Sarge, there's some French gent at the door.
- No-no-no-no, I am not some French gent. I am some Belgian gent.
"Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Adventure of the Clapham Cook"
Now I think about it, I don't have that many Penguin books actually. Probably not even ten of them. I have a lot more Prisma pockets though, a Dutch series of pocket books similar to Penguins. But that's enough off-topic thoughts for today...
Inspector French series
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927)
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934)
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)
Fatal Venture (1939)
Ruth Averill lost everything in the tragedy that happened in silent Starvel Hollow. In an all-destroying fire, she lost her uncle Simon (her only living relative), the two servants and her home. Even most of the fortune her miser uncle had accumulated over the years, had been lost in the fire, which left Ruth, while not penniless, less fortunate an heir than she should have been. But there might be more behind the tragedy than seems at first sight. A money bill thought to have been burnt to ashes in the fire turns up at a bank and suspicion starts to rise about whether the money had been really lost in the fire, and whether it was just an accident. Inspector French is sent to Starvel and the town of Tirsby to find out if there was foul play in Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927).
So many Crofts in so short a period? Actually, after I read The 12:30 From Croydon, I asked for some more Crofts suggestions and I was recommended Fatal Venture and today's book. Well, I was actually recommended the Japanese version of Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, because that book contains an afterword by Kitamura Kaoru that is apparently a great overview of Crofts' works, but as the good old Penguin pocket was easier to find...
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy is the third novel in the series and feels very different from the other (later) Crofts I've read. For one, Inspector French actually appears very early in the story! Whereas in Mystery on Southampton Water, The 12:30 From Croydon and Fatal Venture, the focus was mostly set on some young man caught up in some kind of (legal or illegal) scheme, this time we get to follow French from start to finish in his investigation and it is great. We see how he slowly but surely unravels the truth. And that is maybe all I can say about the book: French slowly unravels the truth. It's a sober investigation and French seldom has real strokes of genius during his work, but he doggedly chases every trail he can find, he checks them out and if it turns out to be a dud, he moves on to the next trail.
Which is of course a style which could end up as the most boring, meandering story ever, but Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy isn't. The developments are structured in a way to keep the reader's attention, the 'false' trails are never completely useless to the investigation and as you proceed in the book, you feel that French is always, even if not with lightning speed, nearing the truth. It is a very neatly plotted story and that might be its biggest merit. The presentation is sober, but one has to admire how Crofts must have meticulously played around with all elements of the story until it all fitted together, not only in terms of fabula, but also as sujet.
And now I think about it, even though the presentation of Crofts' novels is always very modest and subdued, the plot often isn't. I mean, Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy starts with theft, arson, murder and between the first and final pages, French will uncover a lot more sinister and imaginative scheme than you'd associate with the prose it is presented in. As a mystery plot, it is an okay story, though it is a bit disappointing that despite all the doggedness of French, despite all his efforts throughout the book, he still has to rely on something almost as trivial as coincidence to completely solve the case.
With the other three Crofts I've read fairly similar, I quite enjoyed Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy for following a different structure. Plotwise, it also satisfied and it makes me quite curious to see what Crofts did more with French in other novels. So yes, I am quite sure you'll see Crofts' name appear in the future too on this blog.