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The Cask

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years, 1 month ago

The Cask was Freeman Wills Crofts’s first novel — set in 1912, written in 1919 during a long convalescence, and published in 1920.  It was a success.  He made his reputation by it.  Yet railway timetables, an interest of his derided by several recent critics, are critical to the plot.  Why did they not annoy readers in 1920?

 

Probably the critics today are generally less familiar with railways and timetables than were most of Crofts’s contemporaries.  As applied to his work as a whole, the criticism is anyway exaggerated.  He wrote less about trains than about ships and boats, and probably described more mechanical and electrical lethal devices than he did timetables.  Yet his nautical and technical interests attract no objection.

 

Crofts is also criticised for creating “cardboard” characters.  Plainly he wrote for readers whose prime interest, in a detective story, lies in the unravelling of a puzzle plot.  But “cardboard” is no description of the principal character of The Cask, who is drawn both in detail and with sympathy.  And anyone who knows France will enjoy meeting the numerous models of Gallic courtesy among the minor characters.

 

The essence of the story is simple.  A hot-tempered man strangles a beautiful woman, packs her in a cask, and seeks to incriminate a scapegoat.

 

But the detail is involved.  The Cask, or, as at times it seems, two or even three casks, move mysteriously and confusingly both within Paris and London and between them.  In order to dissociate himself from the critical cask movements, the murderer adopts a disguise, and constructs an elaborate alibi.  The beginning and the end of the story are dramatic, but the detective work in between is laborious, and long inconclusive.

 

At this time Crofts had not yet invented Inspector French.  The police of London and Paris fail to solve the case of The Cask, and the successful detective is a private one, the half-English, half-French Georges La Touche, who appears in the last quarter of the book.

 

The construction of the plot has been praised even by the author’s detractors, but in fact leaves some loose ends.  For example the murderer could not, when first meeting the French carter, have known when to arrange to meet him again.  And he enjoyed some undeserved good luck, notably in the scapegoat’s having no alibi.

 

If you have the Stratus edition (of 2000) do not be misled by the irrelevant cover picture, or by the blurb.  The opening scene is a dock not a shipyard; the hand in the Cask was not severed; and far from the trail leading to “the seamy side of urban Paris”, the avenue de l’Alma (in 1918 renamed avenue George V) was and is one of the city’s smartest streets.

 

Anyone who likes Freeman Wills Crofts at all should enjoy this archetypal story.  For me, it’s very much a Golden Age favourite.

 

Richard Wells


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Crofts’ first novel—a famous work, and a landmark in the genre.  It’s old-fashioned, and closer in spirit and approach to Gaboriau than to Doyle or Freeman, let alone Christie or Chesterton or Bentley—and yet it would set the tone for much of the 1920s and 1930s.  It’s an enormous work (400 pages), but never boring—I was reminded of Heine’s famous comparison of Meyerbeer’s Huguenots to a Gothic cathedral, built by ‘a giant in the conception and design of the whole, a dwarf in the exhaustive execution of detail’.  A rich and solid plot, with many leads to follow (the various investigators continually find new information) and the reader knowing as much as (and deducing less than) the police, make it a fascinating work.  The plot is an elaborate plan to disarm suspicion (alibi) and incriminate another man.  The only flaw is that the final chapter feels somewhat rushed—we should have seen the murderer’s suicide, rather than being told about it at second-hand.

 

·        Tripartite structure:

o       I: UK: hunt for the cask and discovery of body (Crofts later thought it should be cut);

o       II: France: victim’s identity established; testing of two suspects’ alibis, and arrest of the wrong man

o       III: half-English, half-French detective clears Felix and proves murderer’s guilt

·        Very similar design to Cole’s The Brooklyn Murders: police case against suspect, and amateurs clear him.

 

Nick Fuller.

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