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.
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.
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.
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."