Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Sea of Troubles

「君という光」 (Garnet Crow)

I like watching the jellyfish floating on the waves
Always as if my mind flies off to some world far away 
"A Light Called You" (Garnet Crow)

Sometimes it's weird switching reading languages halfway through a series. This is actually the first time I read Crofts in English instead of Japanese...

Inspector French series
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934)
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)
Fatal Venture (1939)

Chance brought travel expert Henry Morrison on board of a scheme hatched by barrister Bristow of a cheap holiday liner that cruises along the British Isles. Bored millionaire Stott in turn was responsible for the necessary financial means and the idea of turning the cruise ship into a casino ship. The cruise ship would go up and down the coast line of the British Isles allowing for one day excursions on the mainland, while at night the ship would move outside the British territorial waters and the gambling rooms would be opened. Fullfilling the wish of the wealthy British well-offs of exploring the hidden attractions of the homeland, as well as providing the thrills of the roulette table, the project becomes an instant success. But not all is well on the floating heaven and one day, Money-Bags Stott is murdered during one of the day excursions on the mainland. But with wronged business partners, vengeful business rivals and inheriting relatives around, it's not easy finding the right man. Fortunately Chief Inspector French and his wife were already on board of the wicked ship and French wouldn't be French if he didn't make quick work of the Stott Slaying Scheme in Freeman Wills Crofts' Fatal Venture (1939).

My third Crofts and the first that isn't an inverted mystery. Yet it follows the same basic pattern seen in the other books I read: we follow the adventures of a young man busy with some kind of business scheme, a murder happens and French appears late in the story to unravel a deadly intrigue (and Fatal Venture does have some elements of the inverted mystery). While I loved Mystery on Southampton Water, I was, while not disappointed, not very impressed with The 12:30 From Croydon. How did Fatal Venture fare?

Not bad, actually, but I am not sure if for the right reasons. Fatal Venture is clearly split into two parts: the first part is about how the business plans between Morrison, Bristow and Stott came to be. I love this part. You see the three coming up with the idea, slowly gathering information to see if it's doable, outwitting rivals and finally setting sail with their seaworthy goldmine. It's thrilling, it has a sense of adventure and.... it has absolutely nothing to do with a mystery. It's a swashbuckling account of three men coming up with a neat business scheme, but that is it. The story moves into the second half with the murder on Stott, but then you realize that the first enterprising half has very little to do with the actual murder mystery. Even if the first hundred or so pages of this book had been compressed in a five page explanation, the mystery plot wouldn't have suffered at all. No crucial hints, no foreshadowing, nothing. Heck, the murder isn't even commited on board of the cruise ship!

The second half features an alibi-cracking mystery with French and while it's an okay plot, I think the trick was much better suited for a neat and clean short story, rather than extending it with almost hundred pages of introduction that weren't really necessary for the trick to work in the first place. And I don't mind short story tricks being extended into longer stories per se, but I expect the plot to be made a bit more complex to compensate for the larger amount of pages in such case: a red herring here, a sub-plotline there, maybe two mysteries.... I don't expect two stories that genre-wise don't really feel connected stuck together. Because that is it. Fatal Venture feels like two stories, only one of them a mystery. And strangely enough, I liked the non-mystery part better.

In the three Crofts' I read, young men in business have all played a large role in the story. This is actually the first time that business actually goes well however, which was a nice change of pace after the depressing "I need money or I'm finished and others will go with me" stories of Mystery on Southampton Water and The 12:30 From Croydon. I also think I know understand why I found The 12:30 From Croydon less entertaining than Mystery on Southampton Water, despite their similarities (see reviews). In Croydon, problems with the business of the protagonist were basically solved with the murder and the inheritance. In Southampton Water, the business problems don't go away after the murder though and it stays a point of fear throughout the novel. So in Southampton Water, you have the dread of both Inspector French hunting the protagonist and the future of the business, while in Croydon, it's actually just the police. Sounds like a small difference, but I thought Southampton Water was a lot more entertaining. The build-up of Fatal Venture might not be related to the actual murder mystery, but the question of whether the scheme is going to succeed is urging the reader to go on, and by the time the anxiety surrounding the business is dispersed and we know it's become a success, we're given something new in the form of Stott's murder.

I had a great time with Fatal Venture, but strangely enough not because of the mystery plot. Is the mystery bad? No, but in the form as it was published, Fatal Venture is basically one business novel and a slightly too long mystery short story. If you want a focused mystery novel and/or don't like reading about business schemes and such, Fatal Venture is definitely not for you. I enjoyed the book, but I can definitely understand if people don't like this one.


  1. I read this decades ago and liked it a lot. I think the story structure is part of Crofts' awareness that you couldn't just give people a mystery all the time.
    I wonder if advances in technology have made the mystery here harder to appreciate. The puzzle part is one where readers would once have had experience that would let them speculate about various red herring solutions, so that if (like me) they hadn't thought of the right one, they could kick themselves for missing it.

    1. I do think in general that advances in technology (loss of knowledge) can make things harder to appreciate, or at least more difficult to judge. A while back I read a book by Matsumoto (the review is now scheduled to appear late March) which was a great book, but the trick involved something that is definitely not common knowledge nowadays and very likely something a reader now will not think off. Matsumoto's "Ten to Sen" is also 'outdated', but it's a lot more easier to read with a 'mindset of then' and understand and appreciate that trick.