He seems to divide opinion: some love him but others argue he is somewhat sterile and bland. So – will my first read of Freeman Wills Crofts be an experience of wonder or “adequate”…. or somewhere in-between?
Which novel to choose? I must admit I found myself starting out by wanting this experience to be a positive one so I (think I) kinda stacked the odds by selecting a novel that seemed to be well-regarded and to come from the period when it was generally accepted he was well into his stride. I also rejected lauded inverted mysteries such as Antidote to Venom as I wanted to stick to the whodunnit formula. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, The Hog’s Back Mystery was “it”. I then battened down and avoided any reviews or blogs on the topic.
Spoilers are fairly minor…
In approaching a new detection author my greatest uncertainty is working out just how devious they are going to be. My general impression of FWC in starting out on this journey – from what I had read – was of someone who is fair, precise and logical (the approach of the railway engineer perhaps?). I suppose I was not expecting excessive slyness nor a really left-field denouement. However, old habits die hard and, being an Agatha Christie devotee, I find it difficult to get the thought of outrageous solutions out of my mind. But, I have to admit that I started out with some trepidation as there was still a part of me – unfortunately – that expected the experience to be dull as dishwater.
Well…… after the first couple of chapters I was pleasantly surprised. I found the prose crisp, precise, clear, nicely worded, pleasant. But this should not be interpreted as the “dull” I had anticipated. The story unfolded at a good pace and I was impressed by how FWC “layered” the mystery, building it up from a number of reasonably interesting, but ordinary back stories to focus in on human relationships strained to breaking point. As an early chapter closed, my “Christie – radar” went into the red zone as – minor spoiler – I fancied I detected people being railroaded into undertaking a journey in a specific manner in a quite insistent way…..thinking Death on the Nile. As it turned out, something was going on but not quite what I had supposed.
The early set-up morphed into the initiation of the mystery proper (a sudden disappearance) which deepened in a very gradual fashion as the police discovered more facts and talked to various witnesses. The introduction of Inspector French began a process of painstaking investigation and theorisation. This was incredibly detailed and workmanlike and – at one point – I started to become concerned that “dull” was approaching (as I had worried might be the case). However, I pulled myself back from the precipice as I realised that I was finding the layering of the various elements of the mystery quite hypnotic. I was continuing to be drawn back into the narrative: how can that be dull?
At one point French lists a whole series of possible reasons for the disappearance of a key character, combined with a complex pattern of consequences. This all felt like the working through in prose of various strands of an algorithm. In fact the scientist in me almost wanted to draw out the flowchart. Perhaps FWC – with his technical brain – had done something similar when planning the book? As reader I felt I was being given an incredibly open view of the detective’s thought processes; quite a different approach to the likes of Christie where we only get teasers and certainly much less detail. My instinct mid-read was that this detail was full disclosure rather than cunning deception by FWC and this proved ultimately to be the case.
So – what of Inspector French? My expectations (based on limited knowledge, admittedly) had been of a non-character who basically just moves the plot on with not much in the way of backstory. And – you know what? – this was the case! Although I have to say he is a methodical, calm, collected and “unruffleable” non-character!
The initial mystery developed further until it “ran into” another puzzle. And – shock horror – they were connected! The Inspector’s musings then became even more complex and labyrinthine and his thoughts started to go off in all sorts of perplexing and contradictory directions. Were we dealing with murder; double murder; theft and murder; one perpetrator; two; more? Or were we dealing with an abscondment or one made to look like a murder; a kidnapping etc… The mind really boggled. As the chapters passed by it really felt as if we had moved squarely into the world of Inspector French – a very distinct “part 2” of the novel and that the Earles and their guests had been left behind. It was still a fascinating world of theory and counter-theory. Just over a third of the way through the book the Inspector seemed to have the kernel of a workable theory and he started to become slightly more evasive with us readers but, ultimately, he had to completely re-think it. I have to say I started to struggle in the middle section. It was crammed with methodical investigation that was in turn fascinating but tortuous. My patience was rewarded as the mysteries started to deepen. Nothing much actually happened – in essence this book is a detailed dissection of an investigation rather than a story with plot twists and turns. However, I was still interested – I kept returning and you can’t really argue with that. At one point I thought that FWC was going to use his available quota of one secret passage [ref – Knox Decalogue] but, alas, this proved not to be the case!
And then we came to the dig. Oh..my…word…! An account of an excavation that – quite frankly – would not be out of place in a construction technical manual from the 30s. If the aim was to stoke up tension, it didn’t really work. As reader, you know instinctively that such a level of excruciating detail is bound to conclude with a revelation: in this case, the discovery of a body. As such, the tension evaporates and you are left thinking “come on; just get on with it; let’s find the body”. At one point the phrase “the darkest period comes before the dawn” was used. This certainly was the case where the dig minutiae was concerned.
Fortunately, the eventual discovery of a body was the catalyst for the final, more energetic phase of the novel: things really moved on apace. Had FWC been torturing me with all the dig stuff before kicking things off?
We then have 3 bodies linked to another death, an exhumation and then back into theory, counter theory and detailed consideration of 6 suspects, checking alibis and double checking. French then hits a brick wall before finally arriving at his solution which he lays out in detail (of course!) before assembled police personage and the reader. We got there in the end.
So what can I say about my Hog’s Back experience? Experience it certainly was. On completion I felt mentally drained. It’s exhausting being take through those endless “what if” permutations! I was left feeling that this was a book I admired rather than loved. Undoubtedly there were times during my read where I was really lapping it up but this was punctuated by sections which started to drag. “Dull” would be an inaccurate description but whether it has inspired me to seek out further FWCs, I am really not sure. Who knows, perhaps I simply got on the Freeman Wills Croft bus at the wrong stop and another novel would have been a better initiation?
He did leave me with one intriguing unanswered mystery, however: what was that swear word?