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Friday, 6 October 2017

Freeman Wills Crofts (1911-1986)

The  Golden Age
by Carol Westron

 Freeman Wills Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879. His father, who was also called Freeman Wills Crofts, was an officer in the army medical service and died of fever before his son was born. Crofts’ mother married again, this time to the vicar of Gilford in County Down, Ireland, and Crofts was brought up in the vicarage at Gilford.

In 1896, when Crofts was seventeen, he was apprenticed to his maternal uncle who was chief engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. For the next thirty-three years Crofts worked his way up his profession and was involved in many important engineering projects for bridges, viaducts and drainage schemes. His work as an engineer played a vital part in his writing career with engineering knowledge and train, boat and plane timetables forming the central core of his plots and investigations.

In 1912 Crofts married Mary Bellas Canning, the daughter of a bank manager. They were married for forty-five years until Crofts’ death. They had no children.

In 1919 Crofts had a long illness and was unable to work. He spent the time writing his first detective novel, The Cask (1920.) This was very well received and from that time until his death, thirty-seven years later, Croft wrote thirty-four detective fiction books, a large number of short stories, two stage plays, a radio play and two non-fiction books. Crofts had achieved a respected career in civil engineering and, as his last job in this field, he was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Government to chair an enquiry into the Bann and Lough Neagh Drainage Scheme. In 1929 Crofts retired to become a full-time writer. He and his wife moved to Guildford in Surrey and many of his mysteries are set in the surrounding area, such as The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) and Crime at Guildford (1935.) In 1953 they moved to Worthing in West Sussex and lived there until Crofts’ death in 1957.

In his fifth detective story, in 1924, Crofts created and introduced to the world the detective he is best remembered for, Detective Inspector Joseph French. The title of this novel, Inspector French’s Greatest Case implies that Crofts did not expect French to be the permanent and prolific figure in detective fiction and in Crofts’ own life that he became. Inspector French was a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to create a detective that was very different from the aristocratic and eccentric amateurs that dominated crime fiction at that time. Some years later, in 1936, when French had already featured in some thirteen full-length mysteries, Crofts’ American publisher, Dodd, Mead, informed their readers that Crofts had deliberately created Inspector French ‘as a foil to the theatrical and eccentric fictional sleuth’ and that the police detective was ‘a model of thoroughness, persistence and hardwork.’

Crofts’ work as an engineer influenced his work, which was usually based on some form of travel, whether by train, boat or plane, and alibis were usually built around timetables. This aspect of Crofts’ books is always clever and meticulous, although occasionally too detailed if you are not a person whose interests lie that way.

French himself is an ordinary, middle-class man, whose idea of relaxation is to sit at home, in his slippers, reading stories of sea adventures, and at weekends driving into the countryside for a stroll with his wife. In this way he is the polar opposite of the elegant, aristocratic detectives, Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and Roderick Alleyn, or the eccentric foreigner like Hercule Poirot. In his amusing article Meet Inspector French, Crofts describes French’s main characteristics as ‘thoroughness and perseverance as well as a reasonable amount of intelligence.’ French is an ordinary man who enjoys good relationships with the majority of his superiors and colleagues, and these friendships have been tested in the fires of criminal violence and danger. When describing French’s relationship with his ‘greatest friend’ Inspector Tanner, Croft recalls, ‘The adventure with the Mills’ bomb in the refreshment room at Waverley Station, Edinburgh... was only one occasion where the prompt help of the one had saved the life of the other.’ Although Crofts swiftly dispels the tension by remarking that their friendship ‘had survived perhaps the greatest test which could have been imposed upon it, a walking tour in the Scottish highlands lasting for ten days, nine of which were wet.’ (Mystery in the Channel, 1931.)

French’s wife, Emily, is very different from the wives of Wimsey, Campion and Alleyn. She is no crime fiction writer, engineer or artist with her own independent career, but a woman contented in the domestic sphere, looking after her home, husband and family. As she sits, knitting or mending, she occasionally has small ‘notions’ that help French to solve his cases, but her involvement in his cases is minimal. In Meet Inspector French, Crofts admits that he thinks he gave Inspector and Mrs French children but that he cannot remember where they were mentioned. This is particularly revealing when one remembers Crofts’ own childless marriage, clearly the author who could make could make sense and remember the details of the most intricate timetable or map had no interest in his character’s paternal status.  Crofts also confesses that, while his reasons for making French a Scotland Yard detective were very sound, he was somewhat hampered by the fact that he knew little about life and work at Scotland Yard. He proceeded on the assumption that the reading public would also know little about police procedure but admits that many of the letters he received from readers had informed him that this was an over-optimistic point of view. However, in the Golden Age, where authors were continually insinuating their amateur detectives into official police enquiries, Crofts’ procedural errors were not necessarily a major stumbling block. When investigating, French does not always obey the law in all matters and has been known to use skeleton keys to illegally search buildings.

Despite his calm and at times mundane demeanour, French can be moved to anger and a passion for justice, as when the body of an innocent, murdered witness is discovered buried in an embankment: ‘French was accustomed to murder and its awful results, but when he looked down on that face and thought of how it had been brought into that state, his anger grew hot against the criminal... If the murderer were not caught and if the murderer were not hanged, it would not be French’s fault.’ (The Hog’s Back Mystery, 1933)

The first fourteen of Crofts’ detective novels were cleverly crafted, straight-forward mysteries that, from Inspector French’s Greatest Case onwards, were usually dependent on French breaking a cunningly constructed alibi. In The 12.30 From Croydon, published in 1934, Crofts spread his wings both literally and metaphorically. Literally because the vehicle used was a plane not a train. Metaphorically because Crofts, for the first time, tried his hand at an inverted novel.

The inverted novel was first invented by another Freeman: R. Austin Freeman, and in the inverted novel the story begins with the killer planning and perpetrating his crime; the tension comes from following the investigation and wondering whether the detective will successfully identify the killer and, often more difficult, be able to prove his or her guilt. Crofts proved remarkably adept at the inverted novel. He managed to elicit understanding for the criminal, usually a man who had been pushed to the edge, but at the same time the reader has no doubt about the heinous nature of his crime. In The 12.30 From Croydon Crofts also showed his skill as a writer by introducing the plane journey through the eyes of a young girl. Most of Crofts’ readers would have travelled by train but commercial air travel was still a novelty and by describing it in the viewpoint of a child Crofts manages to include details and sensations that he would not have been able to introduce in any other viewpoint. Although Crofts changed his format in The 12.30 From Croydon, he did not abandon his detective and at the end of the book French received his long-awaited promotion to Chief

In Antidote to Venom (1938) Crofts made the inverted formula even more complex in a remarkable and very clever novel. However, Crofts was a deeply religious man and his religious beliefs were often inserted into his writing. As part of his non-fiction writing, he wrote as a modern biography, The Four Gospels in One Story (1949.) In Antidote to Venom he uses the conclusion of the book to make an evangelical point about redemption, and, as Martin Edwards observes in his masterly introduction to the British Library reprint of the book: ‘Most people will, I suspect, conclude that his experiment with structure is more successful than his portrayal of a criminal’s redemption. Even so, his bold inventiveness deserves respect.’

Julian Symons wrote an influential survey of detective fiction, Bloody Murder (1972.) In this he dismisses Crofts’ novels as part of what he describes as the humdrum school of crime fiction, a derogatory and, in my opinion, shallow term that has contributed to the dismissal of several excellent works of detective fiction. Raymond Chandler, one of the sternest critics of British Golden Age detective fiction, described Crofts as ‘the soundest builder of them all,’ although, not to go too far overboard in his praise, he added the rider, ‘when he doesn’t get too fancy.’ (The Simple Art of Murder, 1944.)

Crofts was a founder member of The Detection Club and was liked and esteemed by most of his colleagues. Agatha Christie paid him the compliment of including an Inspector French parody in her lively novel made up of linked short stories, Partners in Crime (1929.)

Crofts’ first novel The Cask was published in 1920, as was Christie’s debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Crofts outsold Christie and continued to do so for many years.  He was a writer who continually challenged himself and, in 1947, in the last few years of his life, he wrote a Young Adult adventure, Young Robin Brand, Detective, although this new venture still included his stalwart stand-by, Inspector French.

Above all, Crofts was an innovative writer who did something that few of his contemporaries attempted, he used his novels to speak out about social issues. In Mystery in the Channel (1931) French investigates the murder of two absconding financiers who have left thousands of their investors impoverished. The reader, along with the police officers, knows that the killer must be brought to justice but it is equally, if not more important, that the embezzled money is recovered and restored to those who have lost it. Nearly ninety years after the book was written this issue is as fresh and relevant as it was then.

Although Crofts faded in popularity, he never totally disappeared. Many of his books are still in print while others are being reprinted. I have confined the list of purchase details to the books by Crofts that are available but there are many others.

The Cask
Published by Collins Crime Club. ISBN: 978-0008190521. ASIN: B01CY4SU2E

Inspector French’s Greatest Case
Published by Collins Crime Club. ISBN: 978-0008190583. ASIN: B01GNSR27G

The Hog’s Back Mystery
Published by The British Library. ISBN: 978-0712357975. ASIN: B00UINPD1U

The 12.30 From Croydon
Published by The British Library. ISBN: 978-0712356497. ASIN: B01IR7MDB6

Mystery in the Channel
Published by The British Library. ISBN: 978-0712356510. ASIN: B01KG1RIIO

Crime at Guildford; The Four Gospels in One Story and Young Robin Brand, Detective
are only available second-hand.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

Read a review of Carol’s latest book
The Fragility of Poppies

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