The Sea Mystery (Freeman Wills Crofts)

By Freeman Wills Crofts

First published: UK, Collins, 1928; USA, Harpers, 1928

My review

Slow-moving and methodical, but thoroughly engaging. This plot revolves around the discovery of a battered corpse in a crate off the coast of Wales; Inspector French is called in, and does an excellent job of discovering how it got there.  The trail leads him to the disappearance of Messrs. Berlyn and Pyke from Ashburton, Devon, and to the conclusion that the body is Pyke’s.  His pursuit of his two principal suspects, Berlyn and Colonel Domlio, is slow but steady, and plenty of clues and incidents keep up suspense. The mystery appears to have been solved by Chapter Eighteen, but becomes mystifying again before the excellent surprise solution. At the end, French and the reader are both “satisfied”.

Blurb (UK)

The problem which came to French from the sea took the form of a crate containing the body of a murdered man.  There was no evidence to show how it had reached the place where it had found, nor whose was the body it contained.  As it stood, the problem seemed insoluble, but by imagining what might have happened and by testing his theories with his accustomed thoroughness, French at last arrived at a clue which provided the solution to an ingenious and very terrible crime.

Blurb (US)

Out of the sea they had dragged a chest.  In the chest they had found – hideously defaced – the almost naked body of a man.  There was not a clue on the body for its identification, not a sign on the chest as to its origin.  The ocean had completed the trick of removing every trace of a most ghastly crime.

Inspector French was called from London and with an uncanny precision he traced the course of the chest as it might have been carried by the tide down the shore.  Then with painstaking detail he followed every possibility for a clue until at last he was enabled to reconstruct the apparently impenetrable mystery of this ingenious murder.  But the final solution proved almost as surprising to him as it will to the reader.

Inspector French has figured in all of the Crofts books, and is so real, so human that one fully expects to meet him if one ever goes to Scotland Yard.

Contemporary reviews

The New Statesman (20th October 1928):

Mr. Crofts’s detective stories are the kind of wine that needs no bush.  His Inspector French is a competent fellow, who occasionally consults his wife and perpetually smokes cigars, but is commendably free from the egotisms and mannerisms with which so many of the great sleuths are accustomed to bore us.  He can even conduct a case without having a fool beside him to play the Watson to his Holmes.  The Sea Mystery is a first-rate tale.  The crate containing a decomposed corpse which is fished up in a Welsh estuary seems to offer no shadow of a clue.  But French, by a most ingenious system of calculations and experiments, picks up a scent which carries him to Dartmoor and then, with more than one check, to London, where the fox is finally run to earth at the Elephant and Castle.  The mystery is well sustained and there are no tricks played on the reader.  Indeed, you may spot the real murderer at a comparatively early stage, if you avoid making the false, though natural, assumption which Inspector French made on a certain small point of evidence.  The Case Book includes three old friends [The Greatest Case, The Cheyne Mystery, The Starvel Tragedy], which are amongst Mr. Crofts’ best stories.  Those who have not read them will find full value for their money in this volume of nine hundred pages.

Times Literary Supplement (1st November 1928):

Cuvier is said to have been able to reconstruct an entire skeleton and provide its former owner with flesh, hide, and habits from the inspection of a single bone.  Our old friend Inspector French has to be almost as clever for, when confronted with a decomposed body in an unmarked box, flotsam of the sea, he has to find out whose it was and who put it there.  As told by Mr. Crofts the Inspector’s achievement seems quite possible, and the great man even scolds himself for having been so slow and blind in the process of identifying the corpse, finding out who had made it one, and producing iron-clad proof that they had committed murder in the process.  This was all the more difficult in that the criminals had been exceedingly clever in using the stick of precaution to muddy the wells of inquiry.  The reader will, however, be struck with the generally excellent memories with which those of whom the Inspector asks questions about what had happened weeks and sometimes months before are blessed.  If ever a man found a needle in a haystack it was Inspector French in the Sea Mystery.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 2nd September 1928, 120w):

Freeman Crofts is one of the few mystery mongers whose mind seems to work according to specifications, as taught in Psychology 1.  The same may be said of his trained sleuth, Inspector Joseph French of the C.I.D., who solves crimes with a most ingratiating combination of deduction, induction and whatever else there is.  The charm of this volume inheres largely in its utterly honest handling of a possible crime; that can be thrilling.

Springfield Republican (9th September 1928, 180w):

It is a well-told and entirely credible detective story with the element of mystery well sustained throughout.

Boston Transcript (J.F.S., 12th September 1928, 520w):

Mr. Crofts both outguesses you and plays fair with you, and the result in The Sea Mystery is a capitally knit tale with a model beginning and a rational and beguiling development.

Bookman (C.M. Purdy, October 1928, 130w):

Mr. Crofts lacks the imagination of Mrs. Christie, but his plot structure is more thorough, and in this new tale of his the work of the veteran Inspector French in tracing the mysterious chest gives one of the prettiest pieces of deduction I have seen in a long time.