Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts

Title: Mystery in the Channel
Author: Freeman Wills Crofts
Publication Year: 1931
Pages: 256

Plot Summary (from Goodreads): Mystery in the Channel is a classic crime novel with a strikingly modern sub-text. The story begins with a shocking discovery. The captain of the Newhaven to Dieppe steamer spots a small pleasure yacht lying motionless in the water, and on closer inspection, sees a body lying on the deck. When members of his crew go aboard the yacht, they find not one male corpse but two. Both men have been shot, but there is no sign of either the murderer or the pistol. The dead men, it quickly emerges, were called Moxon and Deeping, and they were chairman and vice-chairman respectively of the firm of Moxon General Securities, one of the largest financial houses in the country. Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard is called in, reporting directly to the Assistant Commissioner, Sir Mortimer Ellison. French soon discovers that Moxon’s is on the brink of collapse. One and a half million pounds have gone missing, and so has one of the partners in the business. Moxon and Deeping seem to have been fleeing the country with their ill-gotten gains, but who killed them, and how? French faces one of the toughest challenges of his career, and in a dramatic climax, risks his life in a desperate attempt to ensure that justice is done.

This was my second Inspector French mystery, which I preferred to the first, The Hog’s Back Mystery. My primary complaint about The Hog’s Back Mystery was that it got bogged down in tedious detailing of the clues, and that Crofts skimped on supporting character development, resulting in characters who were difficult to tell apart.

To be quite frank, those complaints remained in this installment, albeit to a lesser degree. The book begins with a bang – a steamer finds a yacht dead in the water, with two dead bodies on board. From there, it is towed back to port, where the dead are speedily identified and the search for the murderer commences.

Thinking back on the book at its conclusion, I do not think that there was a single female character in this book. Inspector French may have spoken to a female shopkeeper at some point during the tale while he was canvassing for information about a suspect, but, if he did, it was in such passing that it didn’t register with me at all. Every character of consequence in this book was a man.

It is quickly established that the two victims were principals in a financial firm which was on the brink of failure. It being 1931, there was no taxpayer funded Troubled Assets Recovery Program available to bail out the firm, or its clients, which resulted in thousands of ordinary Brits losing their fortunes, such as they were. It was also quickly established that someone had looted whatever was left of the money, and that the murders appeared to have something to do with this financial chicanery.

I loved this aspect of the book. It was, in fact, a “strikingly modern subtext.” I, like the Assistant Commissioner quoted below, find the fraudulent machinations of the already wealthy to enrich their already overflowing pockets, disgusting:

“The Assistant Commissioner was a man who, while utterly relentless in his war on crime, not infrequently showed a surprising sympathy with the criminal. He always deplored the punishment of the out-of-work or the poorly paid, who, seeing his family in want, had stolen to relieve their immediate needs. Even on occasion he had surprised French by expressing regret as to the fate of the murderers. Murderers, he held, were by no means necesssarily hardened criminals. In their ranks, they numbered some of the most decent and inoffensive of men. But for the wealthy thief who stole by the manipulation of stocks and shares and other less creditable means known to high finance, whether actually within or without the limits of the law, he had only the most profound enmity and contempt.”

Trump University, anyone? To the wealthy of 2018, the poor and middle class are merely marks, and there is a sucker born every minute. How I wonder what Freeman Wills Crofts and the Assistant Commissioner would’ve thought of the band of vulpine thieves in charge of our public treasury?

Anyway, Inspector French is a rather plodding character, but in a good way. He is, perhaps, not given to flashes of insight, but he is thorough, and good police work is its own reward. Through many twists and turns and blind alleys and dead ends, he does arrive at the correct solution.

There was, again, some tedious alibi deconstruction, with time tables and analysis of ocean currents and wind direction. I’ve realized that I do not care about these things – I am not going to pull out a pad of paper and start making a little table of distances and times to see if I, before Inspector French, can bust an alibi. I just want to be entertained to the end of the tale, and this minutiae does not entertain me. This particular book is mentioned in Chapter 13 of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Scientific Inquiries, on the strength of this element. Apparently Crofts was an engineer, and put that background to work in his fiction.

The problem with characterization persisted in this book and was amplified by the fact that every single character of note, as I stated above, was a middle-aged white guy of moderate wealth and education. There were several occasions where a name came up that I didn’t immediately recognize, but it was clear that this character had been introduced before, so I had to flip backwards in the book to try to identify exactly who it was.

I enjoyed it enough that I will continue to explore Inspector French, but I wish that Crofts would let him off the chain a bit. The man barely has a personal life, and he seems like a decent guy. Give him a vacation, for god’s sake!

The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

Previously published on my Booklikes Blog on March 24, 2018

Title: The Hog’s Back Mystery
Author: Freeman Wills Crofts
Year of Publication: 1933
Pages: 328

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.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Title: Death on the Cherwell
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay
Pages: 223
Publication Year: 1935

Plot Summary: For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behavior among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cozy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe. The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play, and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death –and the clues that point to a fellow student. This classic mystery novel, with its evocative setting in an Oxford women’s college, is now republished for the first time since the 1930s, with an introduction by the award-winning crime writer Stephen Booth.

Death on the Cherwell was my second Mavis Doriel Hay mystery, after The Santa Klaus Murders. Hay published one additional mystery, which has also been re-published by the BLCC, Murder Underground. I actually bought Murder Underground a while ago, but haven’t read it yet. I liked both Death on the Cherwell and The Santa Klaus Murders well enough that I will probably make an effort to get to it sooner rather than later.

This is a catch up review – I failed to write one up immediately after finishing the book a few weeks ago. I read it for my Detection Club bingo project, and it is mentioned in Chapter 11, Education, Education, Education, which focuses on mysteries set in boarding school/university. This one was set in the fictional Persephone College at Oxford University, which was based on Hay’s own St. Hilda’s College of Oxford University.

I liked this one fairly well and I found the Nancy Drew-esque exploits of the troupe of undergrad women doing their own shadow investigation charming. It is a lightweight book and is a very quick read. The interactions between the Scotland Yard Detective and the four undergraduates are fun. The young women are resourceful, brave and sometimes clumsy, as would be expected – Veronica Mars they are not. The book does allude to some more serious themes, but doesn’t explore those themes with a lot of energy. Overall, it was a middling golden age murder – I’ve read better, but I’ve also read worse.

In terms of mysteries set in colleges/boarding schools, Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, also published in 1935 and set in Harriet Vane’s alma mater, Shrewsbury College, itself a fictionalized version of Somerville College, her alma mater, is far superior to this one – I’m inclined to reread the 3 Harriet Vane mysteries as part of this project, as I’ve only read them once.

I also must say that I am surprised that Edwards didn’t include Cat Among the Pigeons in this chapter, as that book occurs primarily within the confines of Meadowbank, a girl’s boarding school. Miss Bulstrode, the headmistress, is one of Christie’s finest creations, sensible, spirited and entrepreneurial. Even though it isn’t specifically mentioned for that chapter, I still recommend it! It’s a later Christie, but is still a good one.