Previously published on my Booklikes Blog on March 24, 2018
Title: The Hog’s Back Mystery
Author: Freeman Wills Crofts
Year of Publication: 1933
Plot Summary (from Goodreads): Dr James Earle and his wife live in comfortable seclusion near the Hog’s Back, a ridge in the North Downs in the beautiful Surrey countryside. When Dr Earle disappears from his cottage, Inspector French is called in to investigate. At first he suspects a simple domestic intrigue – and begins to uncover a web of romantic entanglements beneath the couple’s peaceful rural life.
The case soon takes a more complex turn. Other people vanish mysteriously, one of Dr Earle’s house guests among them. What is the explanation for the disappearances? If the missing people have been murdered, what can be the motive? This fiendishly complicated puzzle is one that only Inspector French can solve.
Freeman Wills Crofts was a master of the intricately and ingeniously plotted detective novel, and The Hog’s Back Mystery shows him at the height of his powers. This new edition of a classic mystery is introduced by the crime fiction expert Martin Edwards.
The Hog’s Back Mystery is identified by Martin Edwards in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books in Chapter 4, “Play Up! Play Up! And Play the Game!, as an example of the fair play mystery, where the author drops all of the clues needed to solve the mystery. As an added bonus, Crofts included a “clue finder” in the final chapter, where Inspector French walks the reader through the solution.
I’ve settled on three stars for this one. The first half of the book was really a two star read for me – I struggled with the pace and felt that it really dragged. I rarely take more than a couple of days to read a book, unless it is weighty non-fiction, so the fact that I started this all the way back on March 3 is pretty telling. I’ve finished at least 5 books since then, all of which were started after March 3.
However, the second half of the book was a four star read, and it flew by. I picked the book up again today, and within a few pages had gotten to a third disappearance, and suddenly I was completely engaged, and finished it in about an hour.
I think that part of my issue with the book was really Crofts’s focus on the “fair play” aspect of the mystery. He obviously wanted to use the clue finder technique, but to me, that bogged things down in unnecessary explication and tedious detail, to the detriment of character development. I had a terrible time even remembering who all of the characters were – I found them all fairly flat and interchangeable.
Except for Inspector French, who I really liked a lot. There were also some little details that Crofts brought into the story to humanize him that I appreciated, such as the brief scene where he and his wife take a day trip out to the shore that was just so charming:
“They enjoyed every minute of it and found the breath of sea air invigorating and wholly delightful. These excursions counted for a great deal in both their lives. Though married for more years than French cared to contemplate, he and his wife remained as good pals as ever they had been.”
I always love it when I see glimpses of good marriages in crime fiction, because they are so rare. All too often fictional detectives are depicted as dysfunctional cheating alcoholics with their lives in turmoil, so Inspector French’s simple, prosaically happy marriage was a breath of fresh air that added some much needed complexity to his character.
It has long been clear to me that character depth and development is just as important to my enjoyment of a book as a compelling plot or a surprising twist. I will definitely give Crofts another go on the strength of my affinity for French, but for my money, he could forgo some of the tedious clue dropping and just get on with the story.