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Creator / Freeman Wills Crofts

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"Of all the jobs that fell to French, the investigation of the life, habits, and human relationships of a given individual was that which he found most tedious."
Sir John Magill's Last Journey

Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957) was the author of 35 detective novels, published between the 1920s and 1950s. At the time his sales figures were up there with Agatha Christie herself, but his books' hold on the public imagination hasn't lasted to anything like the same degree.

The lead detective in most of Crofts' books was Inspector French of Scotland Yard. In his day job Crofts was a civil engineer, and he applied the same attention to detail to the plots of his mysteries.


Mr Crofts' works provide examples of:

  • The Alibi: Almost a Creator Thumbprint; the detective nearly always has to break what appears to be an unimpeachable alibi, frequently with the aid of railway timetables. As Dorothy L. Sayers remarked, eventually the reader begins to suspect the person with the best alibi straight away. For example, in Mystery in the Channel, one suspect is ruled out of consideration because his launch couldn't have reached the scene of the crime at its maximum speed. He'd fitted an outboard motor to the launch, which he then threw overboard before the police examined the boat. Crofts eventually subverted this facet of his writing in Death on the Way. Inspector French proves that a suspect faked his alibi, and arrests him — but it turns out he wasn't the murderer, and faked the alibi only because he knew he couldn't prove his innocence. And again in Fatal Venture, when multiple suspects have suspiciously-strong alibis that would have been possible to fake.
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  • Anachronistic Clue: In Fatal Venture, the clue that enables French to prove a photograph was faked is that it shows flowers in bloom that wouldn't have been when the picture was supposedly taken.
  • Bastard Bastard: In The Groote Park Murder, the murderer turns out to be the victim's illegitimate half-brother, who killed him and stole his identity.
  • Blackmail: The Cheyne Mystery and The Loss of the Jane Vosper both contain criminals who make a living by blackmail, quite separately from their involvement in the A-plots of the books. In The Starvel Tragedy Roper's blackmail is far more closely connected with the solution of the mystery.
  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: Happens during the capture of the murderer in Mystery in the Channel. The man on the receiving end not only drops the gun, but loses his thumb.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • In The Hog's Back Mystery, French's investigation takes him to a construction site on the Guildford bypass. He finds it more understandable thanks to his experience of the railway works in Death on the Way.
    • In Sir John Magill's Last Journey, French, on the way to visit Dartmoor Prison, pays a quick visit to catch up with Maxwell Cheyne (from The Cheyne Mystery) and his family.
  • Conviction by Contradiction: It's frequently the case that the solution of a case lies in finding some minor discrepancy in the evidence. However, it's rare that the discrepancy leads directly to an arrest; instead, the police use it to find more concrete evidence.
    • In Crime at Guildford, the discrepancy is between two witnesses' statements: did Minter, the accountant, arrive at the office five minutes before or five minutes after his colleagues?
    • Subverted in Death on the Way, where the character arrested for having faked his alibi turns out not to be guilty after all.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive:
    • The murder victims in Mystery in the Channel were financiers absconding with thousands of their customers' life savings.
    • The suspects in Crime at Guildford are the directors and officers of a failing jewellery business; the guilty men decided to steal the company's stock of precious stones before they had to be sold off to pay the creditors.
    • In Mystery on Southampton Water the quick-drying cement industry is a cut-throat business, with executives willing to resort to industrial espionage, blackmail and murder to gain a commercial advantage.
  • Crime Reconstruction: At the end of Sir John Magill's Last Journey, French reconstructs the journey in question, demonstrating how and when the victim was murdered.
  • Defiant Captive: Molly Moran in The Box Office Murders, after her kidnapping by the bad guys.
  • Enemy Civil War: At the end of The Cheyne Mystery, when French arrives he finds that the gang he was pursuing got into a quarrel about the distribution of the loot and pretty much wiped each other out.
  • Fair Play Mystery: Golden Ashes has a footnote at the point French has his "Eureka!" Moment, stating that the reader now has all the facts to solve the mystery. The Hog's Back Mystery goes further: each clue in French's summation has a note showing the reader where they could have learned it.
  • Famed In-Story: French's cover is blown in Fatal Venture when he's recognised by someone who saw him give evidence in the trial of the murderer from The Loss of the Jane Vosper.
  • Flat Character: As the page quote suggests, Crofts favoured plot at the expense of characterisation.
  • The Gambling Addict: Stott's nephew in Fatal Venture has a weakness for the tables — unfortunate, when the venture of the title is a cruise ship with an on-board casino.
  • Gasoline Dousing: The murderer in Mystery in the Channel attempts a Taking You with Me by dousing the surroundings in petrol — both he and Inspector French are armed, so a shot from either will start a fire that kills both.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: In The Pit-Prop Syndicate, the protagonist is asked this when he's caught by one of the members of the syndicate. He quickly invents an account of having left a letter with his bank manager, which will be sent to Scotland Yard if he should not return safely.
  • Improvised Screwdriver: In The Box Office Murders, Molly Moran constructs a screwdriver from a filed-down penny, fire tongs and a length of cord.
  • Insurance Fraud: The murderer's plot in Golden Ashes. The murder is only committed because the victim stumbled across evidence that would have exposed the fraud.
  • Look Behind You: Done non-verbally in The Sea Mystery — French, held by the murderer at gunpoint, conveys by facial expressions alone that he can see his colleague entering the room and creeping up behind the murderer.
  • MacGyvering: After her kidnapping, Molly Moran is locked in an attic with no way out except a skylight that's screwed shut. With only the contents of the room she's in, she manages to create an Improvised Screwdriver to open the skylight, and paper aeroplanes to launch through it and call for help.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident:
    • The first murder in Death On The Way appears at first glance to be an industrial accident.
    • The deaths in The Starvel Tragedy are initially presumed to be the result of an accidental fire.
    • The first death in Mystery on Southampton Water is elaborately set up to look like a car accident. The police take hardly any time to spot that it isn't.
  • Map All Along: In The Cheyne Mystery, one of the clues is a mysterious diagram drawn on a piece of linen, covered with irregularly-placed circles containing numbers, letters and wavy lines, and the phrase "England expects every man to do his duty". French and his officers eventually realise that it should be superimposed on a map of England, with the wavy lines matching the coastline; then the numbered circles indicate particular towns. In turn, the names of the towns produce a textual message, which describes a location in the Atlantic.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The Pit-Prop Syndicate begins with the viewpoint character noticing that a lorry marked “The Landes Pit-Prop Syndicate, No. 4.” has unexpectedly changed to “The Landes Pit-Prop Syndicate, No. 3.” He's sufficiently puzzled that he and a friend investigate, and over the course of the book the criminal activities of the syndicate are brought to light.
  • Most Writers Are Writers:
    • Betty Stanton in Golden Ashes is an aspiring novelist.
    • Marjorie Lawes in The Hog's Back Mystery writes "simple tales of the loves of earls and typists, turned out in bulk."
  • Plucky Girl: Molly Moran — it gets her into serious trouble when she can't resist doing a little investigating on her own account.
  • Police Procedural: Crofts' works, particularly The Loss of the Jane Vosper, are sometimes considered to be prototypes of the genre.
  • Quicksand Sucks: Discussed Trope in The Sea Mystery, where two men are supposed to have drowned in a bog on Dartmoor. The local police sergeant explains how it's possible to escape from such a situation by lying on one's back. Later, French wonders if a dead body could have been sunk in the bog, but the sergeant is dubious: unless weighted the body would float, while the person carrying the body would be vertical and so sink. So they'd have needed to support themselves on a plank while dumping the body, and that would have left obvious traces.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: Had the gang in The Box Office Murders not taken to murdering the box-office girls whom they suspected knew too much about them, Scotland Yard would never have suspected their existence.
  • Reverse Whodunnit: With a twist in Mystery on Southampton Water — we are shown the original murder, the killer's attempt to cover it up, and Inspector French's investigation. Then there's a second murder where we don't get to see who did it or how.
  • Satchel Switcheroo:
    • In The Cask — there are two casks, both of which started out containing similar groups of statuary. By the start of the book, one now contains a murdered body and gold sovereigns. The confusion is retrospective as the detectives try to work out which cask was where, when, and what it contained at the time.
    • Used on a far larger scale in The Loss of the Jane Vosper, where the villains perform a switcheroo on a consignment of 350 generators.
  • Schmuck Bait: In The Box Office Murders, French tells Molly Moran to avoid two areas of London where the criminal gang are known to be operating. This advice doesn't have the effect he hoped.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Parry, the first viewpoint character in Death on the Way, was invalided out of the army in 1918 with shell-shock.
  • Shout-Out: In Sir John Magill's Last Journey, French tells a colleague to "use your grey cells, as that Belgian would say."
    • In The Box Office Murders, on trying to figure out what was hidden in a now-empty secret compartment, French ruefully wishes for the forensic skills of Dr. Thorndyke.
  • Sink the Lifeboats: In the backstory of The Cheyne Mystery, a German U-Boat commander torpedoed a liner, and then sank the lifeboats so there were no survivors. It turns out he didn't do it just for the sake of cruelty, but to conceal exactly where the ship went down.
  • Slipping a Mickey: In Mystery on Southampton Water, one executive is drugged so that copies of his keys (which he always keeps with him) can be made.
  • Smug Snake: The villain of Mystery in the Channel, who when cornered by French mocks him for taking so long to find him.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The story often begins with the point of view of the person who discovers the crime, then switches to Inspector French once he's called in. Some notable examples are:
    • The Cask: The first chapter is written from the point of view of the man who finds the body; the next two-thirds of the novel follow the police inspector investigating the crime and arresting the prime suspect; and in the last third, the protagonist is a private detective trying to disprove the police case.
    • The Cheyne Mystery: Maxwell Cheyne is the protagonist for over half of the book before he finally calls in Inspector French.
  • Taking You with Me: A couple of times the villain, facing arrest, attempts to kill both themself and Inspector French (one even pulls out a hand grenade).
  • Trapped by Gambling Debts: Crofts' villains are fond of this, usually luring their mark into a rigged game or series of games in the first place.