The Sea Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

A father and son are having a lovely day out fishing when their lines snag something heavy. Given that they are in a mystery novel, they are naturally relieved when it isn’t a body, but a crate. Then they open the crate and guess what’s inside? Yup, it’s a decomposing body… What were the odds?

Enter Inspector French from Scotland Yard. But what on earth can a detective do? A faceless corpse, clad only in its underwear with a small, but hardly unique, birthmark. A packing crate dropped in the middle of the sea with no distinguishing features. With nothing else to work on, how can anyone possibly get anywhere in such a case? Well, you obviously haven’t met Inspector French…

French featured in (if Goodreads is to be believed) thirty of Freeman Wills Crofts novels but this is my first encounter with him. It’s only my second Crofts title, following The Pit Prop Syndicate which was, quite frankly, a massive pile of pants. This one actually follows a vaguely similar structure, where every single line of the tale is focused on following the investigation. So is this one any better?

Let’s pause on that thought for a moment and take a look at the title of this book. It probably rivals some of John Rhode’s finest work… The body is discovered at sea, yes, but… well, that’s it, really. Everything else is very much landbound. It’s also, in set-up at least, remarkable similar to The Cask, one of Crofts earlier books, which he only wrote eight years previously. Oh, and he spoils some aspects of that one here, which is odd – why draw attention to the similarity and why would French, who, I think, wasn’t even in that book, tell everyone who the murderer was?

But back to this one? Is it better that The Pit Prop Syndicate? Most definitely.

It’s one of the most intelligently written investigations that I’ve ever read. French moves from stage to stage getting closer and closer to the truth, using his brains and letting the reader follow his deductions, both correct and incorrect. The murderer seems pretty adept at covering their tracks – the one question that kept occurring to me was why the murderer went to such lengths, but when you see the scope of the thing, even that sort of makes sense.

It’s not as dry as I would have expected either. Unlike my previous encounter with Crofts, this has the benefit of French as the focus who’s rather charming. He does seem to be a one-man band investigator – some of his interviews could have been done by an underling, surely – but of course that means that we’d miss crucial information.

All in all, this was a very fine read, and rather unexpected. It has been re-released recently under the Collins Crime Club imprint, who, for some reason, have followed the titling trend started a long time by Target books, and have released this as Inspector French and the Sea Mystery, both in paperback and in ebook. Highly Recommended.

12 comments

      • Yup, I loved it — 5 stars, a beautiful piece of work — so I’m especialy pleased to see someone else take to it so completely. I can totally understand the sense of Crofts as a dullard, given how thoroughly he goes into everything, but I’d expect the depth and rigour to be manna from Heaven for most detection fans; weird that the more negative response is the one that seems to’ve been perpetuated. Ah, well, maybe a new generation will be able to discover him for themselves now these are in print (though they’re weirdly unavailable in some cases — surely the print run can’t’ve been that small that tjey’ve sold out and won’t be reprinted…?). Here’s hoping all the rest follow.

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      • Ah, but my theory as to the popularity of crime fiction authors comes from entertaining sleuths and relatively simple mysteries. Take Christie – all of her best mysteries hang on one basic misunderstanding, so the casual reader can still follow what’s going on without making notes as they go along. It’s a certain sort of detective story reader who likes a problem where even the solution needs a wall-chart to follow. I’m not generally that sort of reader, but I don’t think this one falls into that category.

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      • Ha, yeah, you could be onto something there — Sir John Magill’s Last Journey is definitely a flow-chart-on-the-wall affair, and I imagine the general response to that will be less favourable than this, though they’re in the same essential style.

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