Golden Ashes (1940) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Betty Stanton’s life hasn’t been easy, having lost both her parents and then her husband of eight years. With money tight, she takes the position of housekeeper for Sir Geoffrey Buller, a businessman and art collector. But that dream job goes up in smoke – literally – when the house catches fire. Betty helps to salvage a few of the priceless paintings, but the lost to Buller is severe.

Enter Inspector French, along with an insurance investigator, Shaw. An associate of both Betty and Buller has disappeared while visiting France. Has he been murdered? Is there more to the fire than meets the eye? And are the two incidents related? It’ll take French a few trips to Paris (life is hard) before he gets to the truth…

Readers of Crofts work will know what to expect from a typical Inspector French tale. We follow French’s investigation into the crime, with meticulous detail as he follows leads, eliminate possibilities and eventually get to the truth.

It’s an odd book, nowhere near as good as The Loss Of The Jane Vosper, say. There are a couple of reasons for this. The extended opening focussing on Betty builds up her character nicely, so it’s a shame that she is completely side-lined once French shows up. A shame, as I found her story interesting, and while we drop in on her whenever French sees fit to talk to her, I found the second half of the book a bit lacking for her absence.

Perhaps the reason for that sense of disappointment is exacerbated by the fact that it’s all a bit obvious, really. The mechanics of the disappearing associate is fairly complex but the villain’s scheme as a whole – that first thing that comes into your head? – yup, that’s what’s going on…

So, disappointing for Crofts, but still better than a lot of other Golden Age titles – it’s very readable. Crofts’ prose is far from humdrum, and even with an obvious plot, it’s still worth your time.

Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHO – An artist

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