Mystery in the Channel (Freeman Wills Crofts)

By Freeman Wills Crofts

First published: UK, Collins, 1931; USA, Harpers, 1931, as Mystery in the English Channel

My review

This early French concerns the murders of the chairman and vice-chairman of General Securities on their yacht in the middle of the Channel shortly before the crash of their company. French, as always, does an excellent job of reconstructing the crime from blood-stains and bullets, and spends much of his time travelling between England and France on numerous false trails. Although slow-paced, there is enough going on to keep the reader’s interest until the end, and while the story involves motor-boats and speeds, Crofts does not drown the story in algebra. The alibi is simple but satisfying, and the climax on a petrol-soaked boat is excellent, if too similar to the climax of The Sea Mystery.

Blurb (UK)

The cross-channel steamer Chichester suddenly stopped half-way to France.  Right in her course lay a yacht, motionless and apparently crewless.  A boat was lowered and drew alongside the derelict, while a party from the Chichester climbed aboard.  On the deck was a trail of blood and at its end the body of a man.  Down below, in a wildly disordered cabin lay another man with a bullet hole in his forehead; and not a living soul was aboard.  MacIntosh, the Chichester’s third officer, and two men navigated the Nymph back to Newhaven, where Chief Constable Turnbull took charge.  But there was more in this baffling mystery than he cared to tackle.  Fortunately, like every one who has met him, Turnbull remembered Inspector French.  He took the mystery to him.  Needless to say, French solved it; and in what brilliant manner every experienced reader of detective fiction must already anticipate.  Mystery in the Channel more than justifies our confidence in the Inspector, and in his creator, Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts.

Blurb (US)

The bodies of two men, obviously murdered, found aboard a drifting launch in the English Channel, provide Inspector French at Scotland Yard with a case that proves to be the most difficult of his career.  The dead men are identified as officials of a huge investment house which falls immediately after the tragedy.  Four surviving members of the firm seem to be involved and around them Inspector French prepares his case.  One after another his theories collapse, as they run foul of watertight alibis or astounding confessions.  Never does the criminal help by making a false move, and the ultimate solution is as much of a surprise to Inspector French as it is to the reader.

In England this book was chosen by the Crime Club as their book of the month.  Their report says, in part, “It is not for nothing that Mr. Crofts is a civil engineer by profession.  In construction he is the supreme technician.  It is this quality that has made him an oracle of detective fiction.  No writer of detective fiction has ever produced a neater plot.  Every brick fits exactly into the edifice.”

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (12th May 1931):

The scorn which players of real tennis feel for those who only know the bastard played on lawns is the sort of scorn which the lovers of real detective stories feel for those who delight to mingle blood and flesh excitements with their detection.  Among the practitioners of pure detection, Mr. Wills Croft stands pre-eminent.  If you join his company you know that the business in hand will be the detection of crime by the patient collection and analysis of clues, and nothing else.

The Channel Mystery is a good example of his particular merits.  A yacht is found in the channel with two dead men aboard.  The investigations that follow last for more than six weeks.  No living writer is so honestly realistic about the awful tedium of routine detective work, or more scrupulous not to allow more good luck to his policemen than is reasonable.  If it were not that he can abbreviate whole days of fruitless inquiry into a sentence, if the reader really had to accompany Inspector French through each stage of detection, the wearisome business would break the spirit.  But because he can abbreviate and is so austerely realistic Mr. Wills Croft is deservedly a first favourite with all who want a real puzzle.  His readers know that there will be little action after the crime, except the action of the police.  There may be a crisis and some thrills—there are in the Channel Mystery—when the criminal realises how the net is closing in and makes his last efforts, but, apart from that, his books are concerned with answering a question asked at the very outset.  Whether he is thinking for his criminals or Scotland Yard, Mr. Croft works at a high level, which it is a treat to follow.  His criminals are discovered by the significance of small things, and the careful following up of apparently trifling clues.  The Channel Mystery, though not so long as some others of the author’s stories, is among his neatest.

Sat R (H.C. Harwood, 11th April 1931, 50w):

May I humbly recommend the works of Mr. F.W. Crofts and of J.J. Connington to all interested in detective fiction?

Spectator (M.I. Cole, 9th May 1931, 200w):

Crofts is the best known, almost the onlie begetter, of the puzzle convention; his characters are not characters at all; they are—to use a biological metaphor—extremely simple structures provided only with name-labels and impregnable alibis, which latter it is the business of the detective to break down.

Sat R of Lit (W.C. Weber, 26th September 1931, 160w):

Freeman Croft’s [sic] Mystery in the English Channel, while not quite up to the standard of Sir John Magill’s Last Journey, is so small a let-down that it will not disappoint his admirers.

Charles Williams in the Daily News

One of the best mysteries that Inspector French has ever solved, and one of the best books that Mr. Crofts has ever written.