Anne Day has been struggling in life, with personal bad luck and the Depression meaning that she is on the verge of taking a job as a scullery maid, when an ideal opportunity presents itself – housekeeper to Severus Grinsmead and his wife Sibyl in their vast home in Kent. “Housekeeper” basically translates as caring and managing Sibyl, who is generally ill and a generally difficult person. Other than Sibyl, though, the job is all she could have dreamt of…
Soon, she has made herself at home and has even made connections with Sibyl, but a shadow is on the horizon when she becomes aware of Dr Grinsmead’s affair with a neighbour and his plans to divorce his wife. And then, out of nowhere, Sibyl apparently kills herself while locked inside her bedroom by gassing herself… And then Inspector French arrives.
This was a bit of an odd read for me. I’d just started it, after seeing a couple of recommendations, as I’ve been meaning to get back to Crofts. Anyway, two chapters in and I stumbled across an oblique spoiler for in on a message board. The problem was, I wasn’t sure as to how much of a spoiler it was, so with a bit of careful research – thank you, JJ – I decided to plough on. Turned out, it did point me in the right direction – boo – but it didn’t matter that much, as I enjoyed the book quite a bit. Would I have enjoyed it more without the nudge? Who knows, but it does remind me of why I’m very careful of spoilers here.
There’s a similar structure here to the one that Belton Cobb adopts at times, the switching of focuses between two characters while remaining with each character for a significant time. Anne’s priorities differ from French’s – she’s more concerned with the security of her job should Dr Grinsmead turn out to be a murderer, whereas French is, as you might expect, is more interested with determining if it was a case of murder and, if so, catching a murderer.
The structure of the novel really highlights the strengths of a Crofts novel. As French has no Watson, there’s no one to propound nonsense theories for the detective to dismiss. Instead, we get to see all of French’s thought processes, as he sifts theories and suspects. Rather than a meticulous set of deductions, he can fix on a most-likely suspect, work through his theories and the problems therein, and then choose to dismiss or proceed with that line of enquiry.
The two locked rooms could not be more different – the more technical one is explained about two-thirds of the way in (because nobody could really deduce it, so Crofts/French just has to tell us how it was done, but thankfully it doesn’t finger the killer) and the second one is left to the reader to deduce.
It’s an unflashy book, but is never dull – even when French is going over theories, it’s still an interesting read. Another piece of evidence that Julian Symons was talking out of his bottom when he dismissed Crofts (and Rhode and others) as humdrum.
Sudden Death has been reissued in paperback by Collins, so what are you waiting for?