Monday, March 16, 2015

Straight Chaser

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.


  1. I think you have found that the best Crofts are the ones where Inspector French shows up early. I have found that to be the case. They include some of the following:
    1. The Purple Sickle Murders
    2. Sir John Magill's Last Journey
    3. The Sea Mystery (my favorite)
    4. Death on the Way
    5. The Hog's Back Mystery
    6. Mystery in the Channel
    7. The Loss of the Jane Vosper (French shows up a bit later, but the initial investigation is also good)
    8. The Cask (This is his first novel. It is not a French, but rather has a number of police investigators. It is probably the first full-fledged novel of police procedure.)

    Crofts is a very solid detective fiction plotter; Raymond Chandler thought he was the best plotter. The pleasure you get from Crofts is that of observing a master craftsman putting together a fine and very intricate watch. I wish I could find a modern writer who can do what he did even half as well.

    There are some people who have found him to be boring, and have even said so in books. To each his own. But there is no real critic but time. I think he has maintained a small but steady fan base over the decades. As you indicate, he even has an international fan base. I note the British Library has scheduled republication of both Antidote for Venom and The Hog's Back Mystery for July later this year.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I think I already have "The Cask" somewhere, but I'll see which of the others I can easily get.

      Crofts is always doing fairly well in Japan, I think. Publisher Sogensha has a "Reprint Festival" every year, where they reprint about six OOP titles (last year had Brand's "Death of Jezebel", amongst others), and I think Crofts is one of the regulars, appearing once every couple of years.

    2. Most of Croft's books are easy to get at, although I can't vouch for the quality of the reprint presses. But, as I said, Crofts has maintained a fan base in spite of all the odds. In fact, he is coming up for his centenary as an author in five more years since The Cask was published in 1920. I notice that recently Mysterious Press put out a Kindle edition of The Cask. It is something of an achievement to last 100 years. This is in contradistinction to Hillary Waugh. Waugh wrote some of the best police procedurals that were ever written; Last Seen Wearing is a classic of the genre. And yet, as John recently pointed out in his blog Sinister Books, not one of Waugh's books is in print, and as far as I can tell that is the case. It has always seemed to me that mystery fans do not treat the history of their genre with the respect it deserves. Science fiction fans would never allow this to happen; there is a fairly vigorous reprint campaign that goes on constantly in science fiction.

    3. I have to admit, I had never heard of Waugh before. A quick look at Amazon Japan told me that at least over there, about three or four books are still in print (or at least available), of the approx. 15 translated novels.

      I know next to nothing about the science-fiction genre, but I wonder whether literary histories of SF are also as divided about the major players / movements / the direction the genre "should" be heading for / etcetera as with the mystery genre....

    4. There is a lot of fan discussion on the science fiction field, and this has been going on at least as far back as the letter columns of the Munsey pulps in the early years of the 20th century. As far as I can tell, the first fanzines were science fiction fanzines which made their first appearance in the 1930s; these mimeographed productions have been superseded by computer blogs. There are a lot of Wikipedia articles on the various stages and movements of science fiction, and that can get you started. Science fiction appears to me to have more critical apparatus than any of the other genres. It also has what seems to me to have the oldest and most influential mass fan movement. I note that the Day index to the science fiction pulp magazines was published as early as 1952, and it was fairly thorough, although it cannot now compare with the online Internet Speculative Fiction Database, which is enormous and almost complete for almost every author and every science fiction story ever published. The online Science Fiction Encyclopedia is similarly enormous, with biographical details and critiques of almost every sf author. The world's first science fiction convention (and probably the world's first mass convention to celebrate and discuss a popular fiction genre) was the first World Science Fiction Convention held in 1939. Science fiction has been divided into its periods, its Golden Ages and New Waves and all the rest of it. There is a Wikipedia article on the Golden Age of Science Fiction which can get you started.

      I am much more a science fiction fan than a mystery fan, but I am not aware that detective fandom has anything even remotely similar to this kind of fan interest in the totality of its field. I have not even been able to find any general index to the detective pulps. My impression is that the great bulk of detective story fans are limited in their interest to only the newest authors. When I go to the book store and look at authors in print in the science fiction section, I notice a good many older authors mixed in with the new ones, even some fairly obscure older authors; when I go to the detective section, there are hardly any, except for the big names. I am still amazed that even at this late date there has not been a complete collected edition of Hammett's Continental Op stories in reliable texts (the closest we seem to come is the old Ellery Queen editions and those texts don't seem to be reliable).

      In short, it seems to me that the two fandoms are very different. But I guess that should not be surprising; we now live in the science fiction world.