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Posts Tagged ‘Freeman Wills Crofts’

12.30 from croydon

I wonder how many British Library Crime Classics there are? There appears to be millions and I am constantly worried I will miss some especially brilliant ones – as I have so many unread books already. So, I may have only read a handful of these books so far (several more tbr of course) – but this one is probably my favourite to date. I had read one Freeman Wills Crofts mystery before – The Hogs Back Mystery – which is really good, but in my opinion The 12.30 from Croydon  is far superior.

Now don’t judge me – but I am a bit of a closet Columbo fan. I don’t watch them so often these days – mainly because I have seen them all more than once, but I still love that rumpled little detective. The thing with Columbo is that the viewer always knows who the murderer is – they are often a little too sure they have committed the perfect crime. Along comes Peter Falk in his creased raincoat and pieces it all together bit by bit – he is always courteous and happily lets the criminal think him a fool. With Columbo the reader is always sure the murderer will get his/her just desserts – with this novel, however the reader can’t be quite so certain. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you either. From about the second chapter – we know who the murderer is – but there are plenty of things we don’t know. The main thing being whether they get away with it or not.

It’s never all that easy to review mystery novels – but this one is particularly difficult. Freeman Wills Crofts however is a consummate storyteller – and this novel is so compelling it is impossible not to fly through it.

“How strange it was, Charles ruminated that the useless and the obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early!”

As the novel opens, a retired, wealthy manufacturer Andrew Crowther, his son-in-law Peter Morley and Peter’s young daughter Rose are on their way to catch the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Peter’s wife Elsie has been involved in an accident in Paris – and although not too badly hurt her family are naturally anxious to be at her side. Young Rose’s worry about her mother is over-ridden by her excitement at flying for the first time. It is also her grandfather’s first time flying – having been given permission to fly by his doctor – Andrew Crowther is travelling with his manservant Weatherup. The family enjoy a simple in-flight meal – and then prepare to land. When the plane comes to a standstill Andrew Crowther is found to be dead in his seat.

So far, so conventional, an opening reminiscent of other Golden Age mysteries – gets the story off to an excellent start. Then, in a flashback starting a few weeks before the death of Andrew Crowther, the viewpoint switches to that of his eventual murderer. Crofts allows us into the mind of a murderer, from the conception of the idea through the battle with conscience, the ingenious preparation for the murder of Andrew Crowther, the covering of the tracks and of course the eventual crime itself. Money is of course at the root of everything – isn’t it always. The financial crisis has hit some people hard, and Andrew Crowther was scathing about business failures – declaring them, the result of laziness. Charles Swinburn is now the owner of the manufacturing business his uncle built up, now Andrew Crowther is reluctant to help, sneering at his nephew for taking his eye off the ball – completely misunderstanding the reality of the financial crisis. Charles is about to go bankrupt – although he has managed to disguise from most people just how bad the situation is – and to top it all he has fallen hopelessly in love with a society beauty who will not be interested in a poor man.

“Here was Andrew Crowther, a man whose existence was a misery to himself and a nuisance to all around him. Why should he be spared and others who were doing great work in the world be cut off in their prime? It didn’t somehow seem right. For the sake of himself and everyone else it would be better if Andrew were to die.”

Then comes the terrible fear of detection – so sure that they’ve thought of everything, that nothing can betray them – and yet what if… Murder isn’t easy to live with. There is an inquest to sit through, a will to be read, equanimity to be preserved. There are several unexpected shocks along the way – and naturally, policemen asking questions. Another murder proves necessary, the grizzly business carried out and dealt with – and suspicion seems to be falling on someone else entirely – could the wrong man be about to pay for Andrew Crowther’s murder?

Unlike most Golden Age mysteries, the policemen are not at the centre of the story – in fact they operate rather more off stage. Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard is eventually brought in, when dissatisfaction with the inquest is expressed – and he quietly, and unobtrusively goes about his business.

It is the psychology of the criminal which is so well done here I thought – the self-delusion as well as self-justification, paranoia and simple connivance which drives the narrative and makes it so readable.

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hogsbackmystery

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.

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