Enemy Unseen (Freeman Wills Crofts)


1943: In the Cornish town of St. Pols, the Home Guard are alarmed to find that insulated wire and hand grenades have been stolen from their supply. (Crofts calls it “the raping of the Home Guard store” – those were more innocent times.) Soon after, wealthy old Joshua Radlett is blown to smithereens on the beach. But Mr. Radlett was a nice old boy; was he the intended victim, or was it nasty old Mr. Savory?

The Melbourne Age, in a feature-length review, praised Enemy Unseen as “a splendid and well-written” detective story, “a masterpiece of its kind in careful character drawing, a neat plot, and a most ingenious method of carrying out the murder which is the basis of the story”. American critics thought it clever, but very slow: “Ingenious, in a long-winded way” (New Yorker); “For the patient only, but for them a rewarding treasure” (Anthony Boucher, San Francisco Chronicle); “English detection at its most leisurely and thoroughgoing” (New Republic).

Barzun & Taylor praised Enemy Unseen, with reservations. “An ingenious plot, which leads away from one’s first suspicion only to return to it with an added element, and thus achieve a double-headed murder that must be unique in literature.” (The characters, though, were cardboard.) More recently, Curt Evans (Masters of the Humdrum Mystery) called Enemy Unseen Crofts’s best novel from his later period, 1937–1957, an “intricate village mystery” and “the Indian summer of Crofts’ mystery fiction writing”. (At first, however, he rated it much lower: “Good enough plot, but deadly dull.”)

Enemy Unseen is a boring, technical mystery, in which every other word seems to be “flex plug”, “brass earthing pin”, or “iron-clad electro-magnet”. For those of us who aren’t electricians, this might as well be written in Uzbekistani. Drawings and diagrams would help, no doubt; instead, we have paragraphs like these:

  • Rollo soon made himself familiar with the contents of the file. Then he turned to the exhibits. These consisted of four small objects. There was the rusty nut of a three-eighths inch bolt, a small brass pillar some inch or more long by about three-sixteenths diameter with a hole and a broken screw at one end, a curved bit of thin bakelite like part of the shell of a nut, and a torn bit of tin some six inches square tacked on to a piece of board. (p. 74)
  • [The wire] disappeared between the timbers near the head of the pile. Rollo stared thoughtfully at the woodwork, noting its construction. There were the main twelve by six piles in pairs at intervals, with behind them a wall of sheet paling. At the top and near ground level were horizontal walings, keeping all in place. About six feet behind the front wall was a back wall of similar construction, the space between being filled with stones. No doubt the walls were tied together, but in what way was not apparent.
    If the wire ran up the groyne, he thought it must be somewhere about the upper waling. A few moments’ search revealed it. It was pushed down into the space between the slightly rounded edge of the waling and the tops of the sheet piles. Staples at intervals kept it in place. Except by a close scrutiny, it was quite invisible. (p. 91)
  • It was not long before he found it. Under the telephone table in front of the ventilator one of the floor-boards had been cut through twice, making a separate length of a foot, or sufficient to stretch between two joints. The ends of this were marked by tools as if it had been prised up, and the surrounding joints were clear of dust, showing that it had recently been raised. Moreover, there were distinct traces of fresh stain, as if white wood had been darkened to match the floor. Near one end a hole of about quarter-inch diameter had been carefully plugged. The alteration as a whole was practically invisible. Not only was it screened from direct observation by the table, but it was just at the edge of the carpet, and this threw a shadow over it from the almost horizontal rays from the windows.
    Sending Carter to [the] workshop for some tools, French with some difficulty raised the board, which had been nailed down. The hole, about three inches from the end, passed right through with the end of the plug projecting. At the other end a block of wood about four inches square and an inch thick had been screwed to the underside of the board. In this block were four other small holes, as if something else had been screwed to it. (p. 229)

There is no map, even though French’s deductions concern the north-south position, the direct line of sight, and cross-bearings.

The murderer, too, is very obvious; Radlett is blown up on p. 35, and I knew who did it a dozen pages later. (My guess about motive was wrong, however.) All is quite predictable until the second murder, and even that didn’t shake my certainty. Unfortunately, there were 256 closely-printed, dense, detailed pages to trudge through.

His 1920s detective stories are generally excellent, but reading Crofts can too often be a chore. This Evangelical writer was very Protestant: earnest, austere, puritan. Avoiding such snares of the world as character interest, style, or excitement, he doggedly, determinedly, marches towards salvation – or the arrest of the murderer. Where Crofts is concerned, I am not one of the Elect.


Blurbs

1945 Hodder & Stoughton

Both the Home Guard and the War Office are nervous when a man is suddenly blown to bits on the beach of the little village of St. Pol.  For the Home Guard had already discovered the loss of a number of hand grenades and lengths of copper wire from their stores, and the War Office had been conducting exercises on that particular stretch of beach.  When, however, Scotland Yard detailed Inspector French to look into the affair all breathed more freely, for they knew that French would handle the matter with both skill and discretion.  But surprises awaited even French.  In his usual amiable and efficient way he questioned all and sundry, but, just when he thought he had reached the end of his investigations yet another man was blown to bits in a neighbouring wood.  Once again French sets to work.  He examines curious bits of wire, fragments of metal; checks times and delves into the past of people connected with the dead man.  Painstakingly, quietly he works up his case and as usual gets his man, and St. Pol relapses once more into its usual peaceful, unexciting way of life.

1945 Dodd Mead

During a Home Guard drill on the coast of Cornwall, the Company’s store is broken into and some hand grenades are stolen.  A little later a harmless elderly gentleman, walking along the shore, is blown to pieces, apparently by a mine.  Suspicion is cast on a number of people, and their innocence or guilt is investigated.

A second crime follows the first, and Inspector French is now faced with two puzzles instead of one.  There follows another of the Inspector’s famous attacks on an “unbreakable” alibi and, as a result, another dramatic conclusion to a baffling puzzle, artfully contrived by both intention and circumstance.


Contemporary reviews

New Yorker (21st April 1945, 80w): Ingenious, in a long-winded way.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 22nd April 1945, 130w): The story is slow, as are all the Inspector French stories, and it will not appeal to those who demand swift action on every page.  It is rather for those who enjoy the solving of an intricate puzzle by a painstaking expert.

San Francisco Chronicle (Anthony Boucher, 22 April 1945): Murder by stolen Home Guard explosives involves a mystery novelist and a crossword puzzle expert – which affords Chief Inspector French an even more intricate puzzle than usual. For the patient only, but for them a rewarding treasure.

Weekly Book Review (Will Cuppy, 22nd April 1945, 110w): A riddle that should interest all Crofts fans.

Sat R of Lit (28th April 1945, 50w): French fans will like it.

New Repub (7th May 1945, 60w): English detection at its most leisurely and thoroughgoing.

Boston Globe (16th May 1945, 50w): Ingenious.

Book Week (Elizabeth Bullock, 20th May 1945, 130w)

Booklist (15th June 1945)

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 28th July 1945): Many a middle-aged reader who now spends Sunday as he pleases will sigh contentedly on discovering that Enemy Unseen is about the Home Guard.  When training grew arduous novels with this background irked.  The situation has now changed so radically that Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts begins his new story with the loss of a number of hand grenades from store, knowing that not a single reader will immediately put the book down in order to make sure that he left some door securely locked.

The Age (Solon, 1 December 1945): MODERN DETECTIVE FICTION – THRILLS OR PLOTS

When Inspector French called to see Crane, the author of many successful thrillers, he used the usual method of making contact by commenting on the author’s work – “ ‘In my line, I imagine?’ ‘Yes and no,’ Crane answered. ‘I write thrillers. Detective stories are more about your kind of work, but I distinguish very clearly between the two.’

“ ‘That interests me, Mr. Crane.  I’m afraid I hadn’t properly appreciated the difference.’

“ ‘A very serious error.’ Crane was now smiling almost genially. ‘The detective story is the story of an elucidation of the problem. The solution is reached by inference and deduction from the given facts. In any story worthy of the name all the facts are given to enable the reader to find out the truth for himself. If he fails and continues reading, he can watch the detective succeed by the reasoning he should have employed himself.’

“ ‘He always does succeed. Unhappily that’s where one departs from real life.’

“ ‘Oh yes. He must succeed, or the story has no ending.’

“ ‘I wish we could say the same of our cases.’

“ ‘I dare say. Well, the thriller is different. Here the object is thrills. Premise and deduction take a second place, and conflict is in the forefront; the struggle of the criminal and the police, or of the evil gang and their righteous pursuers.’

“ ‘Very interesting.’ ”

Writers’ Technique

Very interesting indeed, and this book, Enemy Unseen, by Freeman Wills Crofts, is a splendid and well-written example of the former. Like most of the works by this well-known author, it is a masterpiece of its kind in careful character drawing, a neat plot, and a most ingenious method of carrying out the murder which is the basis of the story. Inspector French once again employs his methods of solid reasoning and – although half way through it looks as if even he is brought to a dead end – finally manages to pin the crime on the right man. Whether the reader has been able to do what Mr. Crane suggests and follow the clues to such good effect as to arrive at a correct elucidation of the crime is a question best left to the reader. He can be sure, however, that there will be plenty of interesting developments, as well as clever portrayal of motive and character, before he reaches the end.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it is laid, quite definitely, in a certain little English town, snugly tucked away in Cornwall. Just as definitely the time is given. With the same scrupulous minuteness of detail the farms in the neighbourhood of St. Pols are described. It is almost impossible not to believe that it is the description of a real event. This, of course, is part of Mr. Crofts’ technique, and very effective it is. With methodical care every detail is put into place, every person who might or might not have been involved is described, and the interested, if somewhat mentally overawed, reader is left to judge for himself.

It is some time before French makes his advent. The crime is possibly a military one. There are ugly rumours that military stores have been used for nefarious purposes. In consequence, the C. in C. is not likely to lie down under the threat of a question in “The House.” As luck will have it, the up-and-coming young detective – understudy in civil life to the redoubtable French – is in the Service, preparing himself by actual army experience for the bitter task of doing something very secret. He takes a hand, but, unsuccessful in spite of all his efforts, is forced to call in French.

The crime is preceded by two others, both small in themselves, and yet capable of fundamental consequences when linked to the major crime, which is murder. First of all a length of wiring disappears from the stores of the local Home Guard, then some hand grenades. It is when the discovery of the disappearance of these grenades is made that the story opens. The Home Guard are having a field day. It is a big affair, such as they have never known before, and involves defence work along the stretch of coast line committed to the care of the St. Pols administration. All goes well save for the looting of the stores hut, and after all, it may well be that there is some simple explanation of the loss.

But when an apparently inoffensive old gentleman is blown up walking along the sands on his way to the reading room in the little town, whither he is wont to go on most days, rumour develops into ugly suspicion.

Curiously enough, a few hundred yards in front of the old gentleman is another old gentleman: this time one of the most detested men in the district. Why should one be blown up and the other escape? How could a mine be exploded when there was no one near? What is the motive, if any, behind the event?

In an intimate and quietly forceful manner the veil is drawn aside and the lives of the people living within a certain radius of where the disaster occurred are revealed. Two families stand to benefit by the death of the old man, who has left a substantial fortune – his married daughter, and his more distant relatives, the Wedgwoods, the former very substantially, the latter to a lesser degree. But it seems incredible that either of these should harbour a murderer. Nor is this all. The little, commonplace, yet essentially human, happenings in a small community are detailed with scrupulous care. There are at least two love affairs in progress, one open, the other under cover. When the latter is partially revealed another motive for murder comes on the scene, provided, that is, that the second man was killed in mistake for the first, an hypothesis which French toys with for a while.

Routine of Love and Hate

To those who have lived through the war years twelve thousand miles from the centre of activities in England it comes with something of a shock to realise that the same routine of love and hate, pettiness and greatness, has been recurring in the lives of men and women all the time. Yet it is so, and one of the unique factors of this book is that Crofts has utilised the opportunities presenting themselves in the wide dissemination of the weapons of war as the basis for an unusual method of murder. How it is carried out, and with what ingenuity the crime is covered so that there is no one except the obviously innocent without an alibi, is the tribute that must be paid to the skill of Freeman Wills Crofts.

He is a living example of his own precept. A detective story is different from a thriller in view of the fact that it is essentially an intellectual affair. Obviously, Mr. Crofts would not be interested in the axe or drowning kind of murder. There must be something much more remote, almost sedate. It is possible for the criminal to carry out the killing from a distance in this case, and he can do the job only by careful co-ordination. One is forced to hand it to the criminal, if he is really as clever as this, and to the police, if they can find it out.

Still more involved by a plot within a plot, the story takes a new turn when it transpires that the nasty old gentleman and the nice one were cobbers long ago, though only for a brief while, until the nasty one walked out, leaving his friend, as he supposed, dying on the Klondyke, while he made off with the proceeds of the mine they had mutually discovered. Mr. Crofts makes up for thrills by putting plenty into the story, and putting it in such a way that it all might have some possible bearing on the crime. He is, indeed, a detective writer of the first order, not too highbrow, not too remote from actuality, yet considerate enough for his public to write well, to give the illusion of reality, and at the same time hold the attention by careful dovetailing of all important factors.

Realm of Criminology

This is honestly a book where nothing happens by chance, and, as far as can be seen, the unravelling of the crime is due to the patience and logical method of Inspector French. French himself makes no claims to special scientific achievement or intuitive impulses. He is a “plain man” with special gifts of painstaking determination. Quick to seize on the weak point of an argument, ready to relinquish a course if he feels it to be leading nowhere, he is the embodiment of the resourceful, wide-awake policeman who, with the valuable aids of modern science in the well-known branches of his profession always on tap, is able to accomplish so much the realm of criminology.

The feature of the story that creates a diversion half way through is a second murder, and by the same method as the first. By the time this happens French is well on the trail, and it is not long after that he is able to pin down the instigator and perpetrator of both crimes. It is in these final chapters that Mr. Crofts’ love of detail, his resolve that the reader shall see everything with his eyes, understand just how all the facts fit in and what part each played in the whole, are seen most clearly. His books must be read in this light. They rest almost entirely, apart from their careful characterisation, on this almost meticulous statement of facts. It is this that gives them their sense of reality, for it is just as if a resume of an actual crime is being placed on paper. It is good, strong, convincing art that almost succeeds in taking the place of nature, and this, albeit in some of nature’s worst guises, is what takes place in the reading of this book.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): An ingenious plot, which leads one away from one’s first suspicion only to return to it with an added element, and thus achieve a double-headed murder that must be unique in the literature.  There are unfortunately no characters—the cardboard itself hardly deserves the name, though the wartime conditions of Home Guard life and rationing are well sketched in.  The rest is mechanics and motives; to say more would disclose the secret, so ably maintained to the end.

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