Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A Fondness for French Film: An Interview with Writer Brendan Foley about "Inspector French"--the New Freeman Wills Crofts Television Detective Series

American first ed.--which case truly was
Inspector French's Greatest Case
Last week at The Passing Tramp I discussed the exciting announcement of the "Inspector French" detective series, based on the classic Golden Age detective novels of Anglo-Irish railway engineer turned world-renowned mystery writer Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957), which is now in development with writer Brendan Foley (Cold Courage) and producer Free@Last

Brendan's writing has included features journalism, TV drama, books including Random House bestseller Under the Wire and feature films with Derek Jacobi and Vanessa Redgrave. He grew up in turbulent times in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a happenstance which eventually drew him to the mystery writing of the Anglo-Irish Freeman Wills Crofts.

Although he was born in Dublin, Crofts lived most of his life in Northern Ireland, up to his retirement from the engineering profession in 1929, when he moved to the English village of Blackheath near Guildford, Surrey and devoted himself to church, woodworking and the continued construction of his highly intricate and lucrative crime fiction. 

For around thirty years, from 1920 to 1950, Crofts was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed true detective novelists in the world, and even after his popularity waned in the post-WW2 years his name survived as the greatest representative of the meticulous school of so-called "pure puzzle" detective fiction (dubbed "Humdrum" by once-influential detractor Julian Symons). 

In 1920 Crofts's seminal debut crime novel The Cask helped launch, along with Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the celebrated Golden Age of detective fiction, the hundredth anniversary of which arrives next year. 

Brendan Foley
(International Emmy Juror, Shanghai)
How appropriate it is, then, that the revival of Golden Age detective fiction which we have seen in the last few years has now encompassed an in-development series about the investigative exploits of Crofts's famous series detective, Inspector Joseph French, who debuted in 1924.  Once French was as well-known as such sleuthing stalwarts as Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Phillip Marlowe.

But enough of the fanfare.  Let's see, if I have piqued your interest, what Brendan has to say about the series.  I talked with Brendan, who was in Los Angeles, over several days last week, in an interview which culminated on July 4, the day of the California earthquake.  But don't worry, Brendan reported that, "like Bond's martini, we were shaken but not stirred."  Like Inspector French, Brendan is not easily put off the track.

Now to the interview!

Derek Jacobi with Brendan Foley during filming of The Riddle

Brendan, the news of an "Inspector French" TV series is truly thrilling to me.  How did you come to be interested in the detective fiction of Freeman Wills Crofts?

Originally Stephen Wright, then at BBC Northern Ireland, was looking for crime material with a local angle.  I had written crime thriller films, including The Riddle with Derek Jacobi and Vanessa Redgrave, and written books myself but never done TV crime.

the first British dust jacket
conception of Freeman Wills Crofts's
Inspector French on his
"greatest case"--note the
similarities to the American edition
So I researched crime writers in Northern Ireland and stumbled across Freeman Wills Crofts, a Belfast Railway engineer who started scribbling when he was laid low by flu.  His very first book, The Cask, hit the jackpot and he went on to write about one book a year for the next thirty years including many bestsellers.  Yet neither I nor anyone I knew had ever heard of him.

I unearthed one or two long out of print books with splendid 1920s covers and was astonished by how good the plotting was.  Crofts wasn't overly concerned with character development, but for a screenwriter adapting something from book to TV for a modern audience, that was perfect.  I get to evolve the characters in a way that appeals to a present-day audience while keeping the complex plots and red herrings that make his work so enjoyable. But before that I had to find and secure the TV rights.

How did that process work?  After World War Two Crofts gradually had gone from a world-renowned name among classic mystery fans, up there with Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, to someone mostly forgotten outside of hardcore vintage mystery collectors, as I found when researching Crofts and other writers for my 2012 book on so-called "Humdrum," or pure puzzle, mystery writers from the Golden Age of detective fiction.  Although this situation has altered drastically in the last few years, to be sure, with Crofts being reprinted by Harper Collins and the British Library.

This Joseph French, appearing on the cover
of Crofts's second French detective novel,
The Cheyne Mystery (1926), matches
the original (note the hand on chin gesture
as he surveys another crime scene).
It was a long and winding road.  Actually, Curt, the process led me to that book of yours, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery

I was previously a journalist, so I enjoyed tracking the rights down to where they were lying in state with the Society of Authors in London.  Since then I've optioned and re-optioned them as I have had faith in the stories. 

As you say, in the last few years the whole field of Golden Age detective fiction has boomed.  And there is so much good material out there!  The world is crying out for more storytelling, not just retreads of the same half dozen Agatha Christie stories, great though they are.

After all the searching I found myself sitting next to a stack of intricately-plotted crime books by a locally and internationally relevant, bestselling long-lost author.  So I feel very lucky--and thanks to you for leaving something of a "treasure map" with your book.

I'm very pleased that the book proved useful to you.  When you say locally and internationally, do you mean the locations?  Inspector French sure got around!

Locations and audience.  TV series are an expensive undertaking.  They need local specificity with international appeal to a wide audience.  While most of the original stories are set in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, and France, we decided to anchor the series in poor old Inspector French being banished to post-partition Northern Ireland where he becomes a big fish in a small pond.  At first he itches to get back to Scotland Yard, but he gradually sees that he can run his little empire with very little interference, while introducing all sorts of new techniques.

An older French appears on Crofts's third
French mystery, The Starvel Tragedy (1927)
Unlike standalone books, a series needs an arc and some continuity.  We will probably set individual episodes all over the UK and Ireland, maybe with some forays into Europe an in the novels.  But we well have a home base in northern Ireland.

We had great support from Northern Ireland Screen's Andrew Reid and Richard Williams.  NI Screen has really transformed the local media landscape into a great production hub of skilled crews and great locations, including The Fall, and most noticeably by backing Game of Thrones, 85% of which was made locally. 

More recently I teamed with Barry Ryan and David Walton, two great London-based producers behind the success of Emmy-nominated "Agatha Raisin."  They have a great feel for Golden Age crime tailored to a modern audience.  That will allow me to focus on the creative side, particularly making Inspector French a compelling and conflicted character that a contemporary audience really wants to get to know, beyond solving an interesting puzzle in each episode.

Thinking up another perfect murder: Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957)
He strikes a pensive pose like Inspector French.

Freeman Wills Crofts was considered the "Alibi King" and as you note one of the great masters of plotting during the between-the-wars Golden Age of detective fiction, praised by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and Cecil Day Lewis and T. S. Eliot among others.  So it's wonderful indeed to hear that you plan to do justice to the Master's fiendish plots while fleshing out the people and enhancing character development to make for a dramatically compelling series.

Down these quaint streets a man must go:
Inspector French solves a village mystery in
The Affair at Little Wokeham (1943)
I was struck by your comment in the Deadline article that "Inspector French" would be "as if Peaky Blinders invaded Downtown Abbey."  Well, that is an image!  And intriguing.

Golden Age British mystery has been characterized by some detractors simply as so-called "cozy" mystery, all tea and twittering if you will, but Crofts as your publicity material notes has been credited with fathering the police procedural and Inspector French, one of the archetypal Golden Age detectives, was a workaday cop with none of the eccentricities of an Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey.  How do the mysteries of Crofts have modern elements associated with today's crime fiction, which you plan to draw out in the series?

Big question!  I think the starting point is that as a writer you have to love and respect the genre--or at least the best part of the genre.  No amount of sniffing, sneering or hipster irony will get past an audience who love good mysteries.  Freeman Wills Crofts was a very down to earth man, even at the height of his fame.  He kept his day job as a senior engineer on the burgeoning local railway long after most authors would have given it up.  My Dad was an engineer in Belfast, a skilled working man, and there is a practicality and pride in that world which seeps into Crofts's writing. 

The most obvious connection can be seen by the great poster of the railway viaduct--a classic of its time.  I had decided to use it as part of my original presentation to the BBC as a killer "travel poster" of the industrial optimism of the age.  Then I found out that the designer of the magnificent railway viaduct was also the author of the books, working his "day job." 

So the meticulous interconnected arches of his plots and twists are maybe not that different from the span of his viaduct with a steam train thundering into the future.

That's where Crofts gets off the bus that leads to twee tea and chattering.  That world does exist in his books, but the old squireocracy is often overshadowed by industrialists--some noble, some greedy, some desperate, drowning in gambling debts. 

French solves a grim case of serial killings
of young women in
The Box Office Murders (1929),
 one of his most sinister cases
Inspector French himself is a product of the industrial age.  He believes in deploying new technology and techniques to outwit the villains.  He knows his way around a railway timetable when he wants to bust an alibi.  Above all he hates intuition and mystical hunches. 

Even the word procedural conjures up the industrial processes that were transforming the world just as the industrialization of warfare had obliterated much of the old order a few years earlier.

With French, Wills Crofts, even though he was not that concerned with characterization, gave us the bones of an amazing character: the first modern professional detective. 

I like the fact that French is working methodically and procedurally to get his man or woman.  He grinds on despite all obstacles, with flashes of inspiration as well as stubborn logic and efficiency.  He doesn't have much time for dilettante amateur sleuths!

Well, it doesn't quite sound entirely like Miss Marple nibbling finger sandwiches in the vicarage garden, but that's something I argue in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery: that Golden Age detective fiction is not simply country houses and quaint villages, caught in a genteel Edwardian age, like a fly in amber.

Inspector French travels to
Northern Ireland to investigate
the case of a missing magnate in
Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930),
another of his greatest cases, which
will be the premier episode of
"Inspector French"
We have the series opening in post-partition Ireland, not just as Crofts's own formative world, but one where new borders, industry, old traditions and vast wealth all jostled for a place in the future.  Everything was changing.  Sexual politics, the place of women in society, ever faster, sleeker modes of transport.  Yet grinding poverty, teeming factories and gambling cads still fill this world like details in a Hogarth painting.

In short I have honored the plots, the era and the genre, but re-imagined the characters so that they are true to the time but also hopefully resonate with a very modern audience who love a good mystery and an interesting cast of evolving characters.  I think Joseph French, as a modernist man who uses logic and science to tackle violence and greed, might approve.

I think so, Brendan!  That's fascinating too about the railway viaduct.  I know there's one Crofts's mystery with these meticulous end paper maps of the railway lines that play a prominent role in puzzle.  Everyone knows Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, but trains certainly speed through Crofts' mysteries too.  Along with other forms of modern transportation: planes, trains and automobiles you might say.  Also boats.  No hansom cabs and dog-carts as I recollect--leave them to Conan Doyle!

poster for railway viaduct engineered by Crofts

I love these old transport posters.  Mechanized travel was very important to Crofts--it is a world of sleek racing cars and competing nationalities in races like the Mille Miglia and a huge now-forgotten event, the Ards TT in Northern Ireland, which attracted glamorous entries from all over the world.

And of course Crofts lived and breathed steam trains that crisscross his stories, from deadly sleeper cars to dining carriages and complex plots involving getting in or our of trains unseen.  He also loved ships, from elegant liners and floating gambling palaces to small yachts and fishing vessels.  All part of the world we will be recreating.

Crofts's detailed end paper map in his railway mystery Death on the Way (1932)

I take it that Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930), one of Crofts's most highly-regarded mysteries and one I praise in my book on him, must have struck you as the ideal starting point for the series, because it takes French to Northern Ireland.  Apparently French, about whose back story we never learn that much in the books, will have some connection in the past to Ulster?  I'm intrigued!  What can you tell us about that?

I can't say that much about the inspector's TV back story at this stage.  The original inspector had a rather static character and modern series characters have to grow and evolve.  While preserving French's core traits of doggedness and decency, with a good helping of confidence, the TV character will have room to grow and evolve.  Some dark events in his past are constantly threatening to challenge his hard-won image as the perfect sleuth.  It gives the character an honesty and three-dimensionality that is really what modern audiences demand.

I understand.  I agree Crofts left his characters room for development.  Over the years he even forgot whether he had given French any children--the inspector had a son killed in the Great War in fact--though there is French's wife Emily, or Em for short, who appears in a few of the novels as a "motherly body" who constantly knits and occasionally offers her husband her intuitions, or "notions," about his cases.  She's a highly traditional, domestic woman.

Sudden Death (1932)
one of Crofts's domestic cases
That's another important evolution for a modern audience.  The female characters will be as diverse as the men, sharing all their noble traits and human failings, while being true to the time.  Most of the recurring characters spring from Crofts's stories, but some grow and flourish across a series.  Women range from industrialists to femmes fatales, cops from heroic to crooked, from working class to middle class to aristocracy, all with their own agendas and motivations rather than ciphers merely there for plot advancement. 

For a modern TV audience, character development and getting inside heads and human motives is as important as the question of whether it was Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the candlestick.

Um, I think it was Professor Plum in the study with the pipe cleaner!  Is that a murder weapon in the English version?  Seriously, though, I hear you.

When I was writing my book one thing which did strike me very positively about Crofts' writing was the sense of moral fervor behind it.

Willful and Premeditated, the American
edition of The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)
This inverted mystery was one of
Crofts's most celebrated crime novels.
Crofts was writing at a time of massive economic depression and the rise of monstrous totalitarian regimes in Europe, a time when people were feeling, with some justification, like the social and moral framework of the world was collapsing all around them. 

I detected a change over time in Crofts's books, where he starts really looking at issues of moral corruption among the rich and powerful--in the business world, for example, with which he as a railroad man was very familiar. To me this lent a modern and relevant feel to his books and it's exciting to think you will be capturing that.

Yes, Crofts and his creation Inspector French share a very strong sense of justice.  That core character will hopefully shine through in the TV version as well.  The elements that will be different will have more to do with how the character evolves and changes, from backstory to shifts in tone from the Roaring Twenties to the Hungry Thirties as storm clouds gather over Europe.  It gives us great scope for evolution.

I was struck reading Crofts how there's some nasty stuff spilling out of the woodsheds in his books.  Not of Peaky Blinders proportions, to be sure, but still pretty visceral stuff for the Golden Age: Crated putrefying bodies, serial killings, dramatic shoot-outs and explosions where French is desperately fighting for his life against remorseless murderers.  Are we going to be seeing that in the series?

Crofts was less squeamish than some of his contemporaries about murders, autopsies and crafty villains.  Modern TV audiences obviously have a different tolerance level to sex and violence.  But having said that, I don't envisage anything too extreme.  Classic crime has its own charms.  We have a modern edge for a modern audience, but also respect the core joy of the Golden Age genre, which is as much about the journey and the tone as the crime destination.

Crofts as you know loved nature and traveling and so does his sleuth Inspector French.  There's even one Thirties novel that takes place on a Mediterranean ocean liner.  Too bad French never met Poirot!  Will you be looking at doing some of these overseas locales at some point?

Absolutely!  Though I fear that if French met Poirot on a luxury liner there might be a man overboard before long.

Crofts's love of nature and travel are actually core character traits that a modern audience very much shares.  While our starting point will be establishing a story world with some recurring locations, I hope we will be able to branch out to crime locations in Britain, Ireland and Europe, just as the books do.  First seasons in modern TV tend to be fairly short, six or eight episodes, with room to grow.

What are the Crofts novels you are planning for the first season?  You're leading off with Sir John Magill's Last Journey and then....?
Magill is a great jumping-off point with steam trains, great houses, industry, sneaky villains and stunning scenery, along with great plotting.  There are so many visually strong stories in Crofts's repertoire and we will be choosing titles that offer the best springboard for a brand new TV audience to get to know the dogged Inspector, possibly including The Starvel TragedyThe Cask, which originally did not have French, and The 12.30 from Croydon.  We really are spoiled for choice.

In the Deadline article about the Inspector French series, it states that your series producer Free@Last has concluded a deal with Harper Collins to "develop TV movies and series from some of the fifty books in their Classic Crime Club imprint."  

This is a fine imprint of republished Golden Age crime novels, to which I contributed the introduction to book #50 incidentally.  How exciting it is to hear this!

I was delighted to see the news of Free@Last's deal with Harper Collins and Quadrant.  Barry Ryan and David Walton are great, adventurous producers, with really sound instincts for the material and a contemporary audience. 

The Classic Crime Club imprint has so much great material.  Harper Collins clearly sees the same potential for their might collection as we do with Inspector French--timeless stories and characters from the Golden Age of crime fiction that can have a much wider international TV audience.

It looks like you may have really started something here, Brendan, that honestly I wouldn't have expected to see nearly a decade ago when I published my book on Crofts and other vintage crime writers from the Golden Age of detective fiction.  Why do you think more people every year seem to be embracing classic mystery, including of course in new Agatha Christie adaptations for television and on the big screen, but also now with other authors from the period who had long been out of print, like Freeman Wills Crofts?

Will ruthless James Tarrant
meet his match in Inspector French?
Thanks very much, Curt, and I have to say if it wasn't for you and your book, I might never have tracked down the case of the missing Inspector. 

I think the interest in new material is partly a product of the boom in TV drama caused by the arrival of so many outlets via cable and streaming.  There is a real appetite for classic crime.  Of course there will always be Agatha Christie, but like out forbears, we are discovering that there is a great world of detective fiction out there, and you need more than one writer to make a Golden Age. 

So hats off to you for planting the flag, and cheers to all the people who enjoy Crofts's work past, present and future.

Brendan, I wish you and the series the best of luck.  I'll be looking forward to it, and I think other classic mystery fans will be too.  And I very much enjoyed having this talk with you.


  1. What a fantastic, detailed interview with Brendan Foley! I'm very excited about the prospects for this new series featuring an unjustly neglected Golden Age detective, and writer Foley's desire to embrace the genre's appealing strengths while enhancing elements like character and theme sounds like a winning combination. This is great, and congratulations to you and your Masters of Humdrum Mystery book for inspiring the project!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Jason. I'm pleased of course that the book had some impact on Brendan, which he was generous to acknowledge. I don't know how many people have actually read Masters, but at least it has had some influence on other, much more broadly read, work, like Martin's, and now, it appears, there's this prospective series. There has been so much that has happened since I was writing and editing Masters of the Humdrum Mystery in 2009-12. It feels like a whole new landscape. And this series seems like another step in that advance.

  2. Great interview, with lots of promise. Mr. Foley seems to be a smart fellow and obviously knows and respects his source material, so I think Inspector French's fate is in good hands with him.

    A question arose as I was reading the interview, though I don't think Mr. Foley or you or anyone else would be able to answer it: How is it that it took so long for Crofts to hit the screen? I'm not as much of a FWC scholar as you are but I don't believe there has ever been any film or TV adaptation of his work even at the height of his success between the wars. That is odd as Crofts was paradoxically a strong, if unheralded, influence on British police procedural movies - I happened to see one, "The Long Arm", last night and it's very much the kind of stories that Crofts wrote with lots of attention paid to detail, routine and procedure. Jack Hawkins would've been a perfect French (he also would've been a perfect Maigret - casting directors sometimes don't see what's in front of their eyes) I strongly suggest you see it if you haven't already. The pacing is slow but the movie is well acted and directed with a gorgeous cinematography by Gordon Dines.

    1. I know Jack Hawkins--I see he was once hugely popular--but I haven't seen The Long Arm. He did Gideon's Day too (John Ford).

      It does seem odd French didn't show up in procedurals, but Crofts's popularity was waning by the time they really got rolling in the 1950s, ironically. Maybe he just seemed too old-fashioned compared to the younger procedural writers.

      French did appear in radio drama and Crofts himself wrote that he enjoyed radio procedurals.

  3. I just checked and, believe it or not, there is one 1969 adaptation of Crofts' work done by a German outfit. It was called Bahnübergang (Train Crossing) and French's name was changed to Perutka. Since all the other character names were also "Germanized" I don't recognize the story which inspired it. But there is a character who is a Prison Chaplain that might help identify the source. The actual story or novel is not mentioned in the listing on the movie website.

  4. Great interview, and the series sounds really interesting. Fingers crossed!

  5. "The female characters will be as diverse as the men, sharing all their noble traits and human failings, while being true to the time."

    What? No murderous lesbian nuns? Give 'em time.

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