First published: UK, Collins, 1934; USA, Dodd, Mead, as Wilful and Premeditated
A rather interesting, if not entirely successful, experiment. Instead of focusing on the activities of Inspector French, Crofts tells the story entirely from the perspective of the murderer, a businessman facing bankruptcy who deludes himself into the belief that his two murders are committed for the greater good, and seems to suffer from Macbeth’s conscience. The murderer is well-drawn—which is necessary, because this is a psychological thriller heavily influenced by Francis Iles, rather than an inverted story in the R. Austin Freeman manner, and so the emphasis is on the murderer as character rather than as quarry. The other characters, however, are all flat, and there are no twists in the tale. French appears only two or three times during the course of the story, and, rather than detecting, explains how the murderer committed his crime in laborious detail.
Charles Swinburn, a Yorkshire millowner, gets into financial difficulties and invents an entirely unsuspicious way of murdering an uncle.
The tragedy is put down to suicide, and all seems well for Charles. Then his uncle’s butler tells him he knows what has happened and begins to levy blackmail. In self-defence Charles is obliged to murder the butler.
This is recognized as murder, but Charles is not suspected. All again seems well. Then Charles learns that Inspector French is making enquiries – and watches the net slowly closing.
Unlike most mystery stories which introduce the reader to a heinous crime and then settle down to bait him with clues, theories and further crimes, this story is reversed.
An old man, Andrew Crowther, flying from London to Paris, is discovered upon landing, not asleep as the other passengers supposed, but dead. The French Police discover traces of poison. Was it murder or suicide? Murder is established and the circumstances of the crime are related. An ingenious puzzle is thus presented and Inspector French is put on the trail.
In the hands of a less skilled writer this daring method of telling a detective story would have little hope of success. But in this case, with the cart before the horse,
Mr. Crofts tells one of his most ingenious and dramatic cases. There are indeed two stories in one. Firstly, from the criminal’s point of view, a constructive series of plans, methods and opportunities. Secondly, from the detective’s point of view, in which the reader, possessing all the information, finds himself trailed by the famous Inspector.
For those who enjoy the most intricate, airtight detective puzzles, the Red Badge editors rate Wilful and Premeditated A 1.
Time (29th January 1934):
Poison is the weapon; the motive, gain. The author first shows the victim’s death, then the murderer’s modus operandi. Inspector French is brought forward on the trail. In the ensuing hunt the reader feels himself the quarry. Explanation of detection follows, with Inspector French being raised in rank once again.
Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 25th February 1934):
DETECTIVE AUTHORS’ TROUBLES – A NEW WILLS CROFTS EXPERIMENT
Among the major temptations that assail the detective author (and others) is that of writing the same book over and over again. Publishers and public encourage him to do so, because they like to know what to expect. Then, quite suddenly, they turn on the poor man and rend him, complaining that his books are all alike and that he has written himself out. The author, who is probably as heartily weary of the book as they are, but has been too timid to abandon a vein which has hitherto paid very well, is then faced with the task of starting all over again, under a heavy handicap.
When Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts wrote The Cask in 1920 he devised a formula and became thereby the only begetter of a numerous and distinguished detective progeny. As the other great Freeman stands for precision of scientific statement, so he stands for accuracy of practical method. He first made police routine fascinating and distilled romance from the pages of Bradshaw. He is our cunningest fitter of jig-saws, our Time-table King and Master of the Alibi, and no one has ever yet wearied of his skill. But he himself has lately shown signs of a certain restlessness: in Sudden Death he was groping after a new formula, and though in Death on the Way and The Hog’s Back Mystery he returned to his own beaten track, in 12.30 from Croydon he has made a deliberate right-about-face and marched bravely away along the path of the psychological crime-story. Having unloaded the dead body of the victim from an Imperial Airliner, he flashes us back to the beginning of the drama and thereafter shows us the crime through the eyes of the criminal.
An Elaborate Alibi
The result is an excellent book, though here and there the practical hand betrays a little unsureness in working on the unaccustomed material. There are small incidental awkwardnesses, and the murderer does not perhaps show quite as much subtlety in working out his plans as we are accustomed to find in a Crofts villain. He constructs his alibi with immense elaboration, and it is only by sheer bad luck that he happens to be spotted at the crucial moment by a blackmailer, and is thus forced to commit a second crime in order, as he fondly supposes, to conceal the first. But he has made the elementary error of overlooking the obvious: the second murder is as futile as it is clumsy; police routine has taken all his ingeniously erected defences in its stride. Long before he set out to silence the direct evidence of the blackmailer circumstantial evidence has damned him, and the case is complete.
The first few chapters move a trifle slowly, but afterwards the action grips and holds to the end. The murderer’s nervous self-consciousness after the crime is well done, and there are some admirable passages of pleading and counter-pleading in the trial scene. One might wish the various personages to be a little more strongly characterised, but the story, as a story, is highly successful, and Mr. Crofts is to be congratulated upon his experiment.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 4th February 1934, 290w):
This is not a mystery story, but it is a detective story of much more than ordinary merit.
Roger Pippett in the Daily Herald
A first-rate yarn…a problem which it takes all Inspector French’s wits to solve.