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FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS. Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925).

06 Jul

The title of this book oversells it contents badly. Calling it “Inspector French’s Pretty Good Case” would be closer to the mark. That modest appraisal would also be closer to the spirit of the title character himself. French, a stolid embodiment of English middle-class propriety, talks straight and has no time for puffery. Clear facts and the clear-eyed analysis thereof are all that concern him. Unlike the title, moreover, the style used to narrate this first Inspector French adventure thoroughly matches the temper of its protagonist. Crofts writes in an easy-going, unassuming manner; his prose, occasionally ponderous but always on point, is marked less by scintillating wit than by steady intelligence. The novel as a whole, meanwhile, offers moments of quiet grandeur that make its lack of greatness entirely forgivable.

GreatestCaseThe tale gets off to a wholly conventional start. A bobby on his rounds in Hatton Garden, a district in London known for its concentration of diamond merchants, answers a summons to the office of Duke & Peabody. There he finds the slain body of Charles Gething, the head clerk of that firm. Near the spot where someone bludgeoned the poor soul with a poker, a safe stands open; a cache of valuable stones and £100 in notes have gone missing from it. The bobby calls in Scotland Yard, and French takes responsibility for the matter. Thus begins a long and winding inquiry that, in Crofts’s telling, reads as if it sprung in equal measure from the leaves of a policeman’s casebook and the pages of a Baedeker guide. To Switzerland and Spain, to Amsterdam and various ports on the Atlantic coast of Europe, and to multiple destinations both in London and across England, French travels in pursuit of one investigative lead after another. Again and again, those leads show promise and then come to nothing. “It was a confoundingly exasperating case” for French, Crofts reports midway through the book. “Being on it was like trying to cross a stream on stepping-stones which invariably gave way when he came to place his weight on them.”

In time, French does find his footing. Doggedness, rather than deduction, characterizes the process by which he discovers the scheme that led to murder and robbery in Hatton Garden. Indeed, that scheme—replete with disguised identities, tricked-up alibis, and lots of maneuvering via taxi, train, or boat—proves to be cleverer than the sleuthing work that exposes it. The case ends with a sharp twist that surprises French no less than it does the reader. Instead of divining that part of the solution from clues known to him, he merely stumbles upon it. In any event, proceduralism wins the day: French closes the case by marching patiently through a well-mapped field of evidence, and without resorting to bold leaps of intuition.

Although the affair lacks the puzzle-solving pyrotechnics found in other Golden Age novels, and although parts of it are slow and plodding, it’s hardly the work of a “humdrum” writer (as the critic Julian Symons famously labeled Crofts). In a lull before the storm that will come when French apprehends his quarry aboard a ship in transit, Crofts paints his hero against a background rife with drama:

French stood in front of his porthole gazing out over the heaving waters. Daylight had completely gone, but there was a clear sky and a brilliant full moon. The sea looked like a ghostly plain of jet with, leading away across it, a huge road of light, its edges sparkling with myriad flashes of silver.

Sprinkled throughout this not-so-great case are fine passages like that one—brief descriptions that confer a mood of enchantment on seemingly ordinary events. These passages exemplify a key insight offered by G.K. Chesterton in his defense of the detective genre: “[I]t is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.”

 
4 Comments

Posted by on July 6, 2020 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Procedural

 

4 responses to “FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS. Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925).

  1. Christophe

    July 6, 2020 at 1:51 PM

    Very interesting, and probably keen, observation about the personality of French and the writing style of Crofts! Se non e vero, e ben trovato.

     
    • Mike

      July 6, 2020 at 2:18 PM

      Thanks for the comment, Christophe. As the old saying goes, “The style is the man.”

       
  2. JJ

    July 7, 2020 at 3:49 AM

    The ending really did take me by surprise — as you say, it’s more that French stumbles into it, but it’s still a nice little shock to close things out. And, yes, it’s a fairly mundane case to be his “Greatest”, which made me suspect whether French was only due to get one starring role, like the detectives before him in Crofts’ oeuvre, before the merits of a series detective occurred to him and he changed his mind.

     
    • Mike

      July 7, 2020 at 8:45 AM

      Greetings, JJ. I read somewhere that, indeed, Crofts had no intention of beginning a series with this book. As you say, it’s very poor marketing practice to launch a project by saying (in effect), “It’s all downhill from here.” This title is the first by Crofts that I’ve read, and I gather from chatter around the Web that some works from later in the series are quite a bit better.

       

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