Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (Freeman Wills Crofts)

By Freeman Wills Crofts

First published: UK, Collins, 1930; USA, Harpers, 1930

My review

Crofts’s favourite book, and perhaps the most ambitious and ingenious alibi scheme Inspector French ever broke. It gets off to a flying start with the disappearance of Sir John Magill, a Belfast industrialist, in the vicinity of Whitehead; the discovery of his corpse; and French’s stripping away of the preliminary layers of the plot.

I appreciated this much more the second time I read it. 2003 review: Halfway through, though, the rattling pace comes to a grinding halt, and is replaced by a steady, if steadily unexciting, walking pace.  French doesn’t do much reasoning: there’s much inquiry into the movements of trains and boats (too mathematical for the lay reader), but his detection consists largely of interviewing witness after witness and letting them solve the puzzle for him. The reader is more fortunate, for the solution is obvious from the start. Since the sleeping draught is given on Wednesday and much attention is paid to the details of Wednesday night, it is quite obvious that the Thursday night business was faked. The solution is over-complicated, and the mass conspiracy to murder one man seems a case of overkill. How superior is Five Red Herrings!

Blurb (UK)

Sir John Magill, a well-known figure in the public life of Ulster, is coming to Ireland via the Stranraer–Larne route.  He never reaches his destination.  No trace of the missing man can be discovered.  What strange fate has befallen Sir John Magill?  Inspector French is called in, and admits that it is his most baffling case.  With that admission we feel sure all admirers of Inspector French will agree.  And they will follow eagerly the various stages in the unravelling of this, the greatest of Inspector French’s mysteries.

Blurb (US)

Inspector French is suddenly called to Ireland on a case which baffles the Belfast authorities.  Sir John Magill, a wealthy linen manufacturer, has disappeared on a journey to Ireland – foul play is suspected, but there is not a single definite clue.  Inspector French, with his own reputation and that of Scotland Yard at stake, runs to earth several trails, and comes up against apparently unshakable alibis.  This man who never overlooks a single possibility, with his doggedness in checking times, places and distances, with a flash of his characteristic genius for reconstruction, succeeds in evolving a theory which will fit together all the pieces of the involved puzzle.

The climax comes on a stormy night in Ireland, when he traps the murderers into giving away their skilfully constructed crime.  In this duel of wits, it is touch and go for Inspector French – but he triumphantly avenges the death of the innocent old gentleman, and establishes once again the prestige of Scotland Yard.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (25th September 1930):

The talented Belfast writer of detective tales stages his latest tale partly in Belfast.  It was in Belfast, too, that Inspector French thought the clue to the mystery lay; his Irish colleagues were equally positive that solution should be sought in England, and there ensued a friendly co-operation which ended in French solving his problem by a masterly deduction from the known facts.  Sir John Magill, a wealthy Belfast linen manufacturer, retired in London, journeyed to Belfast via Larne and Stranraer.  He was seen in Belfast and was making his way out to the house of his son and successor, Malcolm Magill, beyond Larne, when he was last heard of.  His dead body is subsequently found buried in his son’s grounds.  Malcolm, however, has a good alibi, and so has Victor, the old man’s nephew, who was on a motor-boat tour from Barrow northwards by Stranraer to Arran and Kintyre.  Then there is the mysterious Mr. Coates, who had called on Sir John in London and had given a false address.  When it is found that he was one of Victor’s party it looks like a clue or connexion.  But Coates has a good explanation to offer.  We are bewildered; but the story is told so well that we see the relevance of each detail and, beginning dimly to suspect the ingenuity that made the crime possible, we are prepared in a measure for French’s synthesis.  Mr. Crofts has written nothing better since the Starvel tragedy, which one reader, at least, regards as the high-water mark of detective fiction.

NY Times (Bruce Rae, 30th November 1930, 220w):

There is plenty of action in this thriller, but the re-enactment of episodes on the boat train is something that it is highly improbable any set of detectives would undertake.

Time and Tide

This is one of the classics of detective literature.