Sudden Death (1932) by Freeman Wills Crofts

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?

6 comments

  1. Glad you decided to persevere with this, and that you enjoyed it. Crofts has gone through such a reputational drubbing while out of print that it’s wonderful for him to be so readily available now for people to discover how enjoyable the man can be. And this title in particular, which has no doubt been a white whale for a good umber of people, is a great example of what makes him so good.

    More reprints coming soon, too. Exciting times!

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    • I just wish John Rhode was rewarded with the same level of revival. The Mysterious Press reprints don’t seem to be appearing over here (not a problem for me as I’ve got them all) and are a bit of a mixed bag, albeit better than the four other recent ones.

      I’ll be back for more Crofts soon – I’ve got a fair few on my shelf…

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      • Yeah, a bunch of affordable Rohde/Burton reprints would be wonderful — there’s so much of his I’m keen to read, given the recommendations I’ve made note of down the years.

        But, well, the FWC renaissance wasn’t in evidence even a few shgort years ago — so there’s hope yet.

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  2. Delighted to see such a positive review of a title I have always rated highly. No ,not flashy or even an obviously gripping read. However, I found it very satisfying and have always rated it highly in the Crofts canon. Yes, it is annoying that the Mysterious Press reprints of Rhodes have so far not managed to cross over here ; fingers crossed .

    After all before 2001 and House of Stratus , there were no real reprints of Crofts. !

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  3. Of the 2 locked room murders , one is too technical like the famous privy murder of Jim Noy and the other is copied from a classic.

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