.

        The Coles I’ve yet to find readily or easily available, though I’ll admit I don’t search quite so assiduously for them as others. The chapter on them in TGAoM is very enlightening, and you get a great sense of them as people, but I was aware of not being able to engage quite so fully simply because I hadn’t read a one of their books. Thanks for the recommendations.

        ‘In a Telephone Cabinet’ was in the Otto Penzler Locked Room book, so I have been fortunate enough to read that. Didn’t love it, I’m not a huge fan of that type of solution, but the manner of the writing was very engaging; I’ll continue to keep an eye out, as surely someone will stumble over them and feel them ripe for reprinting before too long…seems to be the vogue at present, and long may it continue!

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