I’ve been looking forward to the prospect of diving into Freeman Wills Crofts’ deep catalog for a few months now. He’s been on my radar for a while, but was always slagged as a boring author – a writer of time-table mysteries that are heavy on detailed investigation. After my experience with Ellery Queen’s early catalog, I wanted to avoid a monotonous trudge at all cost. And then JJ at The Invisible Event wrote a rave review of The Sea Mystery, and since that time has been posting additional Crofts reviews that make the author sound like the second coming of….well, someone.
Now, JJ’s had just as excruciating a time with the early Ellery Queen novels as I have – in fact, he has yet to make it past The Dutch Shoe Mystery despite trying his hardest. So if JJ is going to say that a supposedly humdrum author like Freeman Wills Crofts is worth diving into, I’m interested. Since JJ’s initial post, I’ve read several other reviews of The Sea Mystery, all of which were very positive.
Crofts has a decent catalog of over 30 novels, which seems like a fun thing to dive into. Unfortunately, his books fetch a fair penny, with the gorgeous House of Stratus releases going for $50-90. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I bagged six Penguins for a few bucks. One of them was The Sea Mystery, which seemed like a good place to start.
To even attempt to summarize The Sea Mystery seems insane. It may start with a murder that appears simple enough, but by the end of the story I felt like I had traveled so many thousands of miles beyond that point. And yet, it does all focus on a single simple murder. Allow me to explain.
A father and son are fishing in a bay when their line snags a heavy crate. Dragging it to shore and opening it, they make a grisly discovery – a bloated corpse, with face smashed in and all traces of identity removed. There are absolutely no clues, unless you count the non-descript crate or the few undergarments that the deceased is wearing. Crofts’ series detective Inspector French is called in, and the case seems destined to dead end unless further outside developments occur.
But they don’t. Instead, from the meager clue of several holes drilled into the crate, French makes a deduction that sends him on a path of Terminator-like relentlessness to the killer’s door.
It’s just awe inspiring. We’re not dealing with a Poirot or a Fell, in which the genius detective immediately untangles a seemingly incomprehensible crime from mere scraps. Instead, French makes a series of painstaking deductions based on solid engineering and the footwork of 100 men. Each moment of insight brings him lurching forward to another seaming dead end. We experience it all with him – every question, every idea, every internal observation. Nothing is withheld from the reader.
With every failure, French manages to scratch out some semblance of a lead that points him again toward the killer. Leaving behind a trail of clue-corpses, the detective moves unceasingly towards his prey. That French doesn’t at some point stalk unheeded into a lake, only to emerge from beneath the surface at the other side, is merely because the clues didn’t require it.
Boring? Not at all. It’s engrossing to watch. Crofts himself seems to acknowledge the humdrum nature of the investigation, but it moves along at a respectable pace, with the story seemingly ever-morphing into something else.
“He must simply go on trying to amass information in the ordinary humdrum routine way, in the hope that sooner or later he might come across some fact which would throw the desired light on the affair.”
French is an oddly jolly fellow. From his walks to his meals, everything is declared quite splendid and delightful. I think we encounter both the most satisfying walk and the most satisfying drive of the detective’s life. He has an easy nature around him. Rather than playing the role of the superior-minded detective, he makes an effort to be affable to inspire cooperation from those around him.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that French is tracking an extremely clever killer. Not only has the murderer covered their tracks, but they’ve done it fifty times over. By the end, it almost becomes a farce because you can’t imagine who in their right mind would put into place that many layers of misdirection.
There are some nice twists to the story, but since you’re privy to French’s internal observations and suspicions, there’s rarely anything that comes completely out of the blue. In that sense, this is fairly different from other Golden Age works that I’ve read. I wouldn’t read one of these if I’m looking for an Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr experience, but I’ll probably work some in when I’m looking to break things up a bit.
Is it a great book? Not really, but it was an enjoyable spectacle. Despite being thorough, The Sea Mystery kept a good pace and had some memorable scenes. I’ll probably place this in the same category as Helen McCloy’s Through a Glass, Darkly – a well written book that I enjoyed, but I’m not going to go banging about town recommending it to people.