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Inspector French / Freeman Wills Crofts Mysteries
Freeman Wills Crofts FRSA (1879 – 1957) was an Anglo-Irish mystery author during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
Crofts was born in Dublin, Ireland. His father, also named Freeman Wills Crofts, was a surgeon-lieutenant in the Army Medical Service, but he died of fever in Honduras before the young Freeman Wills Crofts was born. His mother, née Celia Frances Wise, remarried the Venerable Jonathan Harding, Vicar of Gilford, County Down, and Archdeacon of Dromore, and Crofts was brought up in the Gilford vicarage. He attended Methodist College and Campbell College in Belfast. In 1912 he married Mary Bellas Canning, daughter of the manager of a local bank in Coleraine.
In 1896, at the age of seventeen, Crofts was apprenticed to his maternal uncle, Berkeley Deane Wise, who was chief engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. In 1899 Crofts was appointed Junior Assistant on the construction of the Londonderry and Strabane Extension of the Donegal Railway. In 1900 he became District Engineer at Coleraine for the L.M.S. Northern Counties Committee at a salary of £100 per year. In 1922 Crofts was promoted to Chief Assistant Engineer of the railway, based in Belfast. He lived at ‘Grianon’ in Jordanstown, a quiet village some 6 miles north of Belfast, where it was convenient for Crofts to travel by train each day to the railway’s offices at York Road. Croft continued his engineering career until 1929. In his last task as an engineer, he was commissioned by the Government of Northern Ireland to chair an inquiry into the Bann and Lough Neagh Drainage Scheme.
In 1919, during an absence from work due to a long illness, Crofts wrote his first novel, The Cask (1920), which established him as a new master of detective fiction. Crofts continued to write steadily, producing a book almost every year for thirty years, in addition to a number of short stories and plays.
He is best remembered for his favourite detective, Inspector Joseph French, who was introduced in his fifth book, Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924). Inspector French always set about unravelling each of the mysteries presented him in a workmanlike, exacting manner – this approach set him apart from most other fictional sleuths.
In 1929, he abandoned his railway engineering career and became a full-time writer. He settled in the village of Blackheath, near Guildford, in Surrey, and a number of his books are set in the Guildford area, including The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) and Crime at Guildford (1935). Many of his stories have a railway theme, and his particular interest in the apparently unbreakable alibi often focussed on the intricacies of railway timetables. At the end of his life, he and his wife moved to Worthing, Sussex in 1953, where they lived until his death in 1957, the year in which his last book was published.
He was a member, with Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, of the Detection Club which met in Gerrard Street. In 1939 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Crofts was esteemed, not only by his regular readers, but also by his fellow writers of the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Agatha Christie included parodies of Inspector French alongside Sherlock Holmes and her own Hercule Poirot in Partners in Crime (1929). Raymond Chandler described him as “the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy” (in The Simple Art of Murder). His attention to detail and his concentration on the mechanics of detection makes him the forerunner of the “police procedural” school of crime fiction.
However, it has also given rise to a suggestion of a certain lack of flair – Julian Symons describing him as of “the humdrum school”. This may explain why his name has not remained as familiar as other more colourful and imaginative Golden Age writers, although he had 15 books included in the Penguin Books “green” series of the best detective novels and 36 of his books were in print in paperback in 2000.
Note: Freeman Wills Crofts writes exacting mysteries that are incredibly detailed, and Inspector French loves to break unbreakable alibis and chase after obscure technical points. Many are inverted mysteries, rather than whodunnits, so think of them as more police procedurals. Not everyone will enjoy Crofts style, but if you like one, you will probably like most of them! These are very unique mysteries and every fan should at least try one to discover if this is an author they want to read!
Freeman Wills Crofts is another member of the “Humdrum” mystery writers, along with Cecil Street (John Rhode & Miles Burton) and Alfred Walter Stewart. (J J Connington) This was a title given by critic Julian Symons, but they are not really boring at all. See Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 by Curtis J. Evans
Inspector French Novels
Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924)
Note: Critical opinion is divided – see Best Review!
Often considered one of Freeman Wills Crofts’ best works, Inspector French’s Greatest Case is a masterpiece of detective fiction. It was first published in 1924 and selected by Howard Haycraft to be one of the works included in the ultimate mystery list: The Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective-Crime-Mystery Fiction, Two Centuries of Cornerstones 1748-1948.
Unlike other mystery writers who have made the police appear to be incompetent, Crofts has given us the brilliant Inspector French, a first class investigator, within the ranks of Scotland Yard. Charles Gething, head clerk at London’s Duke and Peabody’s, diamond merchants, is found murdered in front of the firm’s open safe. Inspector French is assigned the case, which he works on methodically, through a series of fascinating clues, in England and abroad. Crofts rewards us with a highly entertaining, thoroughly satisfying, classic British mystery story.
Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926)
AKA: The Cheyne Mystery
Note: Saved by French!
When young Cheyne finds things going wrong and a dangerous gang of criminals unpleasantly interested in him, he tries to outwit them on his own. When things get serious and his life is attempted, he goes to Scotland Yard. French comes into the case, and carries out one of his usual investigations of untiring thoroughness – directed by flashes of inspiration.
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927)
AKA: The Starvel Hollow Tragedy
Note: One of the best early Croft mysteries!
The burning down of Simon Averill’s house, Starvel Hollow, appears at first to be an accident. The house has been reduced to ash, killing three people (including its owner) and incinerating the contents of the safe in which he kept his entire fortune in cash (over thirty thousand pounds). But when one of these notes appears in circulation, surely it cannot be an accident? Once again, Inspector French doggedly pursues the trail across Europe before finally unlocking the mystery when all appears to be lost.
The Sea Mystery (1928)
Note: Body in a box?
A washed-up crate on the coast of Wales contains the body of a murdered man. No evidence shows where it comes from or whose is the body it contains. Inspector French has to use his imagination and thoroughness to find a clue and a solution to an ingenious crime.
Note: The story of the Purple Sickle!
A girl employed in the box office of a London cinema falls into the power of a mysterious trio of crooks. A helpful solicitor sends her to Scotland Yard. There she tells Inspector French the story of the Purple Sickle. Her body is found floating in Southampton Water the next day. French discovers that similar murders have taken place. After gathering evidence he learns the trio’s secret and runs them to ground.
Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930)
Note: The devil is in the details!
Sir John Magill, a well-known public figure in Ulster, is on his way to Ireland via the Stranraer-Larne route. But he never reaches his destination and no trace of him can be found. Inspector French declares it his most puzzling case. Crofts’ great knowledge of trains, ships, and travel in that era makes this mystery intriguing.
Mystery in the Channel (1931)
AKA: Mystery in the English Channel
Note: Offshore Murder!
The cross-channel steamer Chichester stops half way to France. A motionless yacht lies in her path. When a party clambers aboard they find a trail of blood and two dead men. Chief Constable Turnbill has to call on Inspector French for help in solving the mystery of the Nymph.
Sudden Death (1932)
Note: A rather expensive addition to your collection & a locked room!
Anne is the housekeeper at Frayle, home to Mr. Grinstead and his semi-invalid wife. She senses that there is something very wrong in the house and this tension culminates in the mysterious death of Mrs. Grinstead. With devastating consequences, Inspector French has to solve the mystery. Quite a good locked room mystery!
Death on the Way (1932)
AKA: Double Death
Note: A favourite of trains buffs!
Work on the widening of the Southern Railway’s south coast route results in two mysterious deaths. Murder becomes apparent. As evidence is sifted through in minute detail and data analysed, tension mounts right up to the dramatic climax in this gripping thriller.
The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933)
AKA: The Strange Case of Dr. Earle
Note: Where did all the Hog’s Backers go?
‘As pretty a piece of work as Inspector French has done … On the level of Mr Crofts’ very best; which is saying something.’ – Daily Telegraph
Dr James Earle and his wife live in comfortable seclusion near the Hog’s Back, a ridge in the North Downs in the beautiful Surrey countryside. When Dr Earle disappears from his cottage, Inspector French is called in to investigate. At first he suspects a simple domestic intrigue – and begins to uncover a web of romantic entanglements beneath the couple’s peaceful rural life. The case soon takes a more complex turn. Other people vanish mysteriously, one of Dr Earle’s house guests among them. What is the explanation for the disappearances? If the missing people have been murdered, what can be the motive? This fiendishly complicated puzzle is one that only Inspector French can solve. Freeman Wills Crofts was a master of the intricately and ingeniously plotted detective novel, and The Hog’s Back Mystery shows him at the height of his powers. This new edition of a classic mystery is introduced by the crime fiction expert Martin Edwards.
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934)
AKA: Wilful and Premeditated
Best Review (Spoiler Alert!)
Note: Planes & The Great Depression!
The 12:30 from Croydon is not Crofts usual train, but a plane on the London-to-Paris service. The trip is viewed through the eyes of a child on the journey. Rose is going to Paris to see her mother who has been knocked down in a road accident, accompanied by her grandfather, the wealthy Andrew Crowther, who dies in mid-flight!
This is a novel that is focused on the effects of the Great Depression, and the struggle to keep the Crowther Electromotor Works, and the small market town of Cold Pickerby, Yorkshire, from economic disaster. An interesting historical novel!
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)
AKA: Crime on the Solent
Note: A bit of industrial espionage?
The Joymount Rapid Hardening Cement Manufacturing Company is in serious financial trouble. Two young company employees hatch a plot to break in to a rival works, Chayle on the Isle of Wight, to find out Chayle’s secret for underselling them. But the scheme does not go according to plan. The death of the night watchman, theft and fire are the result. Inspector French is brought in to solve the mystery.
Crime at Guildford (1935)
AKA: The Crime at Nornes
Note: Jewels! & Accountants?
The managing director of a large jewellery firm proposes a weekend board meeting at his Guildford home to sort out the firm’s shaky affairs. On Sunday morning the guests discover that one of their number, the accountant, is dead. The police are suspicious. Then comes the news of a London jewellery heist. Inspector French is called in to investigate two connected mysteries.
The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936)
Note: Who sank Jane Vosper?
The Jane Vosper is plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic by a series of explosions in her hold. It is clear that something is wrong, as there is no innocent explanation of the cause. The only possibility appears to be that someone has sunk the ship for the insurance money (either for the goods on board or the ship itself). The loss of the goods will cause a problem for The Land and Sea Insurance Co. and they decide to look into matters themselves. When their private detective goes missing, Inspector French of Scotland Yard is called in and he decides that the only way to solve the missing person case is to solve the mystery of the Jane Vosper as well. But even he is baffled, until his hard work and assiduous following of the clues leads him to the correct conclusion.
Man Overboard! (1936)
AKA: Cold-Blooded Murder
Note: Not Crofts best?
In the course of a ship’s passage from Belfast to Liverpool a man disappears. His body is picked up by Irish fishermen. Although the coroner’s verdict is suicide, murder is suspected. Inspector French co-operates with Superintendent Rainey and Sergeant McClung once more to determine the truth.
Found Floating (1937)
Note: Another costly addition to your collection!
Old William was losing touch and a younger man was needed to take over the family business. Jim was the obvious choice but William had other ideas. When Mant was brought in to run the firm, from the forgotten side of the family in Australia, murder was the result.
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Note: An ingenious poisoning!
‘Mr Wills Crofts is deservedly a first favourite with all who want a real puzzle’ – Times Literary Supplement ‘He always manages to give us something that really keeps us guessing’ – Daily Mirror
George Surridge, director of the Birmington Zoo, is a man with many worries: his marriage is collapsing; his finances are insecure; and an outbreak of disease threatens the animals in his care. As Surridge’s debts mount and the pressure on him increases, he begins to dream of miracle solutions. But is he cunning enough to turn his dreams into reality – and could he commit the most devious murder in pursuit of his goals? This ingenious crime novel, with its unusual ‘inverted’ structure and sympathetic portrait of a man on the edge, is one of the greatest works by this highly respected author. The elaborate means of murder devised by Crofts’s characters is perhaps unsurpassed in English crime fiction for its ostentatious intricacy.
The End of Andrew Harrison (1938)
AKA: The Futile Alibi
Note: Locked room murder on a luxury houseboat!
Freeman Wills Crofts second locked room mystery! Impoverished Markham Crewe starts work as a social secretary to millionaire Andrew Harrison. His new employer’s reputation is marred by rumours of unscrupulousness, financial deception and enemies. While staying on Harrison’s houseboat during the Henley Regatta, Harrison is found dead. Convinced that this was no suicide, Inspector French investigates.
Fatal Venture (1939)
AKA: Tragedy in the Hollow
Note: A bit of a lark?
Three men come up with a scheme to make money by cruising round the British Isles in an old transatlantic liner. All appears to be going well until one of them is found dead. Many of the passengers and crew would appear to have motive to kill the man, but all of them would seem to have an alibi. It takes the full extent of Inspector French’s analytical skills to unpick the crime.
Golden Ashes (1940)
Note: An American lord?
The new Sir Geoffrey Buller is working in an office when he unexpectedly inherits the title and Forde Manor with its collection of priceless art. Widow, Betty Stanton, takes the post of housekeeper and is surprised when she finds Sir Geoffrey is having paintings cleaned. The house is empty and Sir Geoffrey in Italy when disaster strikes. Inspector French reconstructs the cunning and complex crime from a mosaic of detail.
James Tarrant, Adventurer (1941)
AKA: Circumstantial Evidence
Note: Mixed reviews – some love it – some do not!
James Tarrant’s position as an assistant chemist in a sleepy village backwater does not satisfy his craving for wealth. Merle Weir, a nurse at a local convalescent home agrees to help him in a not-quite-legal scheme, believing Tarrant will marry her. They will sell their own indigestion remedy on the back of another’s reputation. When he breaks his promise and becomes engaged to another, Merle talks of revenge. Could she really have murdered Tarrant? Inspector French investigates.
The Losing Game (1941)
AKA: A Losing Game
Note: A tough nut to crack?
Inspector French has a tough nut to crack, but it is not he who is playing a losing game. Tony knew the blackmailer had been dead long before his house was set on fire. Had he not seen the body sprawling on the stairs? But out of fear of being implicated, Tony had held his tongue. Before the case was finished, he had reason enough to wish he had come clean!
Fear Comes to Chalfont (1942)
Note: A great piece of detection!
Julia Elton, mistress of Chalfont, is the dutiful wife of a man she does not love. Frank Cox is the man she falls in love with. Julia’s husband, Richard, suspects her of an affair and has also dismissed an employee for theft. When the murderer strikes at Richard Elton he starts a chain of events which affects the lives of many. One of these is Inspector French.
The Affair at Little Wokeham (1943)
AKA: Double Tragedy
Note: French busts the perfect alibi!
Clarence Winnington is an unpleasant and wealthy retired Colonial Governor living in his country estate at Little Wokeham. With no children of his own, his nephew and two nieces will inherit, and he makes them dance to his tune – until he is murdered! An inverted mystery, with few surprises, with some chapters written from the perspective of Chief Inspector Joseph French who takes on this case.
Enemy Unseen (1945)
Note: Enemy action in wartime England!
A quiet Cornish village and its law abiding community are rocked by a series of strange events in the summer of 1943. While on a standard Home Guard training manoeuvre, Arthur Wedgewood discovers that supplies of explosives are missing from his stores. When the local police fail to take the necessary steps, Inspector French takes charge to untangle the threads of a crime perpetrated by an Enemy Unseen.
Death of a Train (1946)
Note: Inspector French deals with Nazi spies!
In July of 1942, a shipment of vital supplies bound for British forces in North Africa is secretly made ready: the course of World War II may well depend on its safe delivery. But somewhere there is a leakage of information and the shipment is threatened. Scotland Yard is called in, and Inspector French enters the world of international espionage to solve the most crucial case of his career.
Silence for the Murderer (1949)
Note: Murder or suicide?
Did Sir Roland Chatterton commit suicide in his sun trap on the banks of the River Thames? Then there is Frank Roscoe, blackmailed in connection with a crime he committed in the Army, who returns to London penniless. Desperate for money, he persuades Dulcie Heath to join him in a profitable swindle, while he himself gets a job as secretary to a wealthy invalid. When his employer is found shot Inspector French arrives to investigate.
Note: Early environmentalist?
When oil is discovered on family land, Rodney Vale sees a fortune to be made, but his brother, Maurice, is worried only that the beautiful countryside will be spoiled. The other members of the family are keen to be persuaded by Rodney, but without Maurice’s permission they have no power to act. When Maurice is murdered Inspector French is puzzled by mismatching gloves found on the body – one his own, the other a woman’s.
Anything to Declare? (1957)
Note: Crofts last and far from best!
A foolproof method for earning a fortune in a short space of time involves cruises and smuggling on the Rhine, but these enterprising young men haven’t bargained on finding themselves involved in blackmail and then murder. It is up to Inspector French to unravel the threads with his usual flair.
Inspector French Short Story Collections
Collection: Murderers Make Mistakes (1947)
Detectives: Inspector French
Available only in paperback and hardcover editions.
Part One: Double Stories
The Old Gun
The Cliff Path
The Telephone Call
The Lower Flat
The Army Truck
The Invalid Colonel
The Hidden Sten Gun
The Hunt Ball
The Avaricious Moneylender
The Evening Visitor
The Enthusiastic Rabbit-Breeder
The Retired Wine Merchant
Part Two: Single Stories
The Home Guard Trench
The Playwright’s Manuscript
The Limestone Quarry
The L-Shaped Room
The Stolen Hand Grenade
The Relief Signalman
The Burning Barn
The Solicitors’ Holiday
The Swinging Boom
The Fireside Mountaineer
The Waiting Car
Collection: Many a Slip (1955)
Detective: Inspector French
Available only in paperback and hardcover editions.
Note: 21 short stories
This collection of short stories features the unrivalled Inspector French once again showing his determination to solve difficult crimes. In each case the murderer makes a slip which gives the game away to the investigator. Can the reader spot this before Inspector French explains it?
Crofts notes in the introduction: ‘All of these little stories were originally published in the Evening Standard (of London). Owing to newspaper space limitations they were then little more than skeleton plots and I have now tried to give them some small covering of flesh. They are murder tales, and in all of them the criminal makes a mistake which gives him away. In the game with the reader, he wins if he spots these before they are revealed and (so to speak) I do if he doesn’t.’
No list of contents found. Help?
Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express & Other Stories (1956)
Detective: Inspector French
Available only in paperback and hardcover editions.
Note: A fairly short collection. See Best Review for more details
The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express – Review
Mr Pemberton’s Commission
The Greuze (Inspector French)
The Level Crossing (1933)
East Wind (Inspector French)
The Motive Shows the Man
The Affair at Saltover Priory (Inspector French)
The Landing Ticket (Inspector French)
The Raincoat (Inspector French)
Other Freeman Wills Croft Novels
The Cask (1920)
Note: A strange container arrives on the London docks!
The cask from Paris is bigger than the rest, its sides reinforced to hold the extraordinary weight within. As the longshoremen are bringing it onto the London docks, the cask slips, cracks, and spills some of its treasure: a wealth of gold sovereigns. As the workmen cram the spilled gold into their pockets, an official digs through the opened box, which is supposed to contain a statue. Beneath the gold he finds a woman’s hand—as cold as marble, but made of flesh.
He reports the body to his superiors, but when he returns, the cask has vanished. The case is given to Inspector Burnley, a methodical detective of Scotland Yard, who will confront a baffling array of clues and red herrings, alibis and outright lies as he attempts to identify the woman in the cask—and catch the man who killed her.
Note: Highly recommended! A very enjoyable read!
The Ponson Case (1921)
Note: Murder at Luce Manor!
When the battered body of Sir William Ponson is found in the Cranshaw River near his home, Luce Manor, it is uncertain whether it is an accident, suicide – or murder. When the evidence points to the latter Inspector Tanner of Scotland yard is called in. Those who would benefit most from his death, his son and his nephew, would seem to have unbreakable alibis. But do they. And then there is the mysterious fifth man who’s footprints were found at the crime scene. To solve the case, Inspector Tanner must track him down and discover the secrets behind …The Ponson Case!
This classic book was edited and published by Resurrected Press. Included in this book is a new, introductory foreword discussing the story, the times, and the influences that went into the tale, adding historical context to the book. Author biographies are also included, as are illustrations, when appropriate. These are not scanned versions of the originals, but handcrafted, quality-checked and edited books meant to be enjoyed!
The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922)
Note: A wine merchant discovers a conspiracy!
Twenty-six kilometers from Bordeaux, Seymour Merriman’s motorcycle runs low on gas. He is waiting for a passing motorist to come to his rescue when he notices a lorry turn down a nearby country road. Following it leads him to a mill, where an English firm manufactures pit-props for coal mines. They give him two liters of petrol and send him on his way, but not before he sees something odd. The lorry he saw on the road was marked No. 4, but it has been changed to No. 3—a peculiar incident that will lead Merriman into the greatest danger he has ever known.
With the help of a customs officer, Merriman looks into the mill’s business, and discovers that nothing about the little English firm is as it seems. All he wanted was a few liters of petrol, but he has stumbled across the century’s most fiendish crime.
The Groote Park Murder (1923)
Note: A South African – Scottish hybrid!
The mutilated body of Albert Smith is found lying beside the railway line at the north end of the Dartie Tunnel near Groote Park. A passing train has hit him. Although his death appears straightforward, Inspector Vandam isn’t satisfied that it is accidental. When his suspicions are justified he embarks on a baffling mystery.
Freeman Wills Crofts – Other Works
Freeman Wills Crofts also wrote two stage plays – scripts not currently available. Inspector French & During The Night
Plus an uncollected Radio Play: The Nine Fifty Up Express
Three short stories also remain uncollected:
The Faulty Stroke (1952)
The Target (1953)