Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Fab Freemans: My Ten Favorite Freeman Wills Crofts Detective Novels (Plus Five Alternates)

I thought that since yesterday I discussed the British Library's Freeman Wills Crofts reissues I would continue in this vein a bit and list my ten favorite novels by the author. Again, these are my personal favorites, as opposed to ones I find socially significant for varying reasons (there is not always an overlap there). 

Purely for entertainment I prefer the Crofts novels that focus firmly on puzzle, because I think puzzle construction is where Crofts' strengths as an author lie.  I will follow with five titles I didn't like as much, but that others perhaps might rate more highly (these concentrate more on developing character interest).

1. Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927)

A complex plot, well-managed.  There's some uninspiring love interest, but it's allowed to fade (the male half of the love interest is named, rather remarkably I thought, Pierce Whymper).

2. The Sea Mystery (1928)

It should have been called The Crate, though that would have too closely resembled the title of Crofts' earlier landmark mystery, The Cask (1920).  Well-paced and plotted.

3. Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930)

One of Crofts' most highly-regarded mysteries in his day, this one involves trains and much traveling over Britain, in the author's best vein.

4. Mystery in the Channel (1931)

What Journey does for trains, Channel does for boats.

5. The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) (reprinted in 2015 by the British Library)

Another masterpiece of logistical detection.

6. Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)

This is semi-inverted mystery of corporate espionage, rather unique for the period I think.

7. Crime at Guildford (1935)

More corporate shenanigans.  This is the one that Raymond Chandler, a Crofts reader, said got "too fancy"; and there indeed is a point that stretches plausibility, but it's still a well-plotted book.

8. The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" (1936)

This title was recommended by Julian Symons and is Crofts' closest approximation, I think. of a full police procedural.

And two late ones that eschew the rather heavy-handed moral parables of his later works:

9. Enemy Unseen (1945)

An appealing village mystery.

10. Death of a Train (1946)

Espionage involving, yes, a train; Inspector French figures quite heroically.

Some others people might like (especially if you enjoyed Antidote to Venom):

1. Sudden Death (1932)

A country house tale that Crofts also adapted for the local stage.  I find it rather melodramatic, but it does get more into the emotional aspect of murder.

2. Death on the Way (1932)

Lots of a good railway workplace detail, but does the central gambit really work?

3. The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

Crofts' most famous inverted mystery, weighed down for me by the love element (Crofts never does sexual passion convincingly in my view).

4. Found Floating (1937)

Partially a shipboard mystery, reminiscent of a Christie in milieu, but again the characters are not done as well as those in a Christie.

5. Fatal Venture (1939)

An attack on floating gambling casinos (there's a murder problem too, of course).  In his novels Crofts continually indicts gambling, improvident living and getting into debt.  He would not be pleased with the world today.

And, of course there's his 1920 landmark, The Cask, but you've read that one already--or have you?


  1. I haven't read all the ones you name here, Curt, and overall I've certainly read fewer than you have, but the ones that I enjoyed most among those I've read were "The Sea Mystery," along with "Death of a Train" and "Inspector French's Greatest Case."

  2. Greatest Case has a pretty strong plot, but the travelogue and dialect writing knock it down a bit for me. The train element is interesting in Death of a Train. I rank that and the village mystery Enemy Unseen as the better of his later books.

  3. I have only read one, and that's Fatal Venture earlier this year; i found it a bit heavy going at first to be honest, but am glad i persevered, as there was one moment towards the end that i found myself saying out loud to an empty room, 'that's brilliant'. If the style reminded me of anything it was 'Mr Pottermack's Oversight' by that other Freeman, R Austin.

    Not sure when I'll have time to read another of his, but when I do, I have a few to choose from- I have 'The Ponson Case', 'Greatest Case', 'The Cheyne Mystery', '12:30 from Croydon', 'Sir John Magill' and 'The Pit Prop Syndicate'.

    1. Yes, I think Fatal Venture has some good plot points (more than many of his later books), but all that stuff about the evils of gambling got tiresome for me. I like the less overt moralism of earlier books. For me Crofts' style in some cases started to get in the way of my enjoyment of the plots.

      I liked Magill in part for all the *movement*, which I found fascinating. Ponson Case struck me as hokey, and it's massive with alibis and timetables. Greatest Case is solid, Cheyne Mystery is a thriller, not bad but a really stupid hero, Pit Prop is a thriller too, rather hokey I thought. Symons put it on a top 100 list but didn't really want to as I recall his account.

  4. Added a few titles to round out the list!

  5. Just found Varvel today, in goodish shape printed in 1987.

  6. Very excited that there’ll be a new crofts book from Crippen & Landru in 2021