Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Go Away Ghost Ship

"It was no disgrace, French thought, for any detective to take a leaf out of Holmes' book."
"The Loss of the Jane Vosper"

Never been that long on a ship, actually, now I think about it. The longest was spending the night on the ferry from Busan back to Fukuoka, but that was actually mostly lying for hours right in front of Fukuoka Harbor as it was still too early to land...

Inspector French series
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927)
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934)
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)

The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936)
Fatal Venture (1939)

The Jane Vosper was a steamer owned by the Southern Ocean Steam Navigation Company and like her captain, the ship was nearing retirement, but still more than capable of performing her job splendidly, like carrying various shipment towards South-America. Of course, mentioning one's retirement is close-by is what we call raising a death flag, so the genre-savvy reader is probably not as surprised as the Jane Vosper's crew by a series of mysterious experiments sinking the steamer to the bottom of the ocean, with luckily no human casualties. As the shipments and the steamer itself were insured by various companies, the financial hit for the primary victims is not huge, but the underwriters themselves find themself in a predicement, as the pay-out is not insignificant for them. An inquest and investigation by the various insurance companies show however that the explosions probably did not occur by accident, which means there was design behind the sinking of the Jane Vosper and its shipments. An insurance detective hired by the Land and Sea Insurance Company is sent to investigate whether their client might've sunk the ship on purpose, but he disappears one day without a trace, and Chief-Inspector French, a personal acquintance of the missing detective, steps in the world of insurance fraud in Freeman Wills Crofts The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936).

When people think of Crofts and Inspector French, they think of time-tables and alibi tricks, which is of course correct, but there are also few themes as Crofts-like, like the industry. Previous books I've read had introduced me to the financial worries of various young entrepeneurs, but also daring new ventures that tried to make a big buck. Crofts' debut work, The Cask, too opened with a look at the London docks and the various shipping companies. It's this world we see again in The Loss of the Jane Vosper, as we take a good look at the shipping companies again, as well as the insurance companies who have underwritten them. The opening chapter for example is probably the most tenseful text I've read by Crofts until now, as it details the ordeals of the captain of the Jane Vosper and his crew as they are caught off-guard by sudden explosions in the hold and their courageous, but ultimately hopeless efforts in trying to save the ship. Crofts is often accused of being a boring writer, but there's absolutely nothing boring about this opening and it's almost surprising how much happens in this first chapter, as it's definitely not what you'd normally expect from Crofts.

It's only when we are back in London, with the various insurance companies trying to find out whether the sinking was foul play for insurance fraud, that we are shown in detail why Crofts has the reputation of being boring. As much as I've enjoyed previous Crofts I've read, and I like to think myself to have gotten somewhat acquainted with his writing, but man, things move slowly in this book. The first few chapters are dedicated to the insurance detective's investigation into the sinking of the Jane Vosper, but he disappears soon, which paves the way for an entrance by Chief-Inspector French. What follows are chapters that show how incredibly meticulous the police works, but also how incredibly slow things go. French's method is to check things out in detail, so we see him tracing the last-known movements made by the insurance detective, but 90% of the middle part of the book consists of French learning very little new information, only getting confirmation on fact X or statement Y we had learned already. A lot of the book feels simply like its repeating what was said earlier already, and that can feel very tedious.

Of course, this is what Crofts does. But I never experienced it as intrusive in the other novels I read. For one, several of the other Crofts I read are inverted mystery novels. There the narrative follows both the culprit and French, and that results in a very different kind of story: that of the culprit first planning an ingenious detailed plan, who is then slowly cornered by Inspector French's meticulously conducted investigations. In these stories, seeing French chasing every possible lead thoroughly feels as a tool of creating tension, there is dynamic and there is momentum. In The Loss of the Jane Vosper however, a true suspect remains absent throughout most of the novel, so what you get is French investigating a lead, figuring it leads to nothing, moving on to the next lead, rinse and repeat. There is no momentum until the latter quarter of the book, so the path towards the end is very slow for most of the time. This is the first time I truly thought a Crofts was boring to read, and it made me understand the people saying that a lot better.

In a way, the book is built around the investigation of two alibis: Inspector French is trying to find out where the insurance detective went, so that means an investigation into his alibi on the day of his appearance. French does this like he'd do with a suspect, tracing every step the target is known to have taken, timing them, finding witnesses to collaborate the stories. Meanwhile, French is also taking a look at the sinking of the Jane Vosper, as an investigation into that means also an investigation into the footsteps of the disappearing detective. It is assumed explosives were smuggled into the hold of the Jane Vosper to sink them, but it seems impossible for the explosives to suddenly appear among the cargo. So this is a reverse alibi-investigation into an object: how did the object appear at a certain time in a certain place (its alibi), even though there is no trace as to how it could've appeared there. In theory, this structure should've been quite interesting, but again, the lack of any developments until very late in the book makes The Loss of the Jane Vosper less engaging that it should've been.

The truth revealed about the fate of the insurance detective, as well as the mystery of how the Jane Vosper was sunk the bottom of the ocean is, well, not bad. There is an ingenious scheme going on behind this all, and one has to admit, Inspector French was only able to solve this case because he works so incredibly meticulously, because he checks, double-checks and triple-checks every little detail he comes across. The question is: how many readers are still there when he finally unveils the plot?

For those interested in a mystery(-oriented) series about an insurance investigator: the manga Master Keaton is great!

So I find it difficult to be really positive about The Loss of the Jane Vosper. When you turn the final page, you're left with a mystery plot that is certainly what you'd expect from Crofts, with a crafty scheme going on set in an industry background which is described in detail, but the way the story is told is quite slow, and I thought that as someone who has read Crofts for a while now and never found his writing as dreadful as his reputation goes. Dreadful is not the word I'd use for The Loss of the Jane Vosper either, not at all, but I wouldn't pick this book as my first Crofts either.


  1. Thanks for the review. :) Having read, and enjoyed, 'Hog's Back Murders', I was hoping for a strong second read - but didn't quite enjoy 'Jane Vosper'.

    1. Haven't read Hog's Back Murders yet, but of the ones I've read, I'd recommend The Starvel Tragedy and Mystery on Southampton Water as my favorites.

  2. I write it here because I can not find the address we can communicate with.

    I've been following your blog for a long time, Ho-Ling.
    Can you make the best ten or twenty lists among the novels you read so far? (Not translated into English )
    And can you say which of these will translate into English? (Via LRI)

    Sorry for my bad English.

    1. Leaving a comment in the posts is absolutely fine, I'll be able to find it!

      I'm glad to hear you've been reading the blog for a long time! I don't really think about it usually, but I just noticed I've been writing for a long time now...

      And sorry, I'm absolutely horrible at making top 10 (top anything) lists, as the day after I'll disagree with the list I made the day before :P I usually select the ten most interesting mystery titles (not only novels) I read in a year in an end-of-year post, so the things I name there should be interesting at any rate.

      I also can't speak for translations, nor for LRI as a publisher. I translate for LRI, but it's John Pugmire who eventually selects the titles, and obviously, LRI focuses on locked room mysteries and other impossible crimes (there are also plenty of mystery novels I absolutely love, and I'd like to see translated some day so more people can learn about them, but don't fall within the scope of LRI). I can not in any capacity about what LRI will do in the future (unless it's a project I happen to be involved in, obviously).