Sir John Magill’s Last Journey – Freeman Wills Crofts (1930)

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.

4 thoughts on “Sir John Magill’s Last Journey – Freeman Wills Crofts (1930)”

  1. Yeah, I don’t think Crofts had many Big Revelatory Endings in him — there’s something about the steady accrual of evidence that makes the probabilities tip more and more in a particular direction, so you get there and go “Oh, yeah, that makes sense…” rather than “Oh my god!!!!”.

    He loves the outdoors, too, and writes about it with such joy that it’s difficult not to get swept up in his excitement as he boards a ferry or takes a car ride across some moors.t a time when this sort of thing would have been something of a rarity — not beyond the means of most people, but not exactly as commonplace as now — there’s soemthing more delightful in that than in all the international jet-setting of his peers. A simple man taking simple pleasures in simple things is sort of deloghtful to read about in these days.

    Man, I hope we haven’t seen the last of the HarperCollins Crofts reprints.

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    1. Yeah, any reader is going to have a pretty good idea about where the mystery is headed by the two thirds way, but it’s a matter of the hard work of uncovering it all beyond a doubt. And yet somehow it’s all persistently satisfying.

      As for Crofts having big revelations, I was fairly surprised by a matter of identity in The Sea Mystery. But yeah, still not earth shattering.

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      1. I was legit taken aback by the ultimate surprise in one of the French books — I’ll not say which one, for fear of spoiling the fact of an ultimate surprise — but on the whole there’s more a sense of inevitability than of having been carefully misdirected away from the right answer.

        And at least Pierre Bayard doesn’t get to write books saying how ‘wrong’ Crofts was, which is always a plus 🙂

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