Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Freeman Wills Crofts, The British Library and Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery

Included among the recent reissues of Golden Age detective novels by the British Library are a pair of tales by Freeman Wills Crofts, Antidote to Venom and The Hog's Back Mystery.  In Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012) I provide the longest and most substantive analysis of Crofts' detective fiction to date (the other two "Humdrum" authors I analyze at length are Cecil John Charles Street, aka John Rhode/Miles Burton, and Alfred Walter Stewart, aka JJ Connington), so I am pleased to see his cause taken up by the British Library.

I am a strong admirer of The Hog's Back Mystery (1933), one of the greatest logistical detection Golden Age mysteries, a form of which Crofts was the period's leading practitioner. The thematically ambitious Antidote to Venom (1938), however, is more problematic for me, though it definitely has strong points of interest to a student of the genre.

As I explain in great interpretive detail in Masters, Crofts, like a number of other detective fiction authors in the 1930s, moved away from the pure puzzle mystery toward novels aimed at providing greater emotional engagement for the reader.  Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh deservedly are much celebrated for doing this through the so-called "manners mystery" (although they were not alone in this), while for Crofts the process involved designing detective novels and short stories as religious parables providing moral instruction for his audience (see The Golden Age in Modern Memory for a blog take by me on these matters).

the British first edition
Antidote to Venom, an inverted mystery with an explicitly religious narrative framework, is the premier example of this tendency in Crofts' work, though there are other examples as well, discussed in Masters. I provide a discussion in Masters on Antidote to Venom specifically, wherein I treat the novel as of interest primarily on social history grounds.

I suspect that what may have been a major mover in motivating the British Library to choose to reprint Antidote to Venom was John Norris' eloquent and enthusiastic review of the novel on his fine blog at Pretty Sinister Books. John mounts a detailed case on behalf of the plot of the book and its pull on the reader (he also shows how the original American hardcover edition has a killer endpaper map).

In my view Crofts' ability to depict complex characters is too slight to make this novel work as it should on the emotional level, but, as John's review indicates, others may well differ with me on this matter. Harriet Devine's Blog says of the novel, "modern readers of different [religious] persuasions [from Crofts] may find [the ending] a little jarring." For me, what makes the novel interesting historically does not make it a compelling or convincing novel of character, but, as always, readers will differ in their takes on a book and they should see for themselves what they think.

The Hog's Back Mystery, on the other hand, is one of my favorite Golden Age detective novels, although there might be some who think it overly analytical. Personally, I think it's a beaut of a book (there's an endpaper map too, as well as a clue key). To be sure, it's less thematically ambitious then Antidote to Venom, but it's also a perfect example of the deliberate pure puzzle English mystery at which the "Humdrums" (as Julian Symons termed them) excelled.

One could have paired it, for this reprinting outing, with its twin logistical detection masterpiece, Crofts' railroad mystery Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930); however, I see that on his blog Martin Edwards, who I believe writes all of the introductions for the series, was not taken with the book (Martin's view of Crofts generally has improved since, however). Then there is Crofts' most famous inverted mystery, The 12.30 from Croydon (1934), which has always had its advocates.

I also have highly praised the boat puzzle tale Mystery in the Channel here.  Readers interested in Crofts are urged to check out Masters of the Humdrum Mystery for my takes on all Crofts' other works (it's rather dear, I know, but there are always the libraries).

I mention my book here on my blog because I think people who read and enjoy Crofts through the British Library series should have some chance to hear about Masters, which in my view is the master source on so-called "Humdrum" British mystery.  Jon L. Breen called Masters "an important book of detective fiction history and criticism, with all the scholarly care and rigor of a first-rate academic study, combined with an enjoyable literary style,"  while Martin Edwards declared, on his blog, "This is a book to which I will, I'm sure, return again and again."  I do hope Martin keeps returning to it, and that perhaps other interested readers may find their way to it for the first time.

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