Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (Freeman Wills Crofts)

By Freeman Wills Crofts

First published: UK, Collins, 1927; USA, Harpers, 1927

My review

One of Crofts’s best-known works, with good reason. A miser and his servants are burnt to death in Yorkshire. A verdict of accident is brought in, but the bank notes, which should have perished in the fire, are still in circulation, which suggests murder. French, disguised as an insurance investigator, travels north, and from thence to France and Scotland. There is a great deal of travelling, but French’s plodding detection is genuinely interesting, and, although he only solves the crime a minute before he arrests the murderer, he comes across as more of a thinker than in later tales. The red herrings are as fresh as the writing and characterisation; and, although the reader will not be unduly surprised by the final revelation, he will marvel at the intricacy of a highly ingenious plot, with a nice bit of body-snatching for extra merit.

Blurb (UK)

The tragedy which occurred at the lonely old house in Starvel Hollow is, as far as its outward appearances goes, founded on real life.  In the evening the house is standing as usual, everything about it apparently normal.  The next morning it is a heap of smouldering ruins from which later on the almost cremated remains of its three inmates are taken.  An inquest is held, a verdict of accidental death returned, and the affair passes from the public mind.  So much really happened in south-east England.  But at Starvel the matter does not end with the inquest.  Some weeks later an incident occurs which makes an astute bank manager suspect something other than accident.  Inspector French is called in, and though himself at first sceptical, he finds that dark and terrible deeds were done in the Hollow during that tragic night.  Eventually he brings the guilty to justice – after much dogged perseverance and sheer hard work.

Blurb (US)

The real mystery-story addict, who is willing to do some work on the case himself, always hails the appearance of a Crofts novel with enthusiasm.  In The Starvel Hollow Tragedy an old house burns to the ground and among the ruins three charred bodies are found, presumably those of Simon Averill, the miser, Roper, his valet, and Mrs. Roper, his cook.  In a fireproof safe where Simon kept his hoarded bank notes are found only ashes – newspaper ashes at that.  At this point Inspector French enters the picture; and step by step, with infinite patience and the excitement that comes of the shrewd piecing together of baffling bits of evidence, he uncovers a crime of extraordinary brutality and of wide ramifications.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (29th September 1927):

When the old house at Starvel on the lonely Yorkshire moors was burnt down there perished its owner, Simon Averill, a miser, with Roper his male nurse and Roper’s wife; besides nearly £40,000 in notes was burnt in the safe.  The jury naturally brought in a verdict of accidental death, and Ruth, old Averill’s niece, came in for only some £2,000, representing the sovereigns found intact in the safe.  Only when some of the supposed burnt notes turned up in London was suspicion aroused, and when Inspector French came down to investigate the mystery he soon saw cause to believe that murder, arson, and robbery had been committed.  Mr. Crofts is one of the most thoughtful and ingenious of writers of detective stories, and those who are interested in this type of fiction will follow with the keenest interest the gradual building up of theories and picking up of clues which lead to the solution of a monstrous and skilfully planned crime.

New Statesman (1st October 1927, 120w):

This is one of the best detective stories we have read for years.  But it is one of the disabilities of the reviewer of such books that he cannot justify his opinion without telling more than it is fair to tell about the plot.  We can say, however, that this plot is an extraordinarily good one.

Boston Transcript (22nd October 1927, 250w):

In this story the author has brought a fresh idea to the mystery-saturated reader.  He announces the perpetrators of the crime at the outset and, with a show of unusual skill he confronts the reader with all kinds of clues that prove conclusively the criminal cannot be the cause of the tragedy.

NY World (Vincent Starrett, 6th November 1927, 170w):

Like Fletcher, at his best, Mr. Crofts tells a straightforward story of crime and detection, filled with human, everyday characters and with careful attention to detail.  The story, like its Inspector French forerunners, moves slowly and evenly from a logical beginning to a logical conclusion.  It is the right sort of novel for the genuine detective-story addict, who likes to work on the case himself.