Is it possible to pass up a Pocket Book edition of a Freeman Wills Crofts novel? Aside from the recent (and ongoing) reissues of Crofts catalog by Collins Crime Club, your options up to now have pretty much been paying a criminal amount of money for a two-decade old House of Stratus edition, or scooping up the handful of titles released by Penguin in the 60s. So yeah, when I stumbled upon a 1941 paperback of Sir John Magill’s Last Journey by Pocket Books, I had to grab it. This is a pretty early year for Pocket Books, and I was lucky that my copy was in a condition robust enough for a comfortable read without breaking out the tweezers and velvet gloves.
I recall JJ from The Invisible Event commenting that it took him two weeks to make it through this book. Given that I don’t have much time for reading, it took me full on three. What a journey it was though. The introductory map suggested that I was going to get to know the triangle between England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland well. Seriously, it looks like someone fired a blast of buckshot into the UK. You’ve got dots littering the western coast of Great Britain, accompanied with a travel guide’s worth of town names I’ve never heard of.
So, I treated this read like the vacation I haven’t had in the past year. With tablet by my side, I took the time to take the scenery in, with locations like Dumfries transformed from a mere name to a breathtaking sight. I suggest you do the same, because it’s truly some gorgeous country.
Sir John Magill’s Last Journey finds Crofts’ series detective Inspector French investigating the disappearance of a textile magnate during an ill fated voyage from London to Belfast. It starts as I’m getting the inkling many of Crofts’ tales do: with a complete dead end of an investigation. You’ve got a man who disappeared, and nothing more. But then, somehow, with so little to go on, French stumbles upon some minor clue that claws him an inch forward in a new direction… before running up against the next insurmountable dead end. Rinse and repeat for about three hundred pages with a dogged perseverance, and that’s the Freeman Wills Crofts theme forming in my mind.
It makes for an engrossing read. Each dead end is essentially a puzzle, and each lurch forward is a moment of discovery; something that most mystery writers reserve for the end. On the other hand, there’s no truly great moment of revelation – well, yeah, I guess there’s the core mechanism revealed towards the end – and in that sense you’re not going to get some Agatha Christie style denouement in the final chapters.
So, it’s a steady mystery, and it’s made all the more enjoyable by the sightseeing. Inspector French surely travels between London and Belfast at least five times – a modern equivalent of flying between London and Los Angeles; albeit with the comfort of a sleeper car and the freedom of a ferry, rather than being packed in coach like a chicken – and French makes an enjoyable time out of the voyage regardless of the weather. That’s kind of what I’ve enjoyed out of these Inspector French books so far: the cheerful demeanor when approaching the minor details such as a train ride, a meal, or a night’s rest.
Sir John Magill’s Last Journey was an enjoyable read throughout, although you won’t see me championing it as a mind blowing mystery. Perhaps that’s why Crofts was labeled one of the “humdrum” authors of the age. I can empathize with not getting excited about picking up this sort of story, but I’ve been enjoying them enough to know better now.