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!