- By Freeman Wills Crofts
- First published: UK: Collins, 1932; US: Harper, 1932
Published in 1932, Sudden Death shows the move towards character interest among the leading British writers (as Anthony Berkeley advocated in the Second Shot preface). It is something of a departure for Crofts, whose field is material and masculine: business, transport, engineering, police procedure, and organized crime. This is an intimate, domestic story, largely seen from a woman’s perspective (as in 1940’s Golden Ashes).
That woman is Anne Day, newly employed as housekeeper by the Grinsmeads of Sussex. After a year of looking for work, she was relieved to find a congenial position. But she soon discovers troubling undercurrents in the seemingly pleasant household. The couple haven’t spoken for months, Grinsmead has started an affair with a neighbour, and Mrs. Grinsmead fears he plans to kill her. One morning, Mrs. Grinsmead is found dead in a gas-filled bedroom. The inquest returns a verdict of suicide, but neither the coroner nor the local police are satisfied, so Inspector French is sent down.
Sudden Death is a minor Crofts. The murderer (Who) is obvious; by the end of Part I, a third through, I knew who the murderer was, and why. Later, what a character sees in Chapter 13 is a clumsy giveaway. The method (How), usually Crofts’s strong point, is not ingenious; there are two locked room murders, but the reader should not expect any Carrian cleverness. Contemporary readers might have found the gas heater poisoning a skillfully lethal application of an everyday appliance; I found the description of the gas heater in Chapter 12 difficult to follow, and the method French discovers is (like some of John Rhode’s technical solutions) feasible, rather than exciting. The solution to the second locked room murder is quite weak: ROT13: gur zheqrere uvqrf oruvaq gur qbbe! Curtis Evans (Masters of the ‘Humdrum’ Mystery), for one, considers it “the most prosaically explained locked room killing in a British Golden Age detective novel”. And the motive (Why) is unconvincing, too. ROT13: Gur zheqrere oryvrirf Tevafzrnq ybirf ure, fb fur xvyyf uvf jvsr. Jung ernfba qbrf fur unir gb guvax fb? Be qvq qrfcrengvba naq cbiregl ghea ure urnq?
For all that, Sudden Death is a pleasant book: snug, solidly constructed, and not too slow. It is the closest thing Crofts ever wrote to an Agatha Christie novel, with its provincial, middle-class setting; long build-up to the murder; and woman-oriented plot (observer, victim, suspects). The first third anticipates Murder in Mesopotamia (1936): a working woman (housekeeper or nurse) starts a new job; her woman employer is attractive but moody; the employer is suspicious of the heroine, and questions her on her past; they become friends, and the employer reveals her fears that someone is trying to kill her; and the employer is murdered.
Inspector French’s detection is methodical as ever; he tests every possible way someone could enter or leave a locked room – the engineer’s approach to the miracle problem. His discovery of the fingerprints on the gun feels like a breakthrough; it’s common practice in detective fiction to place guns in victims’ hands, but, like Austin Freeman, the how of proving is more stimulating than the fact being proved. There is, too, a lovely scene (Ch. 9) where French stands at his window watching a snowstorm, and compares it to how a symphony should begin. Crofts was an organist, whose hobby was training choirs for festivals; in The Cask, an alibi is attending a performance of Les Troyens, at a time when Berlioz’s music was still considered difficult.
Sudden Death is also a work of the Great Depression. The working class characters – housekeeper, governess, and chauffeur – dread losing their jobs, and having to seek employment. “For eleven terrible months she [Anne] had haunted registry offices and searched the files of papers in the public libraries, while shoes and gloves, and latterly even food and lodging had grown more and more hideously insistent problems” (Ch. 1). Mrs. Grinsmead’s death means losing that job, and the financial security. “A vision of the London streets, now foggy, wet, and icy cold, seemed suddenly to spread out in front of her, broken only by registry offices” (Ch. 7). The second death means tragedy for the chauffeur. “Hersey was out of a job, or he would be in a day or two. And with the unemployment figures standing where they were, to be out of a job was terrifying” (Ch. 16). It is an angle not often raised in detective fiction, which is usually seen from the perspective of the gentry.
Crofts thought well enough of the novel to adapt it for the stage; it was performed in Guildford in 1937. (See Curtis Evans.)
Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts has constructed his new book on novel and interesting lines. The action of the book is seen alternately through the eyes of two persons, Anne Day and the celebrated detective, Inspector French. Anne Day has secured an appointment as housekeeper at Frayle, the house of Mr. Grinsmead and his semi-invalid wife. She soon finds that something is wrong in the household, and to her horror this tension culminates in tragedy—the mysterious death of Mrs. Grinsmead. All is described as Anne sees it, including the incomprehensible suspicions of the police and the arrival of French to investigate. The viewpoint then alters and through French’s eyes are described the police activities behind the scenes. One again tragedy visits Frayle, the narrative being completed from Anne’s and French’s viewpoints, giving alternately the inner and outer history of a crime that is as ingenious and elaborate as any yet devised by Mr. Crofts.
Ann Day accepted the position as housekeeper in the Grinsmead household at Tunbridge Wells with a grateful heart. And yet from the moment she saw young Sybil Grinsmead, with her terror-stricken eyes and her sick mind, sitting in front of the fire, she sensed the strange undercurrent of fear and hatred that pervaded the household. Ann discovered that Sybil lived in mortal fear that her charming husband, who was in love with Irene Holt Lancing, was plotting her death.
And then, as if her very gruesome thoughts perpetrated the deed, Sybil was found dead, her room full of gas. The verdict was suicide until Inspector French was called on the scene. Swift action followed, and Ann Day found herself involved in a series of queer circumstances that brought about strange confessions, conflicts of personalities, another murder and a horrible disclosure.
Here, in Mr. Crofts’ inimitable and brilliant manner, with Inspector French again at the helm, is an enthralling and baffling detective story.
Sunday Times (17th January 1932): INSPECTOR FRENCH
Surely by this time our old friend Inspector French has earned that long-expected promotion? For myself, I shall feel inclined to utter the strongest protest if Mr. Crofts does not speedily do something about it. Meanwhile you are invited to examine the Inspector’s skilful handling of the double murder-mystery, now set forth under the title of Sudden Death, and a very nice puzzle it is too. For in both cases the victim is found dead in a locked and bolted room, and all reasonable clues, except those pointing to suicide, seem to be absent. I must confess that I had an inkling of the real criminal early on, but that, I fancy, was no more than a lucky guess. It is an exciting yarn, with one or two novelties not only in the matter of French’s own sleuthing but also in the manner of its telling.
Times Literary Supplement (21st January 1932): From the reader’s point of view there is a great deal to be said for diagrams in a mystery story. They compel the author to lay at least some of his cards on the table. There are two in Mr. Crofts’s latest investigation which will try the reader’s skill, as indeed they tried Inspector French’s. In each case they are concerned with the position of certain objects, and although it is not easy to come to any decision regarding their connexion with the tragedy, they certainly enable the reader to gain a clear idea of their significance. Mr. Crofts, as usual, is perfectly fair with his readers, and he is far too careful and ingenious to withhold evidence from them. The difficulty, naturally, is to decide how much importance should be attached to the clues which French collects. And even when he has discovered how it is possible for certain events to take place behind locked doors, when an outside agency must have been responsible for them, there still remains the problem of connecting these discoveries with the guilty party. It is superfluous to say that Mr. Crofts solves it with his customary skill.
Outlook (27th January 1932, 150w)
Books (Will Cuppy, 7th February 1932, 220w): Mr. Croft’s [sic] is one of those all-wool talents that never let him down when baffling is afoot. He wins easily, mostly by creating the proper atmosphere in his unhappy household; he follows through with a believable plot and satisfactory finish.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 7th February 1932, 120w): One of the best stories that Mr. Crofts has written.
Bookm (March 1932, 100w): A splendid Harper Sealed Mystery.
The Observer (H.C. O’Neill, 20 March 1932): No one will expect Sudden Death to be sudden discovery. That is not the way of Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts. Inspector Trench [sic], to whom he has introduced us, is a slow if a stout fellow. The case seems to peter out time after time. The story has this novelty: the narrator changes, and consequently the viewpoint. Ann Day describes her impressions of the household which, overshadowed by tragedy when she entered it, was the scene of an ingenious crime. The fact that the culprit comes little under the reader’s suspicion until the end is, in this case, an irrelevance. Mr. Crofts has now a developed craftsmanship, and if this is not one of his best specimens it is at least gripping in the old familiar way.
Booklist (April 1932)
Wis Lib Bul (April 1932)
Springfield Republican (3rd July 1932, 150w)
Manchester Guardian: A book that ranks high above most of its kind.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Three diagrams This is “not good French”. All the action takes place at a country house, and most of it is seen through the eyes of a young housekeeper. First the oddly behaving mistress of the house dies, then her husband. Clocks and trips to London occupy French, but somehow not with his usual gusto; the manner of telling hobbles the pace and imparts an oddly feminine tone, and the hard struggle over a gas-tap problem leaves the reader ahead of the game.