First published: UK, Collins, 1926; US, Boni, 1926, as The Cheyne Mystery
Through the medium of Mr. Crofts, the most famous cases in which that brilliant investigator—Inspector French—was concerned are being recorded, and
The Cheyne Mystery is the second. When young Cheyne first found things going wrong and that a very dangerous gang of criminals were unpleasantly interested in him, he tried to outwit them on his own; however, when things got very serious and his life was attempted, he decided to go to the Yard. From then French comes into the case, and carries out one of his typical investigations by his own particular method—that untiring thoroughness directed by flashes of inspiration, which was the secret of his unfailing success. A very pleasant young person named Joan plays a prominent part in the book.
At the beginning of the story, the hero, Maxwell Cheyne, and Blessington, one of the villains, discuss writing styles. Cheyne has a “vivid and interest-compelling presentation” – but can’t plot very well, while Blessington (like Crofts) is a good plotter but “reads like a Board of Trade report. Dry, you understand, not very interesting.”
Surprisingly, Crofts has for once struck a balance between the two: an interesting story with lots of action and a good plot. The first half of the story alone involves burglary (by the villains and by the hero), kidnapping (of the hero and of the heroine), drugging, and attempted murder. This is exciting stuff, and reads more like 1920s Christie than Crofts’s usual tedious grinds. Of course, one wouldn’t find Christie writing the following gems:
With some difficulty Cheyne overcame a sudden urge to leap at his companion’s throat.
“You infernal scoundrel!” he cried thickly. “Injure a hair of Miss Merrill’s head and you and your confounded friends will hang! I’ll go to Scotland Yard. Do you think I mind about myself?”
“But it was not contemplation of the fate he had so narrowly escaped that sent his heart leaping into his throat with deadly panic. If these unspeakable ruffians had tried to murder him with their hellish explosives, what about Joan Merrill? All the talk about driving her back to her rooms must have been mere eyewash. She must be in deadly peril – if it was not too late: if she was not already – Merciful Heaven, he could not frame the thought! – if she was not already dead! He burst into a cold sweat, as the idea burned itself into his consciousness. And then suddenly he knew the reason. He loved her! He loved this girl who had saved his life and who had already proved herself such a splendid comrade and helpmeet. His own life, the wretched secret, the miserable pursuit of wealth, victory over the gang – what were these worth? They were forgotten – they were nothing – they were less than nothing! It was Joan and Joan’s safety that filled his mind. “Oh, God,” he murmured in an agony, “save her, save her! No matter about anything else, only save her!”
This purple prose, stylistically awful and overblown as it is, is more readable than his later “Board of Trade report” stuff. Crofts does provide some of that, just to keep the engineers and trainspotters happy. Inspector French enters halfway through, smokes a lot of cigars, but otherwise works fairly quickly. He only follows one red herring, the clue of a hotel ticket to Bruges rather than to Antwerp – populated almost entirely by Francophones. Still, it is nice to find a detective story set in Belgium (apart from Crofts – and, of course, Simenon and Steeman – the only ones I know of are Christie’s “Chocolate Box” and Carr’s “Strictly Diplomatic”). Despite a reasonably interesting cipher, the end falls rather flat. French, Cheyne and co follow the boat the crooks took from Belgium to the middle of the Atlantic. When they get there, they find that nearly all the crew is dead, having fallen out over sunken treasure – which gives Crofts the opportunity to state the novel’s moral:
When at last it was told it proved still but one more illustration of the old truth that the qualities of greed and envy and selfishness have that seed of decay within themselves which leads their unhappy victims to overreach themselves, and instead of gaining what they seek, to lose their all.
When Crofts isn’t tedious, he is sententious.