Death on the Way (Freeman Wills Crofts)

  • By Freeman Wills Crofts
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1932; US: Harper, 1932, as Double Death
  • Availability: Collins, 2020

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Freeman Wills Crofts’s most erotic novel yet!

Map of the line between Redchurch and Whitness

The Southern Railway Company is widening the Redchurch-Whitness railway line in Dorset. One of the engineers, young Ronnie Ackerley, is found dead on the tracks, ostensibly the victim of an accident; another engineer apparently hangs himself a few months later. But Inspector French thinks otherwise.

Barzun and Taylor called it one of their favourites, although thought the technical part was better than the human side; Curt Evans likewise praises the railway setting, but considers the treatment of the murderer poor. On the other hand, J.J. at the Invisible Event and Mike Grost consider it weak, one of Crofts’s poorest works.

Death on the Way is by no means bad, merely average. It comes after a dazzling, legendary series of books: The Starvel Tragedy (1927), The Sea Mystery (1928), Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930), and the very good Mystery in the Channel (1931). (I haven’t yet read Sudden Death, his domestic locked room mystery.) There is much to enjoy here, but the book left me underwhelmed.

Inspector French enjoys an agreeably outdoor fresh air investigation, with rambles along the railway line and boat trips for bicycles. But Death on the Way lacks Crofts’s usual cleverness. The principal idea is a fraud – cunning, no doubt, but slightly exhausting and technical to follow. The murderer is not glaringly obvious, but you won’t feel surprised. There doesn’t seem to be any core idea, any novelty, in the solution, unlike Crofts’s other books, and no deductions. In fact, Inspector French arrests the wrong man, and a clever young woman spots the murderer by identifying his typewriter. Not exactly fair play.

Crofts does places, professions, activities extremely well. Building a railway in Dorset is presumably drawn from the writer’s own experience as an engineer; authentic it may be, but it is less interesting than the trains and boats and travel settings of Crofts’s other works. There is perhaps too much technical information to wade through, too many earthworks and pipes, too many contractors’ figures and certificates. But the first-hand observation of a workplace, and the roles and relations of the engineers and contractors, anticipates by a year Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise, generally considered the Ur-office mystery.

Crofts is by no means a character writer, but he’s more aware of emotions than critics (including me) have given him credit. The discovery of the body and the father’s shock and grief are excellently done. There are, too, several amusing character sketches, like the talkative coast guard or the self-important shell collector (the conscientious conchologist). The suspects themselves, though, are indistinguishable, apart from Clifford Parry, in many ways our identification figure; we meet him on the first page, and he is the only one with a backstory. As Margaret Cole observed, Crofts’s suspects are not characters at all, but “extremely simple structures provided only with name-labels and impregnable alibis, which latter it is the business of the detective to break down”.

Trainspotters will enjoy this more than most. Here is one of the most sizzlingly pornographic passages in all detective fiction:

Parry always enjoyed a visit to a locomotive depot. He liked seeing the engines, and though in the approved professional way he pretended to be unconscious of their presence, he was nevertheless excited by their very proximity. He had read something about them and could recognise the types. There was one of those Continental looking machines, a 2-6-0, with the bead round the chimney top instead of a flange and the outside cylinders and Walschaert’s gear. And there was one of those old South Eastern tanks, an 0-4-4, with the driver underneath her packing a valve spindle gland. And here creeping slowly past him, with a little whispered remonstrance from her snifting valves, was a Lord Nelson. … There was something impressive in her massive coupling and connecting rods, which slowly rose and fell above and below the level of his eyes. Parry felt thrilled, as with a wisp of steam at her injector exhaust, she passed on to the turntable.

Chapter VII

This was later reprinted in DIESEL (notorious for its centrefolds of trains not wearing any clothes).

I don’t know about you, but I feel strangely aroused by those beaded cylinders and massive, rising and falling rods. I shall lie down in my berth, and fantasise Hitchcockian fantasies about steam trains entering steamy tunnels.

(That line about the “whispered remonstrance from the snifting valves” is lovely, by the way, even if I have no idea what a snifting valve is. And surely Superintendent Rhode is a nod to John, whose Tragedy on the Line appeared the year before?)


BLURBS

1932 Collins

The fireman suddenly stiffened, for a fraction of a second peered earnestly ahead, and then swung round to the driver with a warning shout, “There’s something on the road!”  With one hand the driver threw over the regulator, while with the other he clashed the handle full on.  The engine gave a little shudder as it hit the body of Roger Ackerely.  The tragedy deepened into mystery dark and sinister at the inquest when one witness swore that he had seen a man hastening away from the scene of the accident – a statement which caused Inspector French to be called in to investigate the greatest problem that he had ever encountered.  Mr. Crofts is an acknowledged master of detection, and his treatment of his theme is at once clear, reasonable and realistic.

1932 Dodd, Mead

S.S. Van Dine has said that for dexterity of plot, Mr. Crofts has no peer among the contemporary writers of detective fiction.  His new mystery completely justifies this high praise.  When young Ackerley, engaged at the time on a stupendous engineering job, met death beneath the wheels of the work train which was bearing his best friend into town, no one suspected murder.  Only when another member of the engineering circle was found hanging from the rafters, some months later, did suspicion enter the minds of the police.  Inspector French came down to investigate.  From that moment events moved with terrifying rapidity, and strange disclosures were made.  Some one in the company was crooked and did not stop at murder to cover it up.  The alert and ever-suspicious French was just able to forestall a last desperate crime, and in an exciting climax revealed the murderer – the victim of a strange and powerful curse.

CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Times Literary Supplement (15th September 1932):

In his new story of Inspector French Mr. Crofts has set the scene of his mystery on a railway line on the south coast where extensive alterations are taking place.  Some of his characters are engineers belonging to the railway company, others are attached to the contractors, and, as usual, Mr. Crofts has been at great pains to explain precisely to the non-technical reader exactly what these engineers and contractors are doing.  The result involves a good deal of technical description; but the details are essential to a proper understanding of the story and are just such details as, by a proper mastering of them, allow French to exercise his gifts of patient investigation and brilliant reconstruction.  Early in the story Ackerley, one of the engineers, is run over by a train.  Accident?  The coroner’s jury thought so, but French is not so sure.  Later one of the contractor’s men is found hanged in his office.  Again, was it suicide?  And remember murder by hanging is an almost impossible crime.  If they were both murders, was there any connexion between them?  What could be the motive?  It is a tangled problem with little to help.  The final solution is reserved for other hands than French’s, but what matters is the patient detailed work of Mr. Crofts’s detective, his mastery of technical points as they arise and his thorough investigation of motives and alibis.

NY Times (2nd October 1932, 230w): Inspector French of Scotland Yard, the Crofts perennial, is perhaps the dullest performer in contemporary crime fiction, and his plodding labours are frequently more of a bore than a pleasure to follow.  The thoroughgoing stolidity of French is no reflection upon his creator, nor does it impair the unfailing ingenuity of the cases evolved for the fumbling flatfoot’s exercise…  With a livelier sleuth for bloodhound, the story—its plot is first rate—would have been infinitely better entertainment.

The Manchester Guardian (5 October 1932):

Of novelists who deal primarily with detection, Mr. Wills Crofts has always stood high by reason of the extreme care with which he arranges the stages of the detective process, and in Death on the Way he has written nearly as good a story as The Cask. Inspector French is confronted with two successive murders, one disguised to look like suicide, and a scarcity of clues. Once again the routine work of investigation is revealed – the patient amassing of apparently uncorrelated data, the tentative correlation, the false avenues of approach, and the gradual revelation of motive, – all admirably done, in Mr. Crofts’s plain, restrained fashion. As ever, his technical knowledge is impeccable, and the process and the atmosphere have that sure sense of reality that he knows so well how to convey.

Time (24th October 1932): Sly tricks in murder on a background of railroad construction.

NY Evening Post (Rumana McManis, 29th October 1932, 20w)

Books (Will Cuppy, 30th October 1932, 150w)

Wis Lib Bul (November 1932)

Boston Transcript (2nd November 1932, 180w): Well told and logical.

Booklist (December 1932)

Daily Telegraph: There is that general excellence of detective story craftsmanship for which the author is famous.

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

One of our favourites.  The idea is murder arising from fraud in the construction of a railway cutting, or more exactly, widening.  The technical part, as usual with Crofts, is admirably done, but the human side is poor, especially the choice of criminal.  The subplots are not badly managed and the suspense keeps up at least as far as the exposé. Note: This tale by Crofts is not to confused with the collaborative effort, also entitled Double Death, to which Crofts was a contributor.

4 thoughts on “Death on the Way (Freeman Wills Crofts)

  1. Excellent spot regarding Murder Must Advertise — that would never have occurred to me.

    The lack of deduction amidst all the detail is what left me slightly underwhelmed here. As you say, the setting is superb — the verisimilitude goes a long way to grounding Crofts’ works, being unafraid as he is of decidedly unsexy settings (the cement works in Mystery in Southampton Water springs to mind) — but we hope for a little more graft from French.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Does pale rather, compared to its immediate predecessors.
    Appropriately, a snifting valve is used when a locomotive is coasting. Maybe applies to the author in this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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