Thursday, September 19, 2019

Two Locked Rooms for the Price of One: Sudden Death (1932), by Freeman Wills Crofts

Anne felt rather sick.  What could all this mean but one thing?...The garden became a place of evil, the trees sinister monsters crouching to destroy.  There was a foreboding in the stealthy rustle of the breeze through the leaves, and even from the very sunlight the warmth had gone, leaving it hard and pitiless. 

Anne shivered again.  Was this how murder began?

--Sudden Death (1932), by Freeman Wills Crofts

Death comes in threes
The grim reaper pays a visit to Frayle
no less than three times in Sudden Death.
Will he meet his match in Inspector French?
(pictured: American first edition,
a Harper Sealed Mystery)
Although Freeman Wills Crofts, like his detection club contemporaries John Street and JJ Connington, (see my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery), was considered one of the supreme Golden Age technicians of murder, he, like Street and Connington, did not actually produce many locked room mysteries, leaving them to locked room whiz kid John Dickson Carr.  Crofts' particular forte was not unlocking sealed rooms but the breaking murderers' airtight alibis.  However, Crofts with Sudden Death (1932)--his twelfth crime novel and the third one completed after he retired to the village of Blackheath, near Guildford, Surrey--finally gave mystery fans not one locked room murder but two, both of them most heinously committed near Surrey at the country house Frayle, two miles outside the town of Ashbridge in Kent.*

*(The dust jacket says this is really Tunbridge Wells, about an hour's drive from Blackheath.)

Happily Sudden Death constitutes a highly engaging read for the classic mystery devotee not only of locked rooms murders but of genteel country house killings-or, really, Golden age British mystery in general.

This period art deco illustration on the
2000 reprint edition by House of Stratus
is drawn from the book.  In a scene that takes
place when Anne Day first arrives at Frayle,
Anne could scarcely refrain from a cry of
delight as she saw what was to be her room....
the glory...was its window, a large square bow with
with an enclosed window seat.  Anne hurried 
across the room and gazed out.
  Of course Anne's 
joy sadly soon turns to ghastly horror
as the dreadful murders pile up at Frayle.
At the opening of Sudden Death Anne Day, who is the point-of-view (POV) character for the first third of the novel, comes to Frayle to take the position of housekeeper for Mr. and Mrs. Severus and Sybil Grinsmead and their two young children.  Crofts could be a clunker with men's names--Pierce Whymper and Runciman Jellico as male romantic leads obviously come to mind--but I rather like the name of Severus Grinsmead.  Unfortunately trouble lies ahead for the couple.

Anne is most happy to have secured this position, because until Mr. Grinsmead hired her she had been rather up against it.  The genteel Anne, we learn, is "an only child and orphan," her mother having died eleven years earlier, when Anne was twelve, and her father, Gloucester vicar Reverend Latimer Day, in the last year, leaving her "homeless and with an income of barely thirty pounds a year"--or about L2000/$2500 today.  (There was also seventy pounds capital accrued from the auction of her father's property.) 

The good Reverend Latimer Day, it seems, was a "brilliant thinker," but unfortunately a "recluse" who was "out of touch with the world."  Way to go, Reverend Lackadaisical! 

At least Reverend Day didn't lose the family fortune by compulsively gambling it away, like so many of Crofts' foolish parental figures.  Interestingly Crofts' father, also named Freeman Wills Crofts, was a Staff Assistant-Surgeon in the British Army.  He died in Corozel, British Honduras from yellow fever at the age of twenty-five over seven months before his son, the future detective novelist, was even born, leaving his spouse, Cecila Frances Crofts, his bride of less than year, a worldly estate of all of thirty-two pounds (about L3000 or L3700).  Did Crofts have a fixation with improvident fathers who died leaving little means to their offspring?  It sure shows up often enough in his fiction.

I believe that nowhere in the book does Crofts actually say Anne Day is twenty-three years old, and in fact the above data concerning Ann's age is needlessly elliptically provided by the author, but I think I got it right.  I had actually initially assumed that Anne was probably well into her thirties, because she comes off more like an incipient "old maid" type than a young, marriageable mystery heroine/love interest type.  Here's Crofts, going out of his way seemingly, to deglam poor Anne:

No one could have called Anne beautiful.  She was small with a rather squat figure, an undoubted snub nose and a mouth of generous proportions.  But truth and honesty shone in her gray eyes and her firm chin showed courage and determination.

Anne experienced another thrill of delight as she saw the garden....
Claverton Country House Hotel, Royal Tunbridge Wells

In his novels the religiously devout Crofts repeatedly introduces as heroines (of a sort) these same virtuous, unbeautiful women, whom we are supposed to admire more for their inherent goodness and upright character than for their looks (or their brains frankly).  And why not?  Why shouldn't women with squat figures and mouths of generous proportions have their day in mysteries too?  Though in Sudden Death Anne never does function remotely as a love interest--or does she?  I'll have more on that below in a postscript.

Anne Day discovers the first dead body,
dreadfully gassed behind a locked door.
Anne looks rather more sultry here than
I was expecting, given the author's
rather blunt description of her.
(British edition by Collins)
Crofts' introduction of this sort of innocent focal point character became a narrative device he would employ again and again in his later novels, and I have mixed feelings about it.  I assume Crofts did it to engage us more emotionally in the story, but as I explain in my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, emotions are not really what I want from Crofts, mystery's consummate technical detail man.  I think Crofts is better at the construction of alibis than he is at the exhibition of emotions, on this point though some may differ.

Additionally, introduction of an obviously innocent focal point character necessarily removes a nice juicy suspect from the roster.  Here Anne Day could potentially have made a terrific suspect (I'll say more about this below), but that gambit is thrown away right from the start of the novel and what we gain from it is a not especially interesting POV character for the first third of the book. 

Things pick up considerably, however, when the indefatigably snoopy Inspector French shows up on the scene.  But before that happens, let's get back to Anne Day, she of the generously proportioned mouth.  Also encountered at Frayle by Anne, in addition to the family, are the servants, consisting of:

  • The maid, inevitably named Gladys.  Gladys is initially described as "slightly unpleasant looking" (How generously proportioned is her mouth, I have to wonder?) and we know she's a maid because she says "naice" instead of nice.  Though initially surly, Gladys thaws under Anne Day's kindly light.
  • The cook, Mrs. Meakin, from whom radiates "kindliness, sympathy, decency in the best sense and a quiet strength."  Well, scratch her from the list of suspects!  Darn.
  • The gardener-chauffeur, Hersey.  We know Hersey is a servant because he drops his aitches.  Though Crofts liked to do heavily rendered Irish and Scottish dialect in his books (he was Anglo-Irish by nativity), all his country working class characters seem to talk in a sort of London Cockney.  Later there's a scene where Hersey gets "surly" and "truculent" (words Crofts always reserved for uppish servants) when Inspector French is questioning him.  So in what he mentally terms a "bluff" (i.e., a lie), French threatens to arrest Hersey right then and there as an accessory after the fact.  French is always threatening to do this to members of the working class, on the belief that they are too ignorant to stand up for their rights and will be easily cowed by the police.  He always seems to be right too, which I guess is why he keeps doing it.  For such a nice guy, French is not exactly a wallflower when it comes to aggressive policing. If it's not third degree, it's certainly second.

Then there's Mr. Grinsmead's mother, whose name, we find late in the novel, is Matilda.  Up till then, she's referred to as "old Mrs. Grinsmead" and "the old lady."  And she's shy of sixty by the way, apparently 58 or 59.  Crofts typically does this with women of a certain age (over fifty?), though not as I recollect with men.  Matilda's's a tough bird, if not what I would call an old hen, being fifty-ahem! myself.  But I'm a man so it's totally different, right?  Crofts, incidentally, was 53 when this novel was published.  (Okay, that's my age too, I admit it.)  Anyway, Matilda Grinsmead is always coming to visit at Frayle and is considered rather domineering.  Might she be up to something?

And let's not forget Edith Cheame, governess to the children, a somewhat cynical character who thinks Anne is is a touch on the naive side when it comes to life, having been a stay-at-home Gloucester vicar's daughter and all.  In a rom-com, Edith would be played by Joan Cusack or the late Carrie Fisher and get all of the best one-liners.  "Her best friend would not have called Edith Cheame a handsome women," Crofts tells us, without detailing the size of her mouth however. 

The two young children, Edith's charges, I think are glimpsed once in the novel and then are only rarely referenced again.  In GA mystery children were typically neither seen nor heard, probably because in real life young children having to face the fact of murder in their home is heartrending and in the Golden Age fictional murder, at least in the theory of many individuals (like Crofts), was supposed to be a fun mental exercise.

the fatal tap
Anne Day initially is thrilled with her job at lovely Frayle, which has ended her eleven months' nightmare of living life as an unemployed person with insufficient income.  (In his Thirties books Crofts is quite conscious of the dreadful global economic downturn, often referencing the horror of unemployment, though usually only in relation to genteel middle-class people like himself.)  But then Anne finds that Sybil Grinsmead loathes her husband, whom she believes is having an affair with a local grass widow, Irene Holt-Lancing, who likes to play when her sea captain hubby is away.  Indeed Sybil fears Severus is plotting to kill her! 

Anne, whom Sybil at first views with suspicion, eventually becomes Sybil's close confidant, spending hours at night with Sybil in her bedroom having long talks.  (See more on this below.)

One ghastly morning Sybil tragically is found dead in her locked bedroom, her room filled with poisonous gas from the fire.  There doesn't seem any way that it can be murder.  Thus a coroner's jury finds that Sybil committed suicide while of unbalanced mind.  (There's lots of talk in court of Sybil having been afflicted with a "persecution complex," though no psychiatrist is called to give evidence about it--what do those headshrinkers really know!) 

However, the coroner, an old friend of Sybil's, eventually ferrets out that there was likely some sort of aromatic hanky-panky between Grinsmead and Mrs. Holt-Lancing and he thereupon persuades the Chief Constable to get Scotland Yard, in the form of intrepid series sleuth Inspector French, brought down to Kent.  This I was a little dubious about, because I didn't see how the evidence of an affair  (which was hardly airtight anyway) could overturn a verdict based on the supposed utter physical impossibility of murder being committed.

But, be that as it may, once French is on the scene, he soon tumbles to how murder was indeed done, party based on studying a sketch of the gas fire (provided in the book).  That's one locked room down!  But who done it?  The somewhat censorious French is sure it's Severus Grinsmead, perhaps with his paramour as an accomplice....But then there's a second "suicide" in a locked room....

the second locked room
Vintage mystery fans should find Sudden Death a hugely enjoyable read.  French does investigate alibis, but there's not overmuch of that here for Crofts, for those who don't like a lot of detailed alibi busting.  For the most part you have a chance to crack the case yourself, though the technicalities of gas fires are more remote today than they were at the time.  Poor French seems to work pretty much alone, with no scientific assistance from the police force that employs him, so you really have to hand it to him.  He doesn't even get to call on Dr. Priestley, that disputations scientist who solves Scotland Yard's cases for them in John Rhode's mysteries!

There are lots of delicious Croftisms in Sudden Death, the sort of things that used to irritate me but now I just enjoy, their being so characteristic of the author.  (On the whole they are more benign than Ngaio Marsh's Marshisms, I think.) 

One of the reasons it's accepted that Sybil Grinsmead committed suicide, for example, is that she came from an "artistic" family.  But naturally!  "Her brother was a well-known R.A. and one of her sisters was both a novelist and a musician," we learn.  Clearly the woman was doomed to fatal pathological neurosis! 

I'm reminded of another Crofts' novel where a woman shamefacedly admits to French that her brother has "artistic tendencies."  Criminy, get the net!  Certainly Crofts' books are an antidote to all those artsy-fartsy English manners mysteries, where literary quotation are being conspicuously dropped on every other page.  Crofts must have looked dubiously on that sort of thing.  The main literary references I recall from him are to Sherlock Holmes and Pilgrim's Progress.

On the other hand, if you want to know something practical like how to off someone with a gas fire while never appearing to have entered the room, Crofts is your man.  For such a nice, unassuming, mild man, Crofts sure gave a lot of time and thought to the best ways to murder people.  And we vintage mystery readers are the winners for it.

As a Harper Sealed Mystery, Sudden Death included a promise
that Harpers would refund the book buyer's money if s/he
returned the book the bookstore with the seal unbroken. 
The seal above was broken!
Knowing that an Inspector French detective series is in the works I have to confess I reread Sudden Death thinking of how it might film for television.  I like the novel, but I believe there are ways to ginger it up for television without betraying the spirit of Crofts, and also to enhance to question of culpritude, if you will (i.e., whodunit).

I have already mentioned that Anne Day could be made into a suspect quite easily.  There's even a queer sexual subtext between her and Sybil Grinsmead.  In Masters of the Humdrum Mystery I jokingly commented that this passage between Anne and Sybil from the novel is the most erotic one in all the (admittedly not very erotic) writing of Crofts:

When after a heavy sleep Sybil woke, Anne was still beside her....

"Dear Sybil!  You may count on me to the utmost!"

"I feel I may, and things won't be so bad now when I feel I have you by my side.  The worst thing after actual fear, was the terrible feeling of loneliness.  I had no one to speak to, no one with whom I could relax.  Now that will be ended.  Oh, Anne, no matter how this finishes up, I'm thankful you came here!"  And sitting up in bed, Sybil threw her arms round Anne's next and kissed her hungrily.

Now, really, maybe Crofts was genuinely up to something here and he wasn't as naive about this sort of thing as I had assumed.  Elsewhere, when French presses Severus Grinsmead about whether he is having an affair with Irene Holt-Lancing, Severus defends himself by accusing his wife, in so many words, of sexual frigidity:

My friendship with Mrs. Holt-Lancing was the direct and inevitable result of my wife's coldness.  I say quite definitely that it was not the other way round.  It was because I couldn't get any sympathy from my wife that I turned elsewhere.

Add her "artistic" background and I don't believe that a reading of Sybil as a lesbian is so farfetched.  (It's certainly less so than some of the readings that have been made with Christie.) And Anne for her part evinces no interest in men throughout the whole novel.  So that's certainly one layer of mystery that could be added more explicitly to a film adaptation.  I can think of some others too.

Crofts himself thought enough of Sudden Death that he turned it into a play, writing for advice his friend Dorothy L. Sayers, who had staged Busman's Honeymoon as a play in December 1936 (later reversing Crofts' process by adapting it as a novel).  Crofts' play was performed under the title Inspector French twice in 1937, first in July by the Otherwise Club near Guildford at the Barn Theatre (where, regrettably, a bat flitting around the barn distracted the audience's attention from the play); and second in October, by the Guildford Repertory Company. Crofts revised the play in 1949, changing the title to During the Night, but it was denied a license by England's Censor, the Lord Chamberlain.  (See Marvin Lachman, The Villainous Stage, 2014). 

Perhaps the Lord Chamberlain brought the hammer down on what he imagined was wicked lesbian subtext, but whether it's really there or not, Sudden Death is a mystery you should enjoy, in print or on film.  It's a fun puzzle on which to test your mystery mettle.


  1. When I read the title of your post on my blog-roll, I was hoping it was an announcement of a forthcoming reprint of the book. But I'll settle for your review... for now.

    I know this is slightly off-topic, but is there a particular Virginia Rath reprint you can recommend to a plot-obsessed mystery reader like myself? Ferryman, Take Him Across! sounds promising.

    1. I'd be interested to see your take on Murder on the Day of Judgment, it's got a locked room-ish problem. It totally fooled me, fwiw. After that maybe Dayton's Folly or Ferryman or Excellent Night for a Murder among the Rockys. Anger of the Bells was probably my least favorite, personally. Of course John already reviewed Judgment and I reviewed Folly, so you might like to try another one.

      Rocky has a big role in the Michael Dundas mystery Murder with a Theme Song, which has echoes of the Lindbergh kidnapping and Agatha Christie and he also has a cameo in Death Breaks the Ring.

      On the Crofts, I wish. I have never been asked to do anything with reprints for him (or Street), despite my having written Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. HarperCollins seems to have stopped reprinting him, so Sudden Death, which would have been next, instead remains quite rare. I hope if the TV series airs successfully all his books will be brought back into print.

    2. Thanks! I guess Murder on the Day of Judgment is going to be my first stop, but don't expect anything before December.

      "I hope if the TV series airs successfully all his books will be brought back into print."

      I'm still skeptical about the new TV series. However, I would welcome the reprints with opens arms and they can plaster the actors across the front covers to promote the TV series. As long as we get reprints of Sudden Death and The End of Andrew Harrison.

    3. I'm disappointed the reprints just stopped after Mystery in the Channel. Judging by the favorable response to Antidote to Venom (not my favorite Crofts), I would think a lot of people would have enjoyed getting to read the later Crofts books.

      In Judgment the first murder takes place where the cite is under observation, so it had something of the ring of a locked room to me. I don't want to oversell it to you, but I like John Norris thought the puzzle resolution clever.

  2. In a stroke of brilliant timing I managed to finally find a semi-affordable copy of this after several years of searching the day after you posted this. The cynical part of me suspects that now a reprint is certain to happen...

    1. Well, I know nothing about reprints, I can assure you. Fingers crossed, though. Hope you like this one!