Famous then forgotten

I’ve been reading some of the detective novels of Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957), and found him almost completely unknown now other than by a brief biographical notice on Wikipedia. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s though Crofts was one of the best known writers of detective stories in the world, and his titles regularly outsold those of Agatha Christie in that era. Agatha of course became one of the best selling authors in the world, still selling strongly since her death in 1976 (aged 86). She did write three times as many books as Crofts.


Well, that’s fame I guess: rather fickle. Crofts is well worth a read. Throughout his almost 40 year writing career he consistently produced books that were entertaining and readable. I thought only two or three titles disappointing. The acerbic Raymond Chandler found Crofts an able plotter (Chandler’s weak point) but at times dull (too much how and not enough why). Christie and Sayers admired Crofts extravagantly. Hmm.

There are some points to show Crofts was also a highly influential figure in the field of crime writing.

Firstly, he was a ‘Golden Age’ crime writer, writing in Britain between the two world wars, and he added considerable variety to that genre. Not a professional writer, he turned from engineering to writing during a long illness to produce his first book, The Cask, in 1920, aged 40. It became a best seller. This is a work in the style of crime writing of the time, with a mysterious death, clues implicating various people, and a detective who sorts things out and brings the culprit to justice.

This ‘Golden Age’ stuff is misleading. Writers such as Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh are thrown together as ‘Queens of Crime’, but I suspect this has more to do with academic studies of popular literature where gender studies carry a lot of weight. These four writers had many differences. Christie yearned nostalgically for Edwardian times; Allingham came to terms with social change and got rid of her aristocratic sleuth Campion and adopted a working class policeman, DI Luke; Sayers tried to combine the mystery story with the romance; and Marsh tried to combine the procedural with the Holmsian sleuth. The male writers were significant: Carr, Stout, Hammett and Chandler – and Crofts. And the PI is just Sherlock without the cocaine.

Crofts knew little about writing at first, and seemed to have learned from writers like John Buchan (1875-1940) in such works as The Thirty-Nine Steps of 1915. Crofts wrote a rather old fashioned adventure tale that also included rigorous plotting concerning alibis and timetabling, where his working experience as a railway engineer helped him a lot.

All of Crofts 36 books were in the police procedural genre, and he is the earliest writer I’ve come across who worked in this sub genre. He might have invented it. Aside from his first four books (where the policeman/hero has different names), his novels and stories all featured Inspector (later Chief Inspector) Joseph French, a shortish, stout, pipe smoking investigator who combines Holmesian observational powers with a willingness to try and test theories he has formed intuitively. The drudgery and boring routine of police work are not minimalised, and a convincing picture is built up of how police detective work was carried out at that time. When baffled French sometimes turned to his wife Em for help. Her commonsense somehow gave French a new perspective on his problem.

I wonder could these stories, translated into French, have influenced Georges Simenon when in 1931 he planned and launched his series of stories featuring Inspector Jules Maigret? Both French and Maigret have things in common: pipes, intuition, helpful wives. And differences: Simenon writing in the adventure story tradition practised by Maurice Leblanc, French in the puzzle mystery format defined by the Rev Ronald Knox of the Detective Club.

Crofts is certainly much more realistic than writers like Christie, for whom a death was just an excuse to scatter clues and mystify the reader. In Crofts the deaths are described realistically, and are sometimes horrifying. Inspector French is often the avenger as well as the investigator. Crofts books in this way remind me of later fiction, by authors like Ruth Rendell or PD James.

After writing his best book in this mode, The Starvel Tragedy of 1927 (his seventh novel), Crofts looked around for a way to vary the formula.

He found it in 1934, in a book called The 12.30 from Croydon (the name of an airliner). He called his method the ‘inverted’ detective story. It was told entirely from the point of view of someone who commits a crime, and here is the method later exploited so cunningly by Patricia Highsmith from the 1950s onwards. The reader is enabled to identify disarmingly with the protagonist, who is a character presented realistically, with real qualities and understandable small faults, and who finds themself excusing minor criminal acts which soon escalate out of control. This is suspense writing of a very high standard. References to ‘Golden Age’ conventions only obscure Crofts’ overall achievements.

Crofts’ book Crime at Guildford of 1935 contains the idea of two men collaborating in a crime so as to provide alibis for each that Highsmith used so effectively in Strangers on a Train (1950).

The ‘realism’ of Crofts’ work should not be over stated. He is writing adventure stories with heroes and villains like all writers do. Police procedurals like LA Confidential or Hill Street Blues are not any more realistic than Miss Marple mysteries or the posturings of C. Auguste Dupin.

What Crofts does, and he does it well, is focus the readers’ attention on his protagonist, Inspector French, or as in later books, the man who commits a crime. He does this artfully and successfully. Everything is seen from the protagonist’s viewpoint. French’s wrong guesses or misleading clues, a criminal’s apprehensions, all go to form riveting climax and release until the inevitable and satisfying conclusion is reached.

Crofts’ books were out of print soon after his death in 1957. It was a new era, that of heroes like James Bond, and the plodding, methodical Inspector French, with his persistence, his reliance on dreams for inspiration and cardfile index checking for confirmation, and the outmoded novelty of train and airline travel that launched a series of complicated timetable computations, was not glamorous enough by half. Probably the best update of Inspector French was the 1970s series Colombo, who “looked about as conspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”, but, like French, could always work it out in the end.

Crofts came into print again in 2000 when the House of Stratus published his complete works. These are now offered on sites like Abebooks for hundreds of dollars each by exploitative sellers. Collins released the first six Inspector French titles earlier this year, and might offer more. Some titles are in ebook format at Archive.org, Forgotten Books or Usenet. I’m looking forward to more discoveries about this author if I can unearth some more titles.


  • The Cask (1920) 
  • The Ponson Case (1921) 
  • The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) 
  • The Groote Park Murder (1923)
  • Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924)  
  • The Cheyne Mystery (1926) 
  • The Starvel Tragedy (1927) 
  • The Sea Mystery (1928) 
  • The Box Office Murders (1929) 
  • Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) 
  • Mystery in the Channel (1931)
  • Sudden Death (1932)
  • Death on the Way (1932)
  • The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) Case of Dr. Earle 
  • The 12:30 from Croydon (1934)  
  • Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) on Solent 
  • Crime at Guildford (1935) Crime at Nornes
  • The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936)
  • Man Overboard! (1936) Cold-Blooded Murder
  • Found Floating (1937)
  • The End of Andrew Harrison (1938) Futile Alibi
  • Antidote to Venom (1938)
  • Fatal Venture (1939)  Tragedy in the Hollow 
  • Golden Ashes (1940)
  • James Tarrant, Adventurer (1941)
  • The Losing Game (1941)
  • Fear Comes to Chalfont (1942)
  • The Affair at Little Wokeham (1943)
  • Enemy Unseen (1945)
  • Death of a Train (1946)
  • Murderers Make Mistakes (1947) stories
  • Silence for the Murderer (1949)
  • French Strikes Oil (1951) Dark Journey
  • Many a Slip (1955) stories
  • Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express (1956) stories
  • Anything to Declare? (1957)

©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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