Hello, I feel as if I have neglected this blog a little this week. I have simply been very busy and over-tired. I haven’t read as much as usual so far during July and I am finding that frustrating, I am fighting a constant battle with wanting to read but being almost too tired to manage more than a few pages. Having failed to get beyond about page 80 with my previous read, I opted for something altogether different. When times are tough, I reach for a Golden Age crime style novel, and the wonderful British Library Crime Classics came to my aid with The Hog’s Back Mystery.
This is the first mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, that I’ve read, a prolific writer I wasn’t even aware of before. The Hog’s Back Mystery was his fourteenth novel, the fifth featuring his well-known policeman Inspector French.
Freeman Wills Crofts, was a railway engineer who began writing in 1919 during a long illness. Hi first novel The Cask was published in 1920 and he followed it up with almost one book every year for the next thirty-seven years. As well as mystery novels, Freeman Wills Crofts published short story collections and both stage and radio plays. In his introduction to this edition, crime writer Martin Edwards, describes The Hog’s Back Mystery as the work of a skilled craftsman at the height of his powers.
“A short curving drive brought them to the house, a typical modern South of England cottage, with lower walls of purple brick, upper storey and roof of ‘antique’ red tiles and steel-framed casement windows. In front and at both sides the trees had been cleared back to leave room for a small garden. All round was the wood.”
The Hog’s Back Mystery is set near the Hog’s Back, a ridge in the North Downs of the Surrey countryside. Dr James Earle and his wife Julia live in a particularly secluded spot, in their cottage St Kilda. As the novel opens, Julia Earle and her sister Marjorie – who is visiting – are meeting Ursula Stone, an old friend from schooldays, off the train. The three women are all somewhere between thirty-five and forty, but Julie’s husband who she only married a few years earlier, is already sixty and semi-retired from his practice. Ursula immediately senses that the Earle marriage is not as happy as it could be. It becomes obvious that Julie is very friendly with a neighbour Reggie Slade – a man residing with relatives, whose only real talent seems to be his knowledge of horses. Already feeling a little unsettled with the atmosphere at St Kilda, Ursula is further convinced that things are far from right when she is obliged to go up to London for the day. Having clearly heard Dr Earle announce his intention of playing golf at the links near Guildford, Ursula is therefore surprised to see him sitting in a car with an unknown woman in a London street.
“Slowly the hours of that day dragged away without bringing to light the slightest information about the missing man. Earle had utterly and completely vanished – vanished instantaneously. At one moment seated in his chair, settled down for the evening, entirely normal, dressed for the house: three minutes later, gone. Neither sight nor sound of his going: no trace left: no hint either of cause or method: no suggestion of motive: no explanation anywhere of any part of it. Spirited away!”
Three days later, on a seemingly normal Sunday evening, while Ursula is visiting some other friends a few miles away, Dr Earle disappears from his sitting room, while Julia and her sister are clearing away the supper things. An extensive search is carried out, but it appears as if Dr Earle was only wearing his slippers, had no coat with him, and had been in the middle of reading the Observer. By the end of the night the police have been called, and Inspector French of the Yard is soon on the case.
French is faced with trying to discover whether the case is a domestic one of deliberate disappearance or something much more sinister. The case is further complicated by two further disappearances, at least one of which French is convinced is a murder. Yet, if all three people have really been murdered what can the motive possibly be?
I found this novel deeply engaging, it’s ingeniously plotted and the solution is fiendishly difficult to work out – I wonder if anyone actually ever does. Unusually, Freeman Wills Crofts satisfies the armchair detective by providing; in the final chapter where French sets out his evidence – the page numbers where the clues could have been spotted. Although the character development is not as strong as some other mystery writers of this period – Freeman Wills Crofts writes a very compelling mystery, which I couldn’t help but enjoy enormously.