Soaked in Tragedy

"The cautious murderer, in his anxiety to make himself secure, does too much; and it is this excess of precaution that leads to detection." 
- Dr. John Thorndyke (R. Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris, 1911)
Last month, I posted a review of The Cask (1920), which is an early classic from the Golden Age and embarked Freeman Wills Crofts on a career as one of the genre's more technically minded plotters – and was even considered as one of the "Big Five" British detective writers of the 1920-and 30s.

The plot of Freeman's debut novel concerned a cask "sent from France to London" and "was found to contain the body of a young married Frenchwoman." It required the combined efforts of Scotland Yard, Sûreté and the services of a private investigator to prevent the case from being shelved as unsolved.

I quite enjoyed that monument of a crime-novel with its old-world air, but the reason for bringing it up here is that Inspector French mentioned it in The Sea Mystery (1928), in which he observes that his current problem shared some similarities with "a case investigated several years ago by my old friend Inspector Burnley" – who has since retired from the force.

Funny how French's spoiler-ridden comments on The Cask confirmed my initial, unsubstantiated hunch of it being a companion piece to The Sea Mystery.

The Sea Mystery opens on a pleasant, balmy evening in September on the calm, smooth surface of the Burry Inlet, "on the south coast of Wales," where 14-year-old Evan Morgan is spending his last day-off fishing with his father. However, the only thing they managed to catch that day are the remnants of a perfect crime. Or an attempt at one anyway.

What they hooked was a solid, wooden packing crate, which was bare of "any helpful marks," but the same can’t be said for its putrid content: consisting of a horrendously decomposed body of a man, clad only in underclothes, whose features "had been brutally battered in" and "entirely obliterated" until "only an awful pulp remained." The medical-evidence places the crime five to six weeks ago.

Inspector French is faced with a problem that "seems absolutely insoluble," but believes "it is almost impossible to commit a murder without leaving a clue" and a logical, methodical mind, combined with experience, can get you pretty far.

So, first things first, French sets out to reconstruct how the crate got to the bottom of the inlet, which is done with a bit of math and a practical experiment. These first, preliminary inquiries have a pleasant amount of logical, science-based detective work, but there's a potential plot-hole.

Very early on, French determines a crane-lorry was used in the disposal of the crate, which is traced to a motorcar company, who rented out such a machine and they asked for a 300-pound deposit – which was quite a lump of money in those days. But it's never investigated if such a sum was drawn and re-deposit from a bank account around the time the crane-lorry was taken out. Which I assumed would be a rational route to follow in an investigation that, up to that point, was starved for solid, tangible clues.

A second plot-thread is introduced and involves a double disappearance from a location that'll immediately capture the attention and imagination of every mystery reader: namely the desolate, haunted and treacherous bogs and mires of Dartmoor – inextricably linked to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).

One night in August, a pair of businessmen, named Charles Berlyn and Stanley Pyke, where on their way back home when their car broke down and they attempted to cross the moors and were never seen again in this world. The well-read, observant mystery reader should note the similarities between the plot of The Stoneware Monkey (1939) by R. Austin Freeman and the theories arising from the possible connections between both cases, which I thought was interesting. But not as interesting as the eventual explanation!

Crofts only provided French with a small pool of suspect to fish in, but managed to drag a clever and classically styled solution from it that was pure Golden Age. It won't leave the seasoned armchair detective god smacked, but they'll admire the well-clued, intricate plot solved by an intelligent and competent policeman – who's nonetheless as fallible and prone to mistakes as you and me.

Which made French more relatable than I expected and permanently shattered the preconceived notion, I once held, of Crofts as a dull, boring writer who had turned detective-stories into math homework assignments. Not the case at all! I'll definitely return to Crofts before too long. I just hope my tired brain has done some justice to The Sea Mystery

Well, I'll be back soon with another review of a vintage, Golden Age mystery.


  1. I have a battered copy of 'Sea Mystery' somewhere on my shelf, and your review has happily made me want to extricate it from the pile sooner than later. :) Some have found 'Hog's Back Mystery' to be like Math homework, but I found it to be a charming and intricately layered tale that made me purchase more novels by Crofts. Would you recommend reading 'Cask' before 'Sea Mystery'?

    1. Yes, I would recommend reading The Cask before The Sea Mystery.

      The Sea Mystery shows Crofts had grown as a novelist since the publication of The Cask, but that delightful, old-fashioned atmosphere wasn't as thick here and French completely spoiled its solution, which is probably the best reason to begin with The Cask.

  2. I think that The Sea Mystery was my favorite of Crofts' books. The pleasure of reading Crofts is the intellectual excitement of watching a master craftsman constructing an artifact which possesses the beauty of pure functionalism. Every piece fits in seamlessly with every other piece. I think it is pretty plain that he derives much of his technique from R. Austin Freeman, who constructs his plots in much the same way.
    I don't know that the withdrawal of money from a bank account constitutes a plot hole. There are an awful lot of bank accounts in England, and the money could have come from anywhere in England, or from savings. And that is assuming you can get the cooperation of the banks without sufficient information concerning particular individual accounts to be searched to justify a search warrant for bank accounts.

    1. Well, the plot hole wasn't that the money couldn't be traced, but that it wasn't even looked into and the request for the 300-pound deposit came in response to get crane-lorry without a company man attached to it. So it seemed like an obvious lead to follow up on, but was completely ignored by the otherwise methodical French.

      In every other aspect, I completely agree with this being an intricate work from a true craftsman of the genre. I should have started reading him years ago.

  3. The Sea Mystery is one of my favourite Crofts novels. I'm mystified by his reputation as a dull writer - I've been enthralled by every book of his that I've read. Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy and Sir John Magill’s Last Journey are superb. His plotting is so good and so meticulous - it's a delight to watch his plots unfold.

    Inspector French is not a genius detective but he never gives up. He just keeps worrying away at a case until he solves it, and (for me at least) that makes him a very sympathetic detective hero - I find myself feeling his pain every time he encounters a dead end in his investigation. Count me in as a definite Crofts fanboy.

    1. I guess the post-WWII sour-puss critics really did manage to do some damage to the reputation of writers like Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode and R. Austin Freeman by dismissing them as humdrum writers. Thankfully, they're being rediscovered by a new, appreciative audience who couldn't give a toss what these critics thought about them.

      By the way, I think I have a copy of Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy knocking about here... on the top of the pile it goes!

  4. I think the most important thing the mystery field needs right now is a good, objective general history of the field. Whatever use Symons' Mortal Consequences ever had has long since passed. Any time I ever see anyone quote from that book, there is first a respectful reference to it, and the next sentence states that they don't agree with his opinion.

    1. Well, I haven't yet read Curt Evans and Martin Edwards recent works on the genre, but I do know they focus on British mystery writers (the "Humdrums" and Detection Club). So that's a begin!

      The problem with a modern volume on the general history of the genre is that it would requires several authors, specializing in different branches of the genre, because you can't ignore the contributions from places such as France and Japan. You would probably need several volumes, if you want to make it a thorough history of the genre.

  5. I've never really read him apart from a few stories I think though I have several of his in the loft - you have inspired me to put them on the pile TC - thanks chum!

    1. Don't make the same mistake I made with Crofts, Sergio: The Cask and The Sea Mystery are textbook examples of classic-and vintage mysteries.