The Cask (Freeman Wills Crofts)

By Freeman Wills Crofts

First published: UK: Collins, 1920

My review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Crofts’ first novel—a famous work, and a landmark in the genre.  It’s old-fashioned, and closer in spirit and approach to Gaboriau than to Doyle or Freeman, let alone Christie or Chesterton or Bentley—and yet it would set the tone for much of the 1920s and 1930s.  It’s an enormous work (400 pages), but never boring—I was reminded of Heine’s famous comparison of Meyerbeer’s Huguenots to a Gothic cathedral, built by ‘a giant in the conception and design of the whole, a dwarf in the exhaustive execution of detail’.  A rich and solid plot, with many leads to follow (the various investigators continually find new information) and the reader knowing as much as (and deducing less than) the police, make it a fascinating work.  The plot is an elaborate plan to disarm suspicion (alibi) and incriminate another man.  The only flaw is that the final chapter feels somewhat rushed—we should have seen the murderer’s suicide, rather than being told about it at second-hand.


·        Tripartite structure:

o       I: UK: hunt for the cask and discovery of body (Crofts later thought it should be cut);

o       II: France: victim’s identity established; testing of two suspects’ alibis, and arrest of the wrong man

o       III: half-English, half-French detective clears Felix and proves murderer’s guilt

·        Very similar design to Cole’s The Brooklyn Murders: police case against suspect, and amateurs clear him.

Contemporary reviews

The Queen: Probably unsurpassed in ingenuity.

NY World (9th November 1924, 210w): To all lovers of first rate detective fiction, The Cask can be safely recommended.

NY Times (21st December 1924, 480w): This story with which he makes his bow to American readers is clever, interesting and well constructed.

Boston Transcript (24th December 1924, 660w): Were the story shorter it would gain in strength.  Of the craftsmanship, however, one cannot speak too highly.