The Pit-Prop Syndicate (Freeman Wills Crofts)

By Freeman Wills Crofts

First published: UK, Collins, 1922; USA, Thomas Seltzer, 1925

My review

A thoroughly awful book, one of Crofts’s “thrillers” which substitute excessive technical detail and tedious police procedure for the usual ingredients of a book: characterisation, dialogue, and an ability to keep the reader turning the pages. In what would be postmodernism in another and later author, Crofts’s characters are bored witless with the whole business:

“If possible, the slow passage of the heavily weighted hours until the following evening was even more irksome to the watcher than on the first occasion. Merriman felt he would die of weariness and boredom long before anything happened, and it was only the thought that he was doing it for Madeline Coburn that kept him from utter collapse.”

Merriman’s feelings are entirely justified. The first half of the book is “influenced” (read: “plagiarism”) by Erskine Childers’s Riddle of the Sands: a young man who doesn’t enjoy boats has a yachting holiday with a friend, they investigate a mysterious gang of smugglers and he falls in love with the daughter of one of them. The second part turns into the usual plodding detective story. Since there are no alibis to break and the murderer is rather clumsily discovered by his fingerprints left in the taxi where he shot his victim, this is excruciatingly dull stuff. Timetables do appear, however. Having repressed his unhealthy urges as far as the last chapter, Crofts lets himself go with a full-page plan of the line and an almost parodic analysis:

“He began to study the trains. The first northwards was the 4 pm dining express from King’s Cross to Newcastle. It left Doncaster at 7.56 and reached Selby at 8.21. Would Archer travel by it? And if he did, what would be his next move?”

Excellent stuff for masochists.


Crofts - The Pit-Prop Syndicate.JPG

Another brilliantly ingenious detective story by the author of The Ponson Case.  The mystery of the real business of the syndicate utterly baffled the clever young “amateurs” who tried to solve it, and it took all the experience and perseverance of the “professionals” to break up the dangerous and murderous gang.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (26th October 1922):

No pyrotechnic displays of deduction from microscopic clues need be looked for in this ingenious detective story, the scene of which ranges from the South of France to the North of England.  It concerns a boat running from the Gironde to the Humber, which, in addition to carrying legitimate cargoes of pit-props, is engaged in smuggling of a nature the reader must be left to guess, or find out, for himself.  The starting point is a change in the number of a motor-lorry—a trivial enough incident, but sufficient (with a lady in the case) to excite the interest of two amateurs, whose efforts to unravel the mystery occupy the first part of the book.  Then, on the murder of the lady’s father in a London taxi-cab, the aid of Scotland Yard is invoked, and the efforts of the professionals fill the second half.  Inspector Willis is a plodding, painstaking officer who cannot be accused of any brilliant flights of imagination, but though he is badly fooled by the gang he gets them surely enough in the end.