- By Freeman Wills Crofts
- First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1941; US: Dodd, Mead, 1941, as Circumstantial Evidence
Patent medicines, board meetings, and sales figures are dull topics for a novel. But this is Freeman Wills Crofts, the detective writer who raises the prosaic to the level of … Prozac. By 1941, Crofts had been past his prime for a decade, so it is discouraging when the book opens on a vista of tedium:
James Pettigrew Tarrant paused in the business of wrapping up a bottle of medicine in its clean white paper sheath, and glanced wearily out of the dispensing-room window of Barr’s, the Lydcott chemist’s. He glanced at nothing in particular, because, indeed, there was nothing particular to glance at. The shop was at the meeting of two ways, and while the entrance was in the High Street and overlooked the entire pageant of Lydcott life, the dispensing-room gave on a side road of what seemed to the young man quite incomparable dullness.
Tarrant was bored, and felt he would be bored no matter in what direction he looked up. He was more than bored: he was fed up.Chapter 1
How very meta, one might think, but James Tarrant is readable enough. It is never quite as sedative as some of Crofts’s books can be, but it’s not a stimulant, either.
Cunning James Tarrant, the bored chemist’s assistant, wants to get rich quick. He hits on a barely scheme to copy Braxamin’s digestive remedy (largely magnesia), add a couple of ingredients of his own, and cut them out by offering retailers a higher commission. The competition between Tarrant’s startup company and Braxamin recalls Mystery on Southampton Water (1934).
Tarrant goes into partnership with Merle Weir, a nurse who is much too good for him, promising to marry her. Their affairs, business and amatory, occupy the first half of the book. Chief Inspector French and murder do not enter the story until Chapter XII (pp. 145 and 154).
This is typical of Crofts’s later books. From the mid-1930s, he increasingly delayed the murder, and attempted to develop his characterization more – although, as Curt Evans points out, human interest was not his strong point. Thus, Sudden Death (1932) and Golden Ashes (1940) are told from the perspective of housekeepers, adding a feminine touch to Crofts’s very masculine world; The 12.30 from Croydon (1934) and Antidote to Venom (1938) are inverted novels. Crofts, though, seems far more at home with chemical processes and business negotiations than with Merle’s feelings; often, the writing becomes sententious.
Shortly after becoming engaged to an heiress, Tarrant is found drowned in a river at his country home; Merle was seen near the scene of the crime, so the police arrest her and bring her to trial.
French’s investigation is routine: he goes about showing photographs to bus drivers and café owners to establish suspects’ whereabouts. It takes him several chapters to find out about Merle and her relationship with Tarrant (which we have known from the start); the evidence is repeated again at her trial, which reveals nothing new.
There is no cleverness in the solution: no ingenious alibis to break down, no schemes revolving around impersonation or mechanical devices. In the last chapter, a witness appears who saw a car near the murder scene; French traces it to the owner. Ho-hum.
The revelation is perfunctory. While technically fair, it is underwhelming. The murderer is a minor character; only a few pages midway seen from their perspective keep them in the reader’s mind. French never suspects the murderer; and there are no clues to their guilt.
Crofts, surprisingly, is not completely honest. Inspector French orders a subordinate to check witnesses’ statements. “It may perhaps be mentioned here that, so far as the statements could be checked, both proved completely accurate.” In fact, the suspect’s account of their movements at the time of the murder is a lie, and it’s disingenuous of Crofts to say it’s accurate.
1941 Hodder & Stoughton
The ingenuity of Freeman Wills Crofts and his “most human sleuth” Inspector French, has never been called in question, and here is as pretty a problem as ever they have handled together. Highly original too. Even the construction is different. The author has contrived to get well away from the time-worn tradition of corpse-in-the-first-chapter, murderer-in-the-last, and “Who did it?” isn’t the only intriguing question going. Tarrant was a successful, not over scrupulous self-made man, seemingly much more useful alive than dead to most of the suspects, whom he gave good, steady employment in connection with the making and marketing of his patent medicine, Braxamin. Nevertheless, he died by poison, and since there is no fury like a woman scorned, Merle was an obvious suspect. Temple, too, had a motive, for he loved Merle as Merle had once loved Tarrant. It was said they must be accomplices. There was evidence bearing that way. And yet, though the facts were against them, Inspector French could not feel they had done the job. They just weren’t the people to do it.
1941 Dodd, Mead as CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
Tarrant, a wily and unscrupulous chemist, obviously deserved to be murdered in the manner he was. Yet Inspector French was not at all satisfied with the suspects. Even after a court of law had convicted a beautiful nurse and a young chemical factory foreman of the crime, the able detective felt a mistake had been made.
French himself almost makes a fatal mistake in this one. In a mystery that includes patent medicine operations, shady business deals, and two-timers, Freeman Wills Crofts puts an intricate puzzle before his readers.
Books (Will Cuppy, 23rd March 1941, 160w): We recommend this new work of Mr. Crofts, one of the honourable veterans among English bafflers. It is a meaty, well built and fundamentally sound story, starring the admirable Inspector Joseph French, second to none in his own brand of ground and lofty thinking.
Sat R of Lit (29th March 1941, 40w): Events – interesting enough – leading up to crime consume almost half of book. French does his stuff methodically, but ending is fortuitous. Grade-B French.
Boston Transcript (5th April 1941, 50w)
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 6th April 1941, 200w): Mr. Crofts tells the story with his usual faithful attention to police and court procedure and with his usual sparing use of devices that might have brightened the narrative and made it more exciting.
New Repub (Mort. Post, 7th April 1941, 180w): A good tale, with a carefully built-up skunk inviting extirpation from half a dozen different hands, but it is less a triumph for the inspector’s skill than for his humane instincts.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 24th May 1941): MORAL REJOICING – DEATH OF A VILLAIN
Of all the unblushing swindlers who have tricked and cheated without running legal risks, James Tarrant may well be the most despicable for years. In Mr. Crofts’s new detective story he indicates a problem. How much interest should be created in “murderees”? If they are colourless the killing of them may seem of no more account than the crushing of a beetle. If, on the other hand, they become too lively their untimely ends cause a feeling of bereavement. Scoundrels as wily as James Tarrant are more exciting in life than in death. Given a longer lease he would undoubtedly have instructed us profitably in the ways and means of sharp practice. Short as his career is he magnifies himself almost overnight from a chemist’s assistant into the terror of the whole patent-medicine world; and Mr. Crofts makes the process seem so simple and credible that dishonest instincts, in every breast where they have been discouraged, will revel in a little exhilarating exercise before our hero is slain. There may be moral rejoicing over the frustration of all his unhatched iniquities, but moral rejoicing is the urgent need of real life rather than fancy’s flights. Though Chief Inspector French may find a puzzling case when vengeance overtakes Tarrant, any reader capable of doing full justice to a mean-spirited crook with an outsize in enlarged white-livers will grant only grudging sympathy to the police, who had no say in his fate before he became a corpse.
The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 25th May 1941): Some time before James Tarrant, Adventurer, unscrupulous young chemist breaking into the patent medicine racket, is murdered. So many suspects that justice nearly miscarries, but French puts it right. Told with all Mr. Crofts’s concentrated narrative zest: grips like a bulldog.
Western Mail (Harold M. Dowling, 27th May 1941): Two stirring but sharply contrasting yarns by skilled, experienced craftsmen…
Freeman Wills Crofts is characteristically at his leisure in unfolding the dubious business adventure and mysterious death of James Tarrant. For all that, he gets there and keeps you close at his heels all the way: you can’t get away from Crofts once he gets you to start a hunt with him.
Burton Observer and Chronicle (12th June 1941): This is a worthy addition to the author’s list of “Inspector French” novels. it Is particularly interesting inasmuch that the famous sleuth makes a mistake in his deductions, with the result that a very attractive and upright young lady is sentenced to death. But in a dramatic climax Inspector French discovers his error and makes full amends.
James Tarrant is a very unpleasant adventurer, whose good looks are certainly allied to a fair share of brains. but a lamentable lack of scruples. Au assistant in a chemist’s shop, he conceives the idea of making a fortune by making an indigestion mixture similar to a well-known proprietory brand, and using the firm’s advertisements to sell his own products. Trading on the love for him of a young nurse, he obtains her help, accepts her money, and then double-crosses her.
This is the start to a career which, while never actually putting him within reach of the law, can never be admired. Little wonder is it that someone considers him best out of the way, and when he is found drowned with poison him, his former fiancée becomes suspect.
The case of Inspector French is very logically worked out, and seems conclusive. hut Merle Weir is satisfactorily saved at the last minute and set on the road to happiness with a man who appreciates her.
There is nothing “far fetched” about the story; Mr. Wills Crofts’ plot is s at all times reasonable and well presented, while he makes very real persons of the various characters.
The Scotsman (12th June 1941): Inspector French Again
The central figure of the new Inspector French novel is a chemist who embarks on the manufacture of a patent medicine. As his assistant, he makes use of Merle, who believes herself engaged to him. But when, after many shady. deals, the firm prospers and is eventually bought up by a rival, he swindles her out of her share of the money gained in the transaction; and, shortly after, gets engaged to an another girl. When he is murdered by poisoning, Merle, his works manager who is in love with Merle, and the principal director of the rival firm are the chief suspects. But the wrong person has already been condemned before, following a new clue, Inspector French manages to find the true murderer in time. The story holds its suspense well, as was to be expected in any work from Mr Crofts’s pen; and it is safe to say that the reader, will be quite as baffled as Inspector French, till the very last few pages.
Spectator (John Fairfield, 13th June 1941, 50w)
Liverpool Daily Post (17th June 1941): Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts’s James Tarrant, Adventurer, and Mr. R. A. J. Walling’s By Hook or By Crook are excellent detective stories by masters of their craft. The tales are very different in technique, but both are soundly competent and well written.
Manchester Guardian (E. R. Punshon, 1st July 1941): James Tarrant, Adventurer, Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts’s new story, is in three parts—a close study of an unscrupulous and ambitious young man, a typically careful investigation by Inspector French, and a trial for murder. All are equally well told and interesting, but the method does involve much repetition and tends to break that continuity of interest on which so much of story-telling value depends.
Birmingham Daily Gazette (7th July 1941): This new detective novel does not just offer a murder with a mere recital of clues and investigations to test your sleuthing abilities. It gives you a hum[…].