Sudden Death – Freeman Wills Crofts (1932)

It’s a rare talent to sell a reader a mystery novel, and then lure them fifty pages in with such a blissful story that said reader finds themselves thinking “Oh, I hope nothing bad happens”.  I’m not talking about building up a sense of dread, mind you, but rather creating such an enchanting world that you don’t want to see it shattered.  And yet here I find myself relishing the tale of Anne Day – down on her luck and hopelessly jobless Londoner – suddenly presented with an all too good to be true head of household position at a dream country estate, and I’m a third of the way through the book wishing that an inevitable murder won’t disrupt her life.  Everything is just going so right for Anne.  Sure, the lady of the house suffers from a persecution complex and thinks her husband is trying to kill her, but Anne, with her charms, manages to smooth out even that situation.

Given that author Freeman Wills Crofts is so stereotyped as a writer of dull novels overly reliant on train schedules for even yet blander mysteries, it’s so funny that he wrote this.  But then again, I already knew that Crofts is so unfairly stereotyped, as I’d witnessed the charm and humanity that seeps into stories like The Sea Mystery and Sir John Magill’s Last Journey.  Yes, when series detective Inspector French gets down to work, he toils tirelessly and follows up on every whiff of a thread, but he enjoys life as he does it.

And so there I was, sucked into a story that felt more like an episode of Emily in Paris (er… not that I’ve watched all three seasons…), and just eating it up while the back of my mind is saying “what are you doing?”.  The inevitable “sudden death” does come, and with it, we close “Part 1: As Anne Day Saw It” and enter “Part 2: As Inspector French Saw It”.  “It” being an apparent suicide, with a character gassing themselves in their bedroom with the windows sealed and the door solidly locked.  And yet we know this isn’t going to be suicide, and so, ladies and gentleman, here we have Inspector French with a locked room murder.

A big part of the book focuses on why murder is even suspected, with French initially agreeing with the inquest ruling of suicide.  But French has his eyes on some details that just don’t add up, which leads to his questioning how murder could be achieved in such impossible circumstances.

Now, when I read an impossible crime story, I want the focus to be on the impossible crime.  It drives me crazy when you have a killer puzzle and yet it receives passing attention and fades into the background of a larger mystery.  No, I want every angle examined, every theory tested and discarded.  I want to know with every ounce of my being that the situation was impossible, and then to have the rug torn out from under me when the solution is presented.

Well, rest assured, when Inspector French investigates an impossible crime, he investigates the fuck out if it.  And man, he tests out every possible theory (and damn, my own solution got discarded so quickly).  And guess what?  Freeman Wills Crofts provides a really unique solution to a locked room murder, even if I’m not sure that I 100% understand it.

And then… we get a second impossible crime, and it’s probably even more air tight than the first.  It happens a bit late in the novel, so I won’t get into it, but yeah, it did it for me.  Some might complain about the solution, but hey, Crofts executes it well and the possibility never even entered my mind.

I’m telling you, I loved Sudden Death.  This is hands down Crofts’ best work that I’ve read, although admittedly I only have four under my belt.  This book sat in my TBR pile for over a year, and that just feels like a crime in retrospect.  Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t some barn burner like Invisible Green or The Burning Court – but it’s damn good.  I’m psyched that I have 10 more Crofts books on the shelf, and Harper Collins keeps releasing more and more of the hard to find titles.  And after Sudden Death, they’re definitely going to be a staple on my wish list.

8 thoughts on “Sudden Death – Freeman Wills Crofts (1932)”

  1. Yes, French’s investigation of the first murder and the proto-locked room lecture were a treat, but remember the solution leaving something unexplained. So that might be reason why it left you unsure of it. I called the solution to the second locked room an old dodge, but failed to come up with an earlier novel or short story that used it. Crofts might very well have invented a trick that has since been done to death. So not bad for someone who specialized in breaking down alibis rather than building up locked rooms.

    Crofts returned to the locked room in The End of Andrew Harrison, but ended up being very different from Sudden Death.


    1. The End of Andrew Harrison is up next on my list of French books to buy. I recall seeing some really positive reviews about it.

      It’s interesting that you and JJ couldn’t come up with an earlier example to the solution to the second locked room. If it truly was unique at the time then you could imagine it being a jaw dropper when people read it.


      1. Not to mention the longevity of the trick! It has been copied, reimagined and recreated as often as the Birlstone Gambit. If we eventually stumble upon an earlier example, it’s probably so obscure you can still credit Crofts with coming up with the idea independently and Sudden Death for disseminating it. So not bad for his first stab at the locked room puzzle.


  2. Not all Crofts’ books appeal to me but I enjoyed Sudden Death. It is a well-written with an intricately woven plot and engaging characters. At times it felt overly complex and slow-paced. On balance though I agree with your recommendation that GAD enthusiasts should give it a look.

    I am not as well read with Crofts as others in the blogosphere and inverted mysteries don’t interest me (of which Crofts wrote several), but I recommend The Starvel Hollow Tragedy. That is the best Crofts that I have read so far.


  3. I am, of course, delighted that you enjoyed this so much; it’s an interesting title in Crofts’ output since it’s the first time he properly engages in the tropes of the Country House Mystery (his earlier title The Ponson Case is a less rigorous examination of the same idea, though I find it wonderful). Anne Day is a surprisingly sympathetic POV character, but I was pleased that we don’t skimp on the Frenchian examination of the crime — always a joy!

    And, yes, I second the recommendation of Starvel Hollow. That one is probably my favourite Crofts to date.


    1. It was interesting to see Crofts do a country house murder. I’m used to seeing French traverse the UK several times over within each novel, and I guess that it isn’t surprising that he can put in just as much footwork when confined to a much smaller region. Too bad this was all in the days before frequent flier programs and hotel memberships, because French would have been traveling first class all the way.

      I forgot to mention it in the post, but Crofts also pulls off an absolutely chilling “I know that you know” moment towards the end of the novel that felt like something you’d get from Christianna Brand.


  4. I’ve only read The Sea Mystery but really want to explore Crofts further. You’ve definitely convinced me to check this one out as one of my next alongside Sir John Magill and 12:30 from Croydon.


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