Wednesday, June 21, 2017

George Ballairs and Freeman Wills Crofts: Two "Golden Age" Mysteries

George Bellairs, The Dead Shall Be Raised
British Library Crime Classics 2016 reprint of 1942 Original
© 1942, 2016 George Bellairs
ISBN 978-0=7123-5652-7

Freeman Wills Crofts,
Mystery in the Channel
British Library Crime Classics 2016 reprint of 1931 Original
© Estate of Freeman Wills Crofts 2016
ISBN 978-0-7123-5651-0

I periodically buy a batch of British Library Crime Classics reprints of “golden age” British mystery writers, and these two are from the most recent batch.  In his introduction to The Dead Shall Be Raised, Martin Edwards refers to Bellairs’ “quiet wit” and to the “brisk pace” of the book.  This is the second mystery featuring Inspector Thomas Littlejohn, and Edwards comments on Bellairs’ overall approach to his task as author:

The murder mystery plots are competently put together, but Bellairs was not aiming to write complex puzzles of the kind so fashionable during “the Golden Age of Murder” between the two world wars.  At a time of national crisis, he concentrated on producing mysteries that would distract his readers from the horrors or war; his books are as notable for their humor and humanity as they are for their plots…his harshest words are reserved for people who exploit others.  His brisk characterisations suggest an acute observer of human nature.

Bellairs would produce 59 books, in which 54 of which Littlejohn is the main character, during a 39 year career (1941-1980) which Edwards characterizes as that of “a ‘mid-list’ writer of the mid-twentieth century, an author who was never a best-seller, but who for half a lifetime worked to entertain his reader.”

Freeman Wills Crofts, on the other hand, was very definitely a best-selling author (at least among writers of mystery fiction. Mystery in the Channel’s detective is Inspector Joseph French, who appears in 32 books between 1925 and 1957 (and Crofts also wrote 9 non-series books).  Mystery in the Channel is the 7th Inspector French book.  Of Crofts, Martin writes (in the introduction to this reprint)

Detective stories written during “the Golden Age of Murder” between the two world wars have long been stereotypes…as dry intellectual puzzles which paid little heed to the real world.  The truth is rather different, and is more complicated and interesting.  Crofts’ work is a case in point.  As a writer, he seldom indulged in literary flourishes, and this helps to explain why his books have often been dismissed as ‘humdrum’…his practical turn of mind proved invaluable when it came to creating ingenious murder mysteries—and describing how patient detective work could solve them.

It’s probably unfair to compare these two books, as they differ in setting, in the issues that arise in pursuit of a solution to the mysteries, and in the contemporary and retrospective standing of their authors.  But having read them back-to-back, I obviously did find myself making comparisons.

In The Dead Shall Be Raised, we begin with a startling discovery in 1941—a man’s body and a shotgun are uncovered by workmen.  The body is that of Enoch Sykes, who disappeared in 1917, at the time the dead body of his close friend (and rival for the affections of a young woman), Jerry Trickett was discovered on the moor.  The assumption was, obviously, that Sykes had shot Trickett in jealous rage (both men were shown at the inquest to have been drunk) and then fled the scene.  The likeliest outcome was believed to be that Sykes enlisted, and was subsequently killed, in the Great War.  Now, it’s obvious that there are problems with that scenario.

By happenstance, Scotland Yard’s Thomas Littlejohn has come for a weekend visit (in the west England town in which the story is set) with his wife, who has been evacuated from London for the time being.  He is quickly co-opted into the investigation.  There are obvious difficulties in re-opening an investigation nearly a quarter of a century later—people have died, or moved away; those still alive and on the scene may have forgotten much of what happened.  But Littlejohn and the local Superintendent (Haworth) plunge ahead.  Oddly, almost everyone is still alive and they all seem to have very clear memories of the events.

The investigation is well-handled, although some of the interviews seem to me to be perfunctory.  And, given the importance of both of the dead men’s employment (they were co-workers in what is described as a “foundry”), their workplaces are only sketchily (and inadequately) described—they are more pieces of background about which the author was not well-informed, and which he did not bother to inform himself about.  The solution to the mystery comes by way of two separate confessions, neither of which, to my mind, seem particularly plausible or in character.  Both of the people who make confessions conveniently die of heart attacks, sparing us of the need to have a trial.

So it was a good setup handled only adequately.  Added to that was what was (for me, and I think this would generally be true for readers today) way too much use of dialect (and variant phonetic spellings designed to mark people’s speech as dialect).  I could see this as a decent early work by an author who would need to make progress to be able to continue—but if this was the standard of his work, then his actual lengthy career would be, for me, a surprise.


Crofts’ tale is very different, and very differently handled.  A yacht is found adrift (by the crew of a passenger boat) between England and France (near Folkstone), with two bodies and an indication—from bloodstains—of a third person having been on board.  We rapidly discover that the two dead men are the lead partners in a London banking firm, and that the firm is facing insolvency (given that the story is set in 1930, this would strike readers of the book as all too plausible).  Apparently ₤1.5 million is missing (think of that as about $60 million today).   The local police turn the case over to Scotland Yard as quickly as possible, both because the bodies were found, and murders almost certainly occurred—outside the territory of the locals, and because the background to, and motive for, the murders is most likely to be found in London.

Crofts handles the financial aspects of the case fairly adroitly; he clearly took pains to understand how a privately owned (partnership) financial house would operate; how bank notes were circulated and handled [banks, for example, made a note of the serial numbers of “large” bills--₤5, ₤10, ₤20, ₤100 notes—the “equivalent values” of those today would have been $200 (for the ₤5 note) to $4,000 (for the ₤100 note), and both who “paid” those  bank notes into the bank and to whom they were “paid out.”]  Inspector French conducts thorough interrogations of all the parties involved, and his interactions with other officers at Scotland Yard, and with his superiors, are well handled.  And the investigation keeps running into what appear to be dead ends.  But French persists, and we are kept privy to almost all his thoughts.  The denouement seemed a bit forced—not the solution, but the events surrounding the arrest of the guilty party.

Crofts is not s flashy writer—no bursts of eloquence or insight into human nature (as one might get from Hammett or Chandler); no action-filled scenes or chases—but he does what he does quite well—he tells the story of a professional police detective methodically investigating a very tangled set of events.  And, for my tastes, there’s more subtle humor in Crofts’ writing than in Bellairs’.  It is, in the end, fairly clear to me why one of these authors is still regarded as a major figure in the genre, and the other one is, well, not.

1 comment:

  1. I understand why Crofts is regarded as dry and uninteresting by many readers today, but I read many of his books in the 1960s and 1970s and was intrigued by his careful work. As an engineer, he appreciated the significance of the tiniest detail. One of the things I admired most was his ability to come up with intriguing modes of smuggling, etc., and all of them accurate and doable, even if they seemed fanciful. I'm glad to see him showcased here.