Inspector French And The Starvel Tragedy (1927) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Ruth Averill lives an unhappy life in the house in Starvel Hollow, in the care of her uncle Simon, a miserly reclusive individual. A shaft of light comes into her life when she gets an invitation to visit friends away from the area, but when she returns to Starvel, she discovers a horrific sight – the house has burned to the ground, with three dead bodies inside.

Ruth was due to come into Simon’s riches, but he hoarded most of his money in a safe in the house, money that was apparently burned to ashes. But when it transpires that some of that money has resurfaced, it seems that the fire was no accident and the money was stolen. Inspector French is on the case, but soon finds that things are far, far more complicated than he could possibly expect.

Otherwise known as The Starvel Hollow Tragedy and a couple of other iterations on the name, this is the third Inspector French title from Crofts, following Inspector French’s Greatest Case (surely asking for trouble calling the first book that) and The Cheyne Mystery. It took me a while to get into Crofts as the Humdrum label made me think twice. After being swayed by Rhode and Connington, I tried Crofts, but unfortunately picked The Pit Prop Syndicate, a rather dull title. Eventually (two years later) I was converted by The Sea Mystery, and later Mystery In The Channel and The Loss Of The Jane Vosper. Admittedly, the later title, Golden Ashes, is a little flat, but three out of four French books is a pretty good hit-rate. And now The Starvel Tragedy makes it four out of five. It’s an outstanding tale.

French is an interesting sleuth – loyal to the police force, but also desperate to catch a murderer not just for justice but also for himself. He’s a thorough investigator – possibly too thorough. There’s one moment where he finds traces of burned newspaper near the safe and feels the need to find out exactly which paper it comes from, rather than just accepting that it’s newspaper, not money! But we follow him building his theory, interviewing witnesses, dealing with problems along the way (such as another possible murder) and leading to an exciting climax.

The plot builds nicely and contains many surprises, with French’s theories adjusting themselves as it goes along, while never being re-written. This sort of story can be tricky – if a theory gets thrown out for a new one, the reader can feel like they’ve been wasting their time reading about a red herring, especially if it’s a bit obvious, but if it’s basically one theory, then the author has to keep the reader interested for the length of the book. Crofts certainly achieves this here, and while the final plot beats aren’t really clued, at this point, the reader will be happy to go with the flow.

All in all, this is an excellent book. It’s been re-released recently by Harper Collins and it’s definitely worth your time. As I’ve said before: Humdrum, my arse!

Just The Facts, Ma’am: HOW – Crime Involved Fire/Arson

6 comments

  1. Delighted to see someone else think highly of this; my Crofts fandom is fast approaching the point where even I’m not sure how valid my opinions on him are. This represents, in my eyes, a real statement of intent in how it moves on from The Cheyne Mystery, and to think that he only gets more diabolical from here (with the likes of The Sea Mystery and Sir John Magill’s Last Journey) is wonderful.

    And, with six new titles due in 2020 — Sudden Death (1932), Death on the Way (1932), Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), Crime at Guildford (1935), The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936), and Man Overboard (1936) — it would seem that a chronological republishing might well be underway, since this will mean his first 19 books are then in print again (with the BL’s Antidote to Venom making it twenty in total).

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  2. “Humdrum my arse”. That must be an English public school thing.

    I found The Mystery In The Channel a pleasant if UN exciting read. The Cask and The Pit-Prop Syndicate were my other forays into Crofts, and one story, so my experience isn’t as favourable as yours. But I have a nice copy of this and will give it a spin.

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  3. I am very fond of this story ( had the green penguin for years without number !) In my opinion Crofts is the best of his type, timetable style, surprising for a railways man, huh ? The humdrum label came from Julian Symons as dreary a piece of work as ever fell out of the “New Statesman” and in my mind only wrote one readable story a spy novel called “ The Broken Penny” . So not really qualified ( IMO) to comment out of his own oeuvre.
    Crofts is the flattest of flat writers, not an emotion ripples the surface, you either like the style or not, I do.

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