It is probably no longer news to you that the British Library are reprinting a series of Crime Classics; some of their choices have hit the bestseller lists, and they are being lapped up throughout the blogging world. The team have the perfect synergy of content and cover, and I couldn’t resist this stunning cover to Freeman Wills Crofts’ 1933 novel The Hog’s Back Mystery. Crofts’ name meant nothing to me, I will confess – indeed, taken altogether it sounds rather like a municipal building – but apparently he was a big name back in the day, admired by Agatha Christie no less. The novel opens with the reunion of Ursula with her friends Julia and Marjorie (who are sisters). From the off, intrigue starts – as Julia seems to be having an affair, and all is not as it seems in her household. And the mystery of the title is revealed pretty quickly – when Julia’s husband Dr James Earle disappears. It isn’t quite the classic locked-room-murder scenario, as he could equally easily have left under his own volition – but his shoes and coat have not been taken. The curious situation is enough to bring Inspector French onto the scene – a genial, witty gentleman who appears in other novels by this author. One of the unexpected turns this novel takes, not entirely successfully, is the sudden sidelining of Ursula, Julia, and Marjorie once French takes centre stage. Characters introduced in the first chapter of a novel tend to be dominant throughout. That’s not a hard and fast rule, of course, but it still feels a bit imbalanced when they disappear from the narrative for long stretches. But French is great. Something I don’t remember encountering before in Golden Age detective novels is the banter (horrible word, but such it is) between colleagues. They tease each other, they playfully insult each other, they support each other, and it all rings very true to a fun workplace environment:
On reaching the police station he was smilingly saluted by the constable on duty, and shown at once to the room of Superintendent Sheaf. “Hullo, inspector! Here you are,” Sheaf greeted him, holding out a hand massive as an Epstein carving. “It’s what I always say; no one who had ever been to Farnham can keep long away.” “Always glad, super, to come and give you a lift when you’re in trouble,” French rejoined slyly. They had become good friends, these two, and liked and respected each other.
The mystery gets more mysterious as the novel progresses, of course. I am always reluctant to reveal very much about a detective novel (and personally think that blurbs, including the one to The Hog’s Back Mystery give away far too much), so that’s all I’m going to say. The added complications to the initial disappearance all work fairly convincingly, with perhaps a slightly too long gap between Dr. Earle’s disappearance and the next big event. Some readers of detective fiction complain that they couldn’t possibly have unravelled the mystery by themselves. Freeman Wills Crofts was among those who was determined to avoid this accusation. As Martin Edwards explains in his excellent (but sadly brief!) introduction:
[Crofts] became an enthusiastic founder member of the Detection Club formed by Anthony Berkeley, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. Club members believed that detective novelists should ‘play fair’ with their clues, and give their readers a chance to work the solution out for themselves. This resulted in variations of the ‘clue finder’ device used by J.J. Connington, Crofts, and Ronald Knox in the UK, and by C. Daly King in the US, as well as ‘challenges to the reader’ laid down by the likes of Berkeley, Milward Kennedy, and Rupert Penny in Britain, and Ellery Queen in the US.
I’m not sure exactly if this is what is meant by ‘clue finder’, but the lengthy unveiling of the truth in the denouement has page numbers in brackets for every piece of evidence – so the dubious or cynical reader can flick back and check. That must be rather a nightmare for the editor, but is certainly a nice touch. The plot doesn’t have quite the element of surprise or ingenuity of an Agatha Christie plot, but it is certainly put together impressively – and the novel is incredibly enjoyable. More than that, Crofts has successfully circumvented the common criticism of the detective novel, in that none of his characters feel two-dimensional. He has combined wit, verve, and interesting characters with a thorough, involving mystery plot – it’s a real treat of a novel.
Simon Thomas is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Read more about the British Library Crime Classics in our Spotlight on Publishers article.
Freeman Wills Crofts, The Hog’s Back Mystery (London: British Library, 2015), 978-0712357975, 336pp., paperback.