Freeman Wills Crofts Crofts, Freeman Wills - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Freeman Wills Crofts 1879-1957

Irish-born English detective novelist, short story writer, and radio scriptwriter.

Crofts is best known for novels that feature the character Inspector French, a meticulous police detective whose systematic examinations of crimes bring villains to justice despite their virtually unshakable alibis. Crofts's novels were among the first to emphasize the role of hard-working, unglamorous official investigators who laboriously pursue lead after lead until they bring the perpetrators of a crime to justice. Along with such writers as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, Crofts is credited with being one of the founders of the period known as the Golden Age of English detective fiction, which lasted from about 1918 to 1939.

Biographical Information

Crofts was born in Dublin, Ireland, to a British army doctor from a Protestant family. His father died when Crofts was a boy, and his mother later married an archdeacon of the Church of Ireland. Crofts attended the Methodist and Campbell Colleges in Belfast, and after graduation was offered a job as an apprentice civil engineer by his uncle, who was chief engineer of the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway. Crofts had a long, successful career, eventually attaining the rank of chief assistant engineer for the railway. He began writing detective fiction in 1919 as a means of passing time while he was recovering from a serious illness. Crofts published his first novel, The Cask, a year later. This novel and his subsequent works were well-received, and by 1929 Crofts was able to retire from his railway job to devote his time to writing. In the 1930s he and his wife moved to the south of England, where they lived until his death in 1957.

Major Works

The Cask remains Crofts's best-regarded work, though he produced several dozen novels, collections of short fiction, and scripts for BBC radio dramas. The Cask focuses on a police detective's effort to discover the murderer of a woman whose body has been packed in a large barrel and shipped from France to England. Crofts employs his typical scenario: an innocent man is arrested while the real killer goes free on the strength of his alibi; through the careful work of the police detective, the alibi is finally broken and the murderer caught. Other characteristics of Crofts's novels include thoroughly unsympathetic portrayals of crime and criminals and the use of such realistic details as actual train schedules and minutely accurate descriptions of real locales. The solution to a crime often depends on some small inconsistency such as the difference between the time a suspect claimed to have taken a train and the time a train was scheduled to run on that day. Commentators familiar with Crofts's works and the English countryside have maintained that one could retrace the steps of a character in any of Crofts's novels and find the details of landscapes, especially railways, to be exactly as Crofts described them.

Critical Reception

In general, critics have praised Crofts's works for their careful construction and close attention to realistic detail, finding The Cask and Inspector French's Greatest Case to be particularly fine examples of the detective novel. Commentators agree that Crofts's characterizations are somewhat stereotyped, and many cite his later works for lagging plots and an overabundance of minutiae; however, critics also agree that these faults do not prevent Crofts's fiction from being thoroughly entertaining. As Howard Haycraft wrote, "In the opinion of a vast number of readers and critics he has never been equaled, much less surpassed, in his particular field."

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Cask (novel) 1920

The Ponson Case (novel) 1921

The Pit Prop Syndicate (novel) 1922

Inspector French's Greatest Case (novel) 1925

Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (novel) 1926

Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (novel) 1927

The Sea Mystery: An Inspector French Detective Story (novel) 1928

Sir John Magill's Last Journey: An Inspector French Case (novel) 1930

Death of a Train (novel) 1946

Murderers Make Mistakes (short stories) 1947

Many a Slip (short stories) 1955

The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express, and Other Stories (short stories) 1956

Anything to Declare? (novel) 1957

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1924)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following review, the critic praises The Cask f or its careful construction.]

Innumerable detective stories are written and many are published, yet a really good one, ingeniously contrived, plausibly worked out, and so constructed as to be without quite evident flaws, is almost as rare as the proverbial black swan. There are a few, a very few, authors from whom we may confidently expect tales of this type, and to the list must now be added the name of Freeman Wills Crofts. This story [The Cask] with which he makes his bow to American readers is clever, interesting and well constructed.

Though much longer than the average tale of its kind, the narrative never drags for a moment; moreover, the manner in which the truth is finally discovered is entirely convincing, depending neither on mechanical devices, superhuman perspicacity, far-fetched coincidence nor extraordinary good luck. And from first to last Mr. Crofts plays fair with the reader. All that his detectives—and there are no less than three of them—know is imparted at once to the reader, who follows them step by step, from complete perplexity to knowledge of the truth. It is a knowledge won by hard work, the careful investigating of every clue, the careful checking up of every statement. There are plenty of clues and plenty of statements, but at first no one of them seems to throw any real light on the problem.


(The entire section is 536 words.)

H. Douglas Thomson (essay date 1931)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in 1931, Thomson discusses the use of realistic detail in Crofts's crime fiction.]

"He will present you with a magnificent alibi, an alibi that cannot be gainsaid." GABORIAU: L 'Affaire Lerouge.

The greatest apostle of the matter of fact is Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts. Mr. Crofts is an Irishman, born in Dublin of an old County Cork family. He is a keen musician; was organist at Coleraine Parish Church, and has trained many prize-winning choirs. By profession, however, he is a civil engineer, having worked for many years on the L.M.S. Railway as chief-assistant engineer to the Northern Counties Committee. This fact will at once account for the important part played by the railways in his novels and for his extraordinary knowledge of different localities.

Indeed, Mr. Crofts's writing derives much of its effectiveness from the introduction of local colour. His novels have their setting in some precise district. Thus, to those who already know that particular district, there is an added charm. Whether the scene is the Welsh coast, or the Yorkshire moors, or Southampton, or Castle Douglas, he retains throughout his uncanny accuracy. The denouement of The Starve] Tragedy takes place in the Waverley Station at Edinburgh, and not in some imaginary Grand Central. If he describes a lane, a level-crossing, or a bridge in some district, you can take a train there and see these self-same objects for yourself. For Mr. Crofts goes over his ground before he pens a line. I have seen actual snapshots taken by Mr. Crofts of several key positions described in Sir John Magill's Last Journey. Not the least interesting point about them was the pencilling on their backs of the most intriguing stage directions—"Path taken by So-and-So."

Mr. Crofts prefers the unvarnished narrative, and it is only when he would adorn his tale with these geographical asides, or when he would plunge into the treacherous waters of sensationalism, that his style seems to lose its hundred per cent. efficiency. Even his crimes, cold and premeditated as they appear in the dispassionate telling of them, lack that gusto which would serve to make them more attractive and also more credible. There is no careless rapture about his criminals, no sense of humour, no emotion. His writing is for the most part succinct and business-like, and resembles a well-informed newspaper article.

This treatment has two prominent weaknesses. In the first place the more matter of fact Mr. Crofts becomes, the more liable is he to fly to cliches of expression. Thus Inspector French is persuaded to "have something to fortify his inner man"; L'Affaire Magill is "terribly baffling," and so forth. The besprinkling of his text with these paste-jewelled phrases is an unnecessary fault, and, therefore, hard to forgive. Secondly, Mr. Crofts is so carried away by his love for detail that he exalts the trivial to a false prominence. Where any other writer would simply have said, "He travelled by night to Stranraer," Mr. Crofts gives us pages of description made up of paragraphs like the following:—

He began, therefore, by engaging a sleeping berth at Euston. On inquiry he was directed to a stationmaster's office on No. 6 platform. There a clerk made the reservations, handing him a voucher. This voucher he presented at the booking office when taking his tickets.… The train left at seven-forty from No. 12 platform.…His name was on the list on the window of the sleeping car.

Take again such a paragraph as the following:—

But later the excellent dinner served while the train ran through the pleasant country between Abbéville and Amiens brought him to a more quiescent mood, and over a good cigar and a cup of such coffee as he had seldom before tasted, he complacently watched day fade into night. About half-past six o'clock next morning he followed the example of the countless British predecessors, and climbed down on the long platform at Bale to drink his morning coffee.

One is at liberty to argue that by such devices the action is held up, that the rattle of coffee cups is out of place in the detective story. Yet (Mr. Crofts might reply) what better respite from concentration is there for the detective who scorns Trade Union hours? What more pleasant rest-and-be-thankful for the conscientious reader who takes a hand in the case?

Along with Dr. Austin Freeman, Mr. Crofts has acquired the unenviable reputation in certain quarters of being a "highbrow." This is a comic anomaly, for they both cultivate unashamedly a prosaic reality. The charge of high-browism—always snobbish or else it is a misnomer—denotes a strong dissatisfaction with certain alleged poses. Mr. Crofts cannot be a highbrow qua realist. Let us dismiss this absurd charge; but let us also mention the imputed faults which have given birth to the libel.

The sensational element, it is true, is minimised in the typical Wills Crofts novel. There is plenty of action, but not apparently of that type of action in request by the fault finder. The reports of pistol shots are often in "indirect speech." The suspense is thus sometimes more the detective's than our own. But even so there are exceptions. Several of his novels, in particular the early ones, combine adventure with detection. Even when in more serious vein, Mr. Crofts does let himself go at the denouement. A Mills bomb nearly wrecks the saloon bar in the penultimate chapter of The Starve] Tragedy. And Inspector French all but finds his quietus at the end of The Sea Mystery. In these close shaves, one must confess, Mr. Crofts seems rather off colour. He cannot keep his cake till it seemed a permanency, only to gobble it up for an effect so long despised.

Then again, the action being moulded to fit certain measurements, there is a similarity of situation, a clockwork movement. In reading the average Wills Crofts novel one is conscious each time of experiencing very much the same "thought-process." His plots run like his railway trains. This allows one's reason or intuition to take one a chapter ahead of Inspector French. The "leads," the "startling new lines" along which the detective plunges out of the blue at regular intervals beckon to one's intelligence and shout for premature recognition. To forecast the state of affairs twenty pages after is genuine solace to the reader; it is flattering. But there, as a rule, his self-sufficiency ends. If the solution of each step in the investigation actually coincides with his pretty prognostications, the denouement will shatter his complacency.

In construction he is the supreme technician. It is this quality that has earned for him an international reputation in Europe and America, and made him an Oracle of Detective Fiction, for whose praise publishers would go far to bartering their souls—this quality, too, that all but drew enthusiasm from the Saturday Review. No writer of detective fiction has ever produced a neater plot. Every brick fits exactly into the edifice. The plots of Gaboriau are not more exquisitely complicated. In Mr. Crofts's technique there are two great merits. The first is the cunning creation of the central idea, and the other the round-about rediscovery of it. A lesser artist than Mr. Crofts would have been severely handicapped by the conscientious deference to realism just mentioned.

To set off the sombre background he has his fireworks. He is an admirable conjurer, and a prolific "ideas-man." And because he is prolific, his tricks are seldom expanded into themes. Here is a haphazard selection—the changing of the numbers on the lorries and the smuggling of the pit-props in The Pit-Prop Syndicate. The drugging, and the solution of the diagrammatic cipher in The Cheyne Mystery. The solution of the dictionary cipher in Inspector French's Greatest Case. The planting of the twenty-pound notes in The Starvel Tragedy. The adventures with the rope ladder in Sir John Magill's Last Journey.

The realist having made his bed has got to lie in it. Of a necessity it must ever be sagging, for all the time he must be in the know. A knowledge of medicine and chemistry was indispensable to him even in the days of Sherlock Holmes. He must besides be as familiar with police methods as Mr. Edgar Wallace. Like Miss Sayers he must have common law and legal procedure at his finger tips. All this knowledge emanates without any gushing from Mr. Crofts. He is a criminologist and a cryptologist. I imagine he is a close student of the technical press, and files of Police Journals and Reviews adorn his shelves. He can tell one all about banking and brokerage; customs and excise; distilling; motor engines; seacraft, and a hundred and one different subjects. He approximates to the old-fashioned sleuth on whose omniscience emphasis was so plaintively but so necessarily laid.

In short, there are few writers in whom one could find such a wealth of interesting detail. If one were to count up to a hundred technical details in a story of his, one would be hard put to it to find a single flaw. I have heard that legal and medical experts have sat in judgement on his novels, prior to their publication and have picked out at the most three or four possible, but by no means certain, errors.

The piece de re'sistance of his realism is his characterisation of the detective, that is of Inspector French, for the Burnleys, the Tanners and the Willises are only other editions of this favourite. The Inspector French that frowns on one from the insets on the dust wrappers seems quite an ordinary young man, clean-shaven, sharp of feature, well groomed and neatly dressed—just such a young man, in fact, as might adorn an advertisement of Austin Reed's or Three Nuns Tobacco. In the Elysian Fields he will assuredly be prejudged a gate-crasher by Sherlock Holmes and the super-detectives. His private life can boast no quixotry, no aesthetic capers. Being an ordinary sort of chap, it did not surprise us to learn that he was married. His Emily—true to the associations that that name has acquired—sits at home in their suburban villa knitting his socks. Mr. Crofts, seldom obsequious to the conventionalities, throws an unnecessary bouquet to contemporary fashion.

When Inspector French felt really up against it in the conduct of a case, it was his invariable habit to recount the circumstances in the fullest detail to his wife. Sometimes she interjected a remark, sometimes she didn't… but she listened to what he said, and occasionally expressed an opinion, or, as he called it, 'took a notion.' And more than once it happened that these notions had thrown quite a different light on the point at issue, a light which in at least two cases had indicated the line of research which had eventually cleared up the mystery.

In the circumstances it was natural that Mr. Crofts should have had no use for "the superior amateur." His detective is the professional expert, the C.I.D. man, caring more for the material guerdon of advancement and an increase of salary than the fulsome flattery of a neighbour. So far he remains in the force (although merely from the point of view of realism Mr. Crofts must have recently considered French's resignation). He is energetic, ambitious, but not infallible; deferential to his superiors, he recognises the guiding genius of Chief-Inspector Mitchell and the Big Four.

The Inspector's methods are a true reflection of the man. He worries things out and is always "up against it." He never jumps to a conclusion, and that...

(The entire section is 4883 words.)

Howard Haycraft (essay date 1939)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Haycraft is an American editor and critic specializing in mystery fiction. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of Crofts's best novels.]

The first of modern writers to find fictional possibilities in the step-by-step methods of actual police routine was Freeman Wills Crofts. In the opinion of a vast number of readers and critics he has never been equaled, much less surpassed, in his particular field. The son of a doctor in the British Army, Mr. Crofts was born in Dublin and lived a great part of his life in Northem Ireland. Educated at the Methodist and Campbell Colleges, Belfast, at seventeen he entered on his professional career as a civil and railway engineer, a vocation...

(The entire section is 760 words.)

Erik Routley (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Routley is an English clergyman, theologian, and nonfiction writer who has written numerous studies on ecclesiastical history and church music. In the following excerpt, he en umerates the major characteristics and themes of Crofts's tales.]

Freeman Wills Crofts, perhaps the greatest puritan of them all, made his first appearance in 1920 with The Cask, a year after Agatha Christie had led off with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Crofts (1879-1957) was an employee of the railways, brought up at a Methodist school, who wrote a great deal of his work after he had retired at fifty in order to do it. Among his other works was a translation of the New Testament—and that is about...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)