Man Overboard! (Freeman Wills Crofts)

  • By Freeman Wills Crofts
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1936; US: Dodd, Mead, 1936
  • Availability: HarperCollins 2020

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Two clever Belfast chemists have invented a process for inert petrol. This cleaner, easily transportable, flame-proof version could revolutionize world energy, and earn Ferris, M’Morris, and their business partners an immense fortune. But murder and industrial espionage intervene. Reginald Platt, an English businessman sent over to assess their discovery, disappears from the Belfast-Liverpool steamer on his way home; his body is found floating offshore weeks later. Worse, Platt tried to steal the secret of the chemical process. Could one of the syndicate have killed him to preserve their discovery – and their dreams of wealth?

To call it Author Overboard would be too harsh, but Crofts is definitely treading water. There’s little new here. The book is a pendant to the far superior Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) (whose solution is given away in passing, as French reminiscences with his Northern Irish colleagues), while the rival businesses and stolen process recall Mystery on Southampton Water (1934).

Crofts is absorbing as ever; his pace is not so much slow as ample and deliberate. I read the first 250 pages in a single sitting. (So much for tedium!) Since Sudden Death (1932) and The 12.30 from Croydon (1934), Crofts has steadily increased the character interest, telling part of the story from the perspective of the people involved in the case, rather than solely from the investigator’s. His characterisation here is neither deep nor vivid; only Pamela is developed in any depth, but she emerges as a sympathetic character. But this is neither the most detailed problem Crofts has offered, nor the most demanding.

The detection is less elaborate than in earlier novels; French plays a smaller, largely advisory part, while Rainey and M‘Clung do the legwork. Crofts obviously did not try to spring a surprise on the reader; there’s never any doubt that the man who stands trial is falsely accused, while the incident of the pencil plainly shows who the culprit is.

The solution, in fact, is predictable far too early; by Chapter 6 – one chapter after Platt’s disappearance – I confidently named the murderer(s), and ROT13: gung Cyngg arire obneqrq gur fuvc, ohg unq nyernql orra zheqrerq va Verynaq. The alibi, as Mike Grost points out, is merely a simpler variation on Sir John Magill.

(My explanation of the HOW was marginally cleverer than Crofts’s. ROT13: Gur zheqrerere vzcrefbangrq Cyngg nobneq fuvc; ur unq obbxrq gjb oreguf, naq geniryyrq nf Cyngg ba gur svefg avtug, gura haqre n snyfr anzr sbe gur erfg bs gur iblntr. Ur qvfrzonexrq va Yvirecbby haqre guvf anzr, gura fnvyrq onpx. V fnl vg’f pyrirere guna Pebsgf’f irefvba: gur zheqrere fvzcyl qvfthvfrf uvzfrys nf n jbexzna naq jnyxf bss.)

Astonishingly for Crofts, there seems to be a glaring inconsistency: the same day is September in Chapter 1 and February in Chapter 3.


1936 Collins

Freeman Wills Crofts describes this book as a companion, though in no sense a sequel, to Sir John Magill’s Last Journey, for it is largely set in Northern Ireland and Chief-Inspector French finds himself once more co-operating with Superintendent Rainey and Sergeant McClung.  In the course of the passage from Belfast to Liverpool a man disappears.  Later his body is picked up by fishermen off the Irish coast.  Was his death due to accident, murder, or suicide?  Accident seemed impossible, for no man surely would fall overboard on a calm day.  Murder seemed equally impossible, since the body showed no trace of violence.  And as to suicide, which was the verdict of the coroner’s jury, no motive could be found.  Mr. Crofts makes fine play between these equally unacceptable explanations of the man’s death and then, of course, works out a brilliant and entirely satisfactory explanation.

1936 Dodd, Mead

There were millions in it!  Think of the possibilities of a process which would render gasoline inert, non-explosive and non-inflammable, for storage and transportation.  Naturally, Pamela Grey and Jack Penrose were delighted when they were offered the opportunity to become partners in the scheme.  The money would mean so much to them.  Everything was progressing beautifully until…

The Irish sea was rough that night and cold with a bitter driving rain.  There was really no inducement for anyone to venture on the deck of the little steamer Ulster Sovereign, yet when she landed at Liverpool a passenger was reported missing.  At the inquest the steward testified that he had seen Jack returning to his cabin late that night.  He remembered him, he said, because his waterproof had been dripping, and he had wondered at the time what the gentleman could be doing outside on such a night.

The prosecution’s case seemed hopelessly strong until Pamela, in desperation, called on Inspector French.  The manner in which this intrepid detective follows the track of the murderer through a maze of startling developments and nebulous clues provides a thrilling solution for this unusual crime.  An absorbing book – this is Freeman Wills Crofts and Inspector French at their best.


New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 10th October 1936):


Some formidable names appear as usual in this autumn list, but the leaders in detective design seem quite satisfied with the fashions they have created and are content to rest on their laurels.  As far as can be seen, there are no new modes of detection on the horizon.  The question arises once more, as it has arisen regularly for the last six years, how long can these old laurels go on supporting their proprietors?  I suggest until the crack of doom, i.e., the outbreak of the next international European war—which may not be so far away.  So let us make what hay we can in the still-warm sunshine of Messrs. Crofts and Van Dine.  I do not pretend that even a world catastrophe would throw such veterans as these out of their stride, but there is a chance that through the rationing of paper and a drastic reduction in population their later masterpieces may not meet with their usual reception.

Yet in spite of my respect for our premier detective writers, I am surprised that the general public should be content with this stream of relentless plagiarism; for the only idea in an established author is to continue imitating his early triumphs, while all the unsuccessful ones and the newcomers produce endless pastiches of their successful rivals.  Surely the well-worn laurels must be getting rather thin on top!  Take either the new Crofts or the new Van Dine for instance.  Anyone who has never read a Crofts or a Van Dine before—presuming for the sake of argument that such a person exists—would certainly find both of them packed with unexpectedness and subtleties, while their plots might be text-book examples of workmanship.  But in my case, where this is my tenth Van Dine and my sixteenth Crofts, I find myself expecting the unexpected, penetrating the subtleties and over-familiar with the text-books.  The effect is not that the books are spoilt for me, since they are really good detective novels, only they are somewhat cheapened.  Those who do Torquemada cross-words every Sunday know what an asset it is, when groping among the tenebrous clues, to be familiar with the wordings of the tortuous mind that framed them.  In The Kidnap Murder Case, as is the custom with all Van Dine books, a list of the characters who will appear is printed at the beginning.  Run your eye down the list before you read a word of the book and select the villain—you already know from the title that someone is kidnapped and killed.  If you discover later that you have guessed right you will realise with a certain smug satisfaction that by now you have pretty well got the hang of Mr. Van Dine’s psychology.  In the same way in Man Overboard, where there is no list of dramatis personae, when you reach page 189, by which time all the characters have appeared, summon up all your insight into Mr. Crofts’ mentality and decide on your villain or villains.  This should be an easier riddle than the Van Dine, because you already have a certain amount of evidence as well to go on; and I should be surprised if any old lag who has done time with The Pit Prop Syndicate fails to get the right answer.  But once you have indulged your powers of omniscience you can sit back and enjoy Mr. Crofts at his best.

The plot of The Kidnap Murder Case is perfectly straight-forward.  A young New York gambler appears to have been kidnapped from his bedroom at daybreak, as a ransom note demanding $50,000 is found pinned to the window-sill.  Did he kidnap himself to get the money which he badly needed?  Or was it his brother, his wife, his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, his lawyer or his gambling friend?  I leave it to you.  Man Overboard does not involve such a long, long trail as most of the Crofts do.  Two young chemists in Ulster discover how to make non-inflammable petrol.  An emissary from a firm that wishes to market the invention is sent over to Ireland to make sure that the process is genuine.  After a satisfactory test the emissary misbehaves with a charming young lady who has an interest in the invention, is knocked down for his pains by her young man, and starts to return to England.  But he never goes down the gangway at Liverpool, and his body is later found drowned in the Irish Sea.  The chivalrous young man is charged with shoving him overboard and Inspector French is naturally obliged to smooth out the love interest by fixing the guilt in the proper quarter.  That neat job of murder can also safely be left to you to solve.

Sat R of Lit (10th October 1936, 40w)

Times Literary Supplement (George Palmer, 10th October 1936):

This is another of those closely reasoned and dispassionate crime stories for which the author is famous.  The extraordinary realism of the whole affair is produced by a straightforward and unornamented narrative style.  It is a sober report of certain happenings and their consequences.  The author gains much of his effect by a careful attention to timing.  For example, he never hurries the activities of Inspector French, whose behaviour is as imperturbable and phlegmatic as ever.

The inspector, on his travels to Ireland and Bristol, does not take fast cars or aeroplanes.  Sergeant Carter is deputed to look up the first convenient train, they have a square meal, and in due course arrive at their destination.  Inspector French writes reports to his superiors or waits for reports from his inferiors.  He is absolutely patient, regarding whatever job he is on as a matter of routine and organization.  It may be that the report of the trial is somewhat redundant, for much old ground is re-covered.  Some readers, too, may be doubtful if the verdict is justified by the evidence.  But that is a matter of opinion.  The fact remains that the plot and treatment are both masterly.

Books (Will Cuppy, 11th October 1936, 150w):

There’s a nice Irish setting, with a glimpse of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.  Customers might get an average kick out of this one, especially if they can feel that good old Jack is in any peril.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 11th October 1936, 230w):

The case presents some exceedingly puzzling aspects, and French’s detective ability is put to a severe test.  The work of Inspector French is, as usual, flawless and thorough, and the same may be said for the narrative ability of Mr. Crofts.

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 17th October 1936, 110w)

Observer (Torquemada, 25th October 1936):

It is an admission I never expected to make, but I suffered considerable disappointment when I turned avidly to Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts’s Man Overboard.  Having given us in The Loss of the Jane Vosper one of the most brilliant of his long list of masterpieces, Mr. Crofts is entitled to some relaxation; but I cannot feel that this book is at all worthy of his painstaking and meticulous skill.  It goes without saying that the story is eminently if slowly readable, and that the mechanism of the murder is sufficiently ingenious; but the fact remains that I had little difficulty in deciding how the thing had been done before the investigation had gone at all far.  Mr. Crofts’s affection for Ulster is as evident in this book as it is in some of his earlier ones, so that I cannot suppose that he intends the trial of Jack Penrose to be a reflection on the administration of justice in Northern Ireland.  Perhaps Penrose was simply unlucky in being afflicted with an unbelievably incompetent Counsel; but the author might have seen to it that the Judge at least knew the laws of evidence and the duties of his high office.  As it is, the unfortunate victim is convicted of murder on a series of dubious inferences which may have justified strong suspicion, but certainly did not come within measurable distance of the legal conception of proof.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 30th October 1936):

Always an artist is his own worst rival, and difficult it is to explain that an author’s new books may be poor as compared with other of his work yet good in comparison with the general level.  Among these books it seems, for example, that neither Mr. Crofts nor Mr. Van Dine equals his previous achievements, even though both their tales are above the average of contemporary mystery fiction.

Not that readers will be disappointed in Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts’s latest story, Man Overboard!, with the characteristic display of Inspector French’s conscientious and painstaking ingenuity, whereby, starting from the clue of a dropped pencil, he saves an innocent man unjustly condemned to death.  Their disappointment will be that they have to wait for it so long, for all Inspector French’s work of any importance is crowded into the last fifty pages.  The story tells of the discovery of a process for rendering petrol safe in use and of the theft of the secret.  The early chapters concerning the working out of the secret process will interest readers acquainted with chemistry, but Mr. Crofts shows this time less than usual of the careful observance of the probabilities that generally makes his work so convincing.  Difficult to believe that in the trial scene a verdict of guilty would be returned on what seems a mere tissue of probabilities, possibilities, and guesses; more difficult still to think that an invention of such importance would not be protected by patent, especially as it would have to be worked under licence in all foreign countries.  A good detective story, then, as compared with most, but in the corpus of the Croftsian work hardly likely to take a front place.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 30th October 1936):

In Man Overboard Chief-Inspector French co-operates again with those smart Ulster policemen, Rainey and M‘Clung, whom the reader met in Sir John Magill’s Last Journey.  The plot hinges upon a group of scientists who have invented a method of rendering petrol inert and re-transforming it; this, by eliminating all danger of fire, is clearly the invention of the century and worth untold money.  Pratt, a representative of an English firm, is sent over to Ireland to test the invention.  On the way back he disappears, and later his body is picked out of the sea.  The Coroner’s Jury plumps for suicide: but later it is made evident that Pratt had stolen the formula and been murdered.  To criticise Mr. Croft’s [sic] construction is almost as unseemly as to suggest a flaw in a Rolls-Royce engine: I should have thought, however, that post-mortem examination of the dead man’s lungs would have revealed the method of the crime; and the number of possible suspects is too severely limited.

Booklist (December 1936)

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

A story involving trips and steamers and alibis, in the manner and in the setting of Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (to which reference is made in the present one).  But the red herring of the conviction of the semihero is laborious and unconvincing—as are the characters and the North Ireland brogue.  What remains interesting is the discovery of “inert petrol” and the doings of the first two-thirds of the book.

2 thoughts on “Man Overboard! (Freeman Wills Crofts)

  1. Crofts’ scheme do seem to start simplifying around the early 1930s from what I’ve read so far — I wonder if that was him not being able to write a Sir John Magill every time, or a deliberate attempt to not make things ridiculously complicated since it wouldn’t fit in with the general trend of detective fiction at the time.


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