Friday, September 19, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “The 12:30 from Croydon,” by Freeman Wills Crofts

(Editor’s note: This is the 25th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from UK novelist Dolores Gordon-Smith, the author of two novels--A Fête Worse Than Death and Mad About the Boy?--featuring ex-pilot, writer, and daring citizen sleuth Jack Haldean.)

The 12:30 from Croydon was published in 1934, while the world was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. Trade and credit, led by a buoyant USA, had financed the Jazz Age, and then, as abruptly as a brick thrown at a gramophone record, everything stopped. The headline in Variety Magazine, a sassy, cheeky, and irreverent weekly publication--the very spirit of the ’20s--on October 30, 1929, said it all: “Wall Street Lays An Egg.” For the next few years, America and Europe held on by their fingernails, weathering the storm.

Naturally enough, the Depression is reflected in popular fiction of that time. It’s in the first paragraph of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders (“We had suffered from the World Depression,” says Arthur Hastings) and another sufferer is Charles Swinburne, the chief character of The 12:30 from Croydon.

Charles wants money: he doesn’t want money to let rip or to squander, he wants money to keep his business, the Crowther Electromotor Works, of the small market town of Cold Pickerby, Yorkshire, afloat. It’s not just Charles who will come to grief if his company goes under, it’s all his workforce as well. One of the most interesting elements of The 12:30 from Croydon is how author Freeman Wills Crofts builds up a picture of Charles, genuinely upset by the probable fate of his employees and his own worries, as he gradually realizes that the solution to his problem lies in murder. It’s a realistic portrait, made more so by the fact that it’s understated.

For Freeman Wills Crofts is not a showy writer. He doesn’t do verbal fireworks and his dialogue, while informative, is often flat. The interest in any of Crofts’ novels is the completely believable background he creates, the meticulously worked-out plot, and the careful steps which the criminal takes to conceal his crime, countered by the still more careful steps Inspector Joseph French, Crofts’ detective, takes to uncover it. Sometimes we start with the crime and French painstakingly arrives at the truth. Other times, as in The 12:30 from Croydon, we’re allowed in on the ground floor, following the criminal every inch of the way.

The 12:30 is, interestingly enough, not a train but an aeroplane, the London-to-Paris service, and the first few pages are a lovingly detailed account, seen through the eyes of a child, of the journey. This passage shows both the strength and weakness of Crofts as a writer. Rose, the little girl, is going to Paris to see her mother who has been knocked down in a road accident. Crofts, uncomfortable with emotions, has Rose’s anxiety for her mother swamped in the interest of the journey. When her grandfather, Andrew Crowther, dies on the aeroplane, we get no hint that Rose is particularly upset.

The focus then shifts to Charles, and it’s through his eyes that the bulk of this story is told. We learn very early on that he murdered Andrew Crowther. We’re allowed to feel sympathetic towards Charles--necessary if we’re going to follow his story--without being wholeheartedly on his side. Author Crofts gives him another motive, in his love for the local beauty, Una, who keeps him on a string, unwilling to commit herself to a man whose business is thought to be failing. Typically, however, it’s Charles’ concern for his business, not romance, which is the more pressing spur to crime.

Charles murders his uncle by putting a poisoned pill in Crowther’s bottle of indigestion tablets. Charles’ efforts to acquire the knowledge to manufacture that pill, how he actually buys the poison, makes the pill, and gets it into the bottle which never leaves Andrew Crowther’s possession, are meticulously detailed. It’s the sheer detail which keeps the reader hooked. In all of this, we forget, along with Charles, that his motive stands out like a beacon in the night. His immediate undoing is brought about by the fact that there’s a witness to him planting the poisoned pill on his uncle. That witness attempts blackmail and Charles, seeing no other alternative, murders him as well in order to preserve his security.

Now, in all this, there’s very little passion. Charles, while believable, has no real emotion, apart from worry and caution, and Inspector French has been described as “hum-drum.” That, to Crofts, is not a criticism, but his own description of French. He deliberately set out to make French hum-drum, an antidote to the willfully eccentric Sherlock Holmes and his myriad of imitators. Holmes solved his cases through logic but, in the explosion of detective fiction which followed in Holmes’ wake, logic--which is hard to write--is replaced by luck, coincidence, and (possibly) psychic powers, which is a great deal easier. So what, in this most classic of classic British forms, is left?

In a word, intelligence. Crofts puts his readers on their mettle, making them think. We aren’t asked to marvel at Inspector French’s brilliance, we’re allowed to understand it, step by step. Crofts’ great literary hero was R. Austin Freeman, but whereas the Watson-like foil Christopher Jervis (and Freeman’s readers) are baffled by Dr. John Thorndyke’s grasp of a case, we’re always on a level playing-field with French.

Freeman Wills Crofts was a professional railway engineer, eventually becoming chief assistant engineer to, first, the Belfast Counties Railway and then the huge London, Midland and Scottish. This background of technical expertise shows in his easy familiarity with technology (you always feel that the machines he describes will work!) and the men who use them, his frequent use of timetables to prove and disprove alibis and, perhaps most interestingly of all, the structure of his novels. His books are engineered, so that every part of the plot fits together, leaving no loose ends and no untidy, unfinished business. This structural approach makes Freeman Wills Crofts one of the supreme exponents of the traditional British detective story.

Perhaps it was the unbelievable destruction of the Great War that made this genre of story so appealing. The cycle of stability, violence, and the restoration of stability would have had an obvious attraction to the war-weary survivors of 1919. Violence, of which there had been a surfeit during the war years, was shunned and rationality celebrated. In the traditional British story, the murderer usually kills to achieve a solid, rational, gain. The crime is clever and so is the detective. The reader is asked to match his or her wits against the puzzle, hooked by the desire to know what actually happened. These books are intelligent entertainment in which good and the restoration of order will always triumph.

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Next week, we turn the baton over to Jane Finnis, the Yorkshire author of the Aurelia Marcella Roman mysteries (Buried Too Deep, Get Out or Die, and A Bitter Chill). She promises to offer up an out-of-this-world book suggestion. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

That's an interesting - and I suspect informed - choice from Ms Gordon-Smith. During the inter-war years, Crofts was considered one of the "big four" of the Golden Age of detective fiction, alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. Nowadays, he is almost unknown, and I've seen nothing but criticism of his work - most of it aimed at his reliance on train timetables to solve his mysteries. I must admit I didn't get very far with the one I tried a couple of years ago (the title escapes me), but I might take a look at "The 12:30 from Croydon" now.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That cover is enough to make me swoon.

Scott Parker said...

Excellent review. To date, I have read lots of crime fiction. That is, books that don't necessarily have a mystery involved. However, I just finished reading the first Perry Mason novel and it seems to stem from the traditional British detective novel with some American pulp thrown in for good measure. I really like PM#1 and am now more than interested in taking a look across the ocean at some good British novels. So far, my only taste of British detectives has been Helen Mirren's excellent Jane Tennison BBC shows. In fact, it was Jane's character that inspired my current novel's protagonist: a female detective for the Houston Police Department.

Jane Finnis said...

What an interesting review. I was especially taken with the idea that the structure of the book springs from his work in railways - that it was "engineered". I know that other writers' content can be directly linked to their "day job"; lawyers, journalists, policemen, vets...but the idea that the job might illuminate the structure as well...that really makes you stop and think. Well it does me, anyway.