The horrors of World War I effectively put a stop to most entertaining writing in Europe. The super-sleuth antics of the Sherlock Holmes school lost much of their appeal as the last vestiges of the gaslight era of Victoria and Edward died in the technological advances demanded by war. A new breed of hero was in the making, led in part by John Buchan’s short novels for the boys in the trenches. Buchan’s novels featured a generally realistic Richard Hannay, who engaged in sophisticated battles of wit with his opponents.
Freeman Wills Crofts’s first novel, The Cask, begun during his illness in 1919 and published in 1920, reflects the change then under way. The novel features the steady, systematic, and realistic police work that culminated in the creation of Inspector Joseph French in Crofts’s fifth novel. The influence ofÉmile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq—his painstaking reconstruction of the crime and the criminal’s movements through his analysis of footprints in the snow, scraps of material, the time necessary to move from one place to another—is apparent in Crofts’s early work. H. Douglas Thomson, in his Master of Mystery (1931), says of Lecoq, “Here is Inspector French’s prototype.”
Inspector French’s Greatest Case
Inspector French first appeared in the presumptuously titled Inspector French’s Greatest Case in 1925. Using bits and pieces from such diverse forerunners as Monsieur Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Monsieur Lecoq, and Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff, Crofts created one of the most memorable characters in detective fiction. Like his predecessors, French carefully and methodically investigates everything, considers everything, notes everything, catalogs everything. Nothing escapes his attention and consideration. As French himself tells the reader, “The evidence is cumulative,” and the reconstruction of the crime, like the railway timetables with which Crofts was so familiar, falls neatly into place as each bit of information is slotted into its appropriate niche.
Crofts’s method of building a novel, police procedural or inverted, is relatively simple. Through the impersonal guidance of the unnamed, third-person narrator, the reader is kept informed of the action and of what is going on in the minds of both the criminal and the detective. The narrator lays out before the reader the actions and the thoughts of both. The excitement comes from the sustained attention to detail as the criminal attempts to cover his trail and as Inspector French re-creates the time-and-space sequence of the crime. French measures distances, times how quickly one can row a boat across a particular body of water, clocks how long it would take for a man the size of the suspect to climb out a window, cross a tract of land, scale a wall, and commit the crime. With Crofts, the nineteenth century Holmesian sleuth gives way to the sometimes plodding, always methodical, hardworking, routine investigator of the roman policier. Crofts’s influence on such detective-fiction writers as A. E. Fielding (Dorothy Fielding), Charles Barry, A. W. Marchmont, and J. S. Fletcher, among others, has been remarked by most historians of the genre. Peter Falk’s television investigator, Columbo, is directly descended from Inspector French.
Some critics consider as a flaw in Crofts’s work his dependence on the ability of French to remain the patient, kindly, thorough reader of clues and time passage. It is probably true that after twenty-eight novels, Crofts’s imagination had worn a little thin, partly as a result of his disinclination to create characters that go much beyond simulacra of types. His criminals are, however, finely drawn, within limits, and are usually well-placed individuals facing financial ruin or suffering from that ancient pair of human flaws, greed and lust. They turn to crime, usually murder, to alleviate their particular problem, plotting and scheming carefully to eliminate what each considers the potential of error. On the surface and to the average speculator, the crime is perfect because it is not obvious, but to Inspector Joseph French something simply does not quite fit, and he begins to test for flaws—and he finds them. His method is simple. He questions everybody and everything; he rereads his notes constantly, looking for what he must have overlooked earlier; and he times and measures and conjectures, and finally finds what he is looking for. The murderer then pays the ultimate penalty.
The 12:30 from Croydon
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934) is a fine example of Crofts’s inverted detective story and of Inspector French’s technique. Charles Swinburn owns a motor manufacturing plant that is in financial trouble, as a result of both the conditions of the time and antiquated machinery. His uncle, Andrew Crowther, who began the plant and made it into a successful business, is retired and in ill health. Crowther sees Swinburn’s difficulties as the result of laziness and...
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