Invisible Ink: No 184 - Freeman Wills Crofts

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The Independent Culture

There's a thrill to rummaging through old green-and-cream Penguin paperbacks and stumbling across a familiar face. Freeman Wills Crofts' cover photograph shows he was always avuncular. Born in Dublin in 1879, he remained a railway engineer for most of his working life, and there was very little he couldn't tell you about arched, reinforced concrete viaducts. He didn't become a full-time writer until he was 50, and unexpectedly decided not to explore the world of railway drainage schemes but instead turned to mysteries, creating the excellent Inspector Joseph French.

Lying sick in bed, he'd created a story to amuse himself. The result was The Cask (1920), which established him as a new master of detective fiction. His fifth book, Inspector French's Greatest Case introduced his detective, a solid, workmanlike cop who was all method and no madness. As a result, Crofts is often credited as the creator of the police procedural, in which crimes are solved with dogged diligence and an attention to detail.

You could take the man out of the railways but not the reverse, and Crofts' biggest downfall is a reliance on apparently unbreakable alibis due to the intricacies of railway timetables, leading him to be described as a writer of the "humdrum school" of mysteries. If he lacked the flair of his Golden Age rivals, he offered reliable, carefully constructed mysteries at the rate of one a year throughout the remainder of his life.

Crofts became a member of the Detection Club, along with Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie. Raymond Chandler thought him "the soundest builder of them all", and Christie parodied Inspector French in Partners In Crime (1929).

I must confess a penchant for his mystery Golden Ashes (1940), in which the facts of the case are actually numbered for easy reference. These are books in which empirical evidence outranks emotion, although the usual prejudices of the period abound, so we get: "Mr Truelove was an elderly gentleman of Jewish countenance and an oily manner" in The 12:30 From Croydon.

Why bother to rediscover Crofts? Although his mysteries were regarded as workmanlike, they seem to have improved with age. Characters tend to go to the pub and say "Damn it all!" or "Won't you smoke?" and everything gets sorted out in an attractively ingenious, clear-cut manner. House of Stratus republished many of the novels in 2000, with spiffing "Roaring Twenties" covers, but some of the short stories have been lost forever.