Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A GOLDEN AGE? ENGLISH DETECTIVE FICTION BETWEEN THE WARS




I finished reading Inspector French's Greatest Case by Freeman Wills Croft a few days ago. 
This novel was first published in 1924 and shows it in the style, in which complicated plot and puzzle predominate at the expense of character development. Some people say that this "humdrum" style [a phrase coined by Julian Symons in his book Bloody Murder] also puts puzzle above realism and dialogue, but I think the stilted nature of the action and the formal dialogue is probably realistic for the time. 

England between the wars was a place dominated by labour disputes, poverty and massive class differences. A country in which domestic service and mining were among the main occupations. Then the readers of crime fiction novels wanted escapism and exotic characters, not that much different from today really, and that is probably why the writers who created the more eccentric detectives have survived better than those with the "humdrum" ones.

"For sheer dexterity of plot, Mr Crofts has no peer among the contemporary writers of detective fiction." S.S.Van Dine

Well I was very disappointed with Inspector French, who was a likeable enough character, but only a pipe and slippers man helped on occasions by Mrs Croft when she had a "notion". There are no terrible vices like Holmes and his drugs, foreign eccentricity like Hercule Poirot or exotic hobbies like Nero Wolfe with his orchids as well as his gargantuan appetite for the staid New Scotland Yard Inspector. He goes about his investigations in a systematic manner traveling by a bewildering array of transport [bus, tube, taxi, boat and train] to his various interviews.

The plot puzzle was also rather easy to unravel as there was only a limited list of suspects, while the action consisted of numerous trips by boat and train to European locations and rather bland interviews. 
The quaintness and dated nature of the story was exaggerated by the fact one character spent a week in Chamonix spending only £20, and the frequency of the British train service. [Freeman Wills Croft was a railway engineer and that shows as well]
The denouement was extremely melodramatic in a very stiff upper lip English way that rounded off the ambience of 1924. [The excellent Oscar winning film Chariots of Fire was set at the Paris Olympics that year when Eric Liddle and Harold Abrahams won gold medals for Britain]
I know it has been a very long time since I read any Christie or Sayers but I think I will have to go back to compare their style with that of Freeman Wills Croft.

There were a few tiny glimpses of character development and social commentary in the book that reminded you of Europe's terrible post Great War suffering. I expect the bits of the story that seem mundane and boring to us must have seemed exciting to the exhausted readership of 1924. 

'It was hard lines on elderly men when they had to give up their jobs and start life again. It was that damned war, responsible for this and most of the troubles of the times. It had probably made  a difference to the Inspector also?
"Lost my eldest," said French gruffly, and turned the conversation back to the late principal.'

As a portrait of  England, it's class structure and transport system, after the Great War and as part of the history of crime fiction this novel is very interesting and well worth reading; but as an example of a "Golden Age" of detective fiction I have my doubts. 

3 Comments:

Blogger Iasa said...

I've never read any work by Freeman Wills Croft that I can recall, but if I run across this book, I give it ago. I'm quite sure I've read, and probably enjoyed, worse.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Really interesting review & comment on the period.

(Will not write a long comment - Blogger probably eats it anyway).

7:41 AM  
Blogger Lauren said...

I vaguely remember reading a disparaging comment about Wills Croft in an Agatha Christie novel...I think it was The Clocks. Anyway, if my memory serves me correctly, a semi-retired Poirot was doing some self-study of early crime writers and was not all that impressed (naturally!) I believe his complaints about F.W.C were that a) his books were dull, and b) though apparently well constructed - the author had a reputation for being a master of the alibi - in fact, the murderer is usually the person whose clever manipulation of train timetables should have given him a watertight alibi but didn't. Which your review seems to suggest was an accurate assessment!

Incidentally, something more recent set in that time period that I'm always happy to recommend is Rennie Airth's "River of Darkness" - I think it covers the post-war mood very well.

6:10 AM  

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