Crofts, Freeman Wills

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Freeman Wills CroftsSources: Mike Grost, Nick Fuller


Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957) was born in Dublin, Ireland. He attended Methodist College and Campbell College in Belfast. At the age of 18, he was employed as a pupil on the civil engineering staff of the Belfast Counties Railway. He held various positions in railway engineering, becoming Chief Assistant Engineer at the Railway, then known as the L.M.S. Northern Counties Committee. While there, Crofts wrote his first novel, The Cask (1920), which established him as a new master of detective fiction. Thereafter he wrote several fine mysteries about his favorite detective, Inspector French, including Inspector French's Greatest Case (1924). He also wrote one religious book, The Four Gospels in One Story, several short stories, and short plays for the BBC.


In 1912 he married Mary Bellas Canning, the daughter of J.J. Canning of Coleraine, Northern Ireland. In 1939 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. After a full and successful writing career, he died in 1957.


The Pit-Prop Syndicate is available from Project Gutenberg.


“No living writer is so honestly realistic about the awful tedium of routine detective work, or more scrupulous not to allow more good luck to his policemen than is reasonable. If it were not that he can abbreviate whole days of fruitless inquiry into a sentence, if the reader really had to accompany Inspector French through each stage of detection, the wearisome business would break the spirit. But because he can abbreviate and is so austerely realistic Mr. Wills Croft is deservedly a first favourite with all who want a real puzzle.” – Times Literary Supplement, 12th May 1931


Freeman Wills Crofts was one of the "Big Five" detective writers in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s.  He was the pioneer of the Unbreakable Alibi and realistic police detection, and spawned many imitators.  Transport is a dominant theme in his books, and his stories concern ships, boats, aeroplanes, and cars.  Surprisingly few of his works, however, involve railway time-tables.  While his characterisation was inferior to that of John Rhode or J.J. Connington, and his books lack the humour and style of Dorothy L. Sayers or the Coles, he was a master of lucid exposition and logical plot construction, rising on occasion to misdirection worthy of Agatha Christie.  An ingenious and immensely satisfying writer.


Among his best works: The Cask; The Groote Park Murder; The Starvel Tragedy; The Sea Mystery; Sir John Magill's Last Journey; The 12.30 from Croydon; Mystery on Southampton Water; and Found Floating.



Crofts and Other Writers


Some of the crooks' schemes remind one technologically of R. Austin Freeman's Danby Croker stories, especially "The Brazen Serpent". Crofts was very influenced by Freeman; and the references to him here, as in The Cask, are clearly intended as a homage. There is also some technological similarity to Meade and Eustace, who stand behind Freeman in the scientific detective story tradition. M&E's crooks engage in industrial enterprises, too; they emphasize means of communication; and they pioneered the sinister use of basements: all features found in The Box Office Murders. It is odd to see such continuity across nearly 30 years in time. The heavy involvement of women in the tale, both as villains and protagonists, is also an M&E tradition. There are other signs of continuity between M&E and the Croftsian school, perhaps through Eustace, who was active through the 20's. His "The Tea-Leaf" (1925) has a similar setting as Wade's slightly later "The Three Keys", and Dorothy L. Sayers was collaborating with Eustace, and pointing out M&E's pioneering role in the school of scientific detection.


Crofts' novel does seem somewhat anticipatory of later Big Caper tales, wherein thieves plot some big heist from a museum, say, complete with careful organization, and some technological gimmickry. This was a subject that was popular in post World War II movies. However, Big Caper tales tend to focus on one-time events, such as a major robbery, whereas Crofts' book deals with an ongoing criminal enterprise; and Big Caper tales have the thieves as protagonists, whereas Crofts' hero is the police detective French.


Crofts' book also shows some similarities to the drug smuggling episodes in such books as Sayers' Murder Must Advertise (1933) and Christie's Partners in Crime (1929). However, if these writers show some of Crofts' interest in criminal organization, they are miles away from his technological interests and skills. Crofts' books are also oddly like the Stratemeyer syndicate novels: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are always meeting suspicious characters, whose sinister schemes they have to track down. Just as in Crofts' books, the issue of whodunit does not apply: the crooks are identified early on. And just like in Crofts' tales, the issue is not murder, but some disreputable money making scheme. Crofts also has mild thriller elements, just like the Stratemeyer books. At the end, a young woman gets kidnapped by the bad guys, just like the ending of dozens of Nancy Drew stories. Even Crofts compares this with numerous "thrillers" read by the young lady in question. Crofts shows a feminist slant here, burlesquing these thrillers' passive heroines and male rescues; his own heroine has to show a lot more gumption. Even during these well done thriller sequences, Crofts continues to paint a picture of the technological and organizational aspects of his villains' crime scheme. His kidnapped heroine, too, has to show an imagination that is largely technological.


Comparisons Among Crofts' Novels


If Crofts' book seems largely sui generis in Golden Age detective fiction, it does have an important ancestor within his own work: The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922). A fair proportion of that novel is taken up with a complex criminal scheme very similar to the one in The Box Office Murders. There are even technological gimmicks used in common in both books. A great deal of other kinds of material are included in that earlier book, however, and they are unfortunately inferior to the ingenious criminal scheme. There is a murder and its endless investigation, only marginally relevant to the crime scheme. The book stops to switch gears while the amateur investigators of the early chapters are replaced by the policemen of the later ones. There is a romance subplot, innocuous but stilted. By the time The Pit-Prop Syndicate is done, a good novella about a clever crime scheme has been padded out into an often very dull novel with a little bit of everything. Still the crime scheme is well done, and the book forms an interesting pair with The Box Office Murders. When he came to write the second book, Crofts wisely concentrated on a single subject, and a single professional detective investigating it.


Crofts' stories have an even flowing tone, that reminds one of Hawthorne. They march steadily on, without climax or structure, steadily, step by step unveiling his mystery plots and descriptions of events. Oddly enough, while The Cask is a puzzle plot and The Box Office Murders is not, The Cask seems much more realistic than the other book, which seems more like a fantasy of The Perfect Crime. Also, the investigative procedure in The Cask also seems much more authentic, although I admit this personal impression is not based on any genuine knowledge on my part of police procedure in the 1920's. French's detectival technique in The Box Office Murders seems largely designed to unravel cunning criminal conspiracies, and such conspiracies seem to me to be basically a fictional fantasy. By contrast, the police techniques in The Cask look as if they could be used to solve real life crimes. The Box Office Murders has one advantage over its predecessor The Pit-Prop Syndicate, in that all of the detection is done by pros. The amateurs of the early chapters of the earlier book were always having their investigative hands tied by their amateur status. That book's crime could have been solved much earlier (and more entertainingly) if some professional police had taken charge, with warrants to search everything and investigate all. French's full frontal assault on the conspiracy in The Box Office Murders is much more satisfying as a logical approach to investigating such a situation.


The Short Stories


"The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express" (1921), is apparently Crofts' earliest short story. It has been widely reprinted as a "classic". But I have to confess that I was simply unable to understand the story. It depends heavily on the physical properties of trains and railway engines of the era, and I am simply too ignorant about these things to follow the tale. This story cries out for multi-media extension, with photographs and diagrams of period trains, glossaries of technical terms, and a detailed commentary on Crofts' solution, which I found especially incomprehensible. This is not intended as a criticism of Crofts' work, just as an indication of a specialized technical subject that has now vanished into the mists of time. However, I am not sure that even if I understood this story, I would enjoy any mystery given such a purely technical solution. "The Hunt Ball", a later short story, is a mild inverted tale. It contains a good clue, but only one of them, and is certainly no classic. The best short story by Crofts I have read is "The Greuze" (1921). This is a tale of ingenious rogues, but it is not so much in the Raffles-Arsène Lupin tradition of the Rogue School. Although it deals with crime, not murder, it falls closer to the classic puzzle plot mystery, and shows admirable misdirection.


Two of the Detection Club's round robins have recently been published in a single volume, the novella length "Behind the Screen" (1930), and the novel The Scoop (1931). The majority of the contributors to both works were British realists of the era: Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C. Bentley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Father Ronald Knox. The plot of The Scoop has some ingenuity, although the villain is easily guessable early on. The second half of the novel seems padded, although Crofts does some nice work on alibis in his Chapter 11. Crofts' sections introduce a Scotland Yard inspector, with what is surely a piece of self conscious humor on his part - what else would anyone expect a Crofts section to be about?

In the preface to the Collins Library of Classics edition of the The Cask, Freeman Wills Crofts gives  us a valuable insight into the method of his writing and its foundation in the puritan ethos of economy. While The Cask "was built up, as it were, from hand to mouth" and "runs to something like 120,000 words. I have since discovered that the same royalties are obtainable for 80,000. Bitterly have I regretted those 40,000 wasted words."

 "Nowadays I begin a new book by working out the plot in fairly complete detail, noting (a) the method of the murder, (b) what steps the criminal takes to avoid suspicion, and (c) how the detectives eventually detect him — usually the most difficult of the three. Also, I prepare a list of the main incidents, details and histories of the necessary characters, and a chronology giving the order of the happenings. All this really amounts to a detailed synopsis, and it is pretty complete before I begin to write a word."






The Cask (1920)

The Ponson Case (1921)

The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922)

The Groote Park Murder (1923)

Inspector French's Greatest Case (1924)

Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926) aka The Cheyne Mystery

Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927) aka The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

The Sea Mystery (1928)

The Box Office Murders (1929) aka The Purple Sickle Murders

Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930)

Mystery in the Channel (1931) aka Mystery in the English Channel

Sudden Death (1932)

Death on the Way (1932) aka Double Death

The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) aka The Strange Case of Dr Earle

The 1230 from Croydon (1934) aka Wilful and Premeditated

Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) aka Crime on the Solent

Crime at Guildford (1935) aka The Crime at Nornes

The Loss of the 'Jane Vosper' (1936)

Man Overboard! (1936) aka Cold-Blooded Murder abridged

Found Floating (1937)

The End of Andrew Harrison (1938) aka The Futile Alibi

Antidote to Venom (1938)

Fatal Venture (1939) aka Tragedy in the Hollow

Golden Ashes (1940)

James Tarrant, Adventurer (1941) aka Circumstantial Evidence

The Losing Game (1941) aka A Losing Game

Fear Comes to Chalfont (1942)

The Affair at Little Wokeham (1943) aka Double Tragedy

The Hunt Ball Murder (1943) story

Mr Sefton, Murderer (1944) story

Enemy Unseen (1945)

Death of a Train (1946)

Murderers Make Mistakes (1947) 23 stories

Silence for the Murderer (1949)

French Strikes Oil (1952) aka Dark Journey

Many a Slip (1955) 21 stories

The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express and other stories (1956)

Anything to Declare? (1957)


Uncollected stories

Fingerprints (1952)

The Faulty Stroke (1952)

The Target (1953)


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