The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

Through the eyes of a killer…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the-12-30-from-croydonIt’s 10-year-old Rose Morley’s first trip on an aeroplane so she’s excited, despite the fact that the reason for the trip is to go to Paris where her mother has had an accident and is in hospital. With her are her father, Peter, and her elderly and rather ill grandfather, Andrew Crowther, whose manservant and general carer Weatherup is with him too. Before they take off, they get a telegram to say Rose’s mother will be fine after all, so they can enjoy the journey with no fear. But when they arrive in Paris, it turns out that grandfather Andrew is not sleeping as they had all thought – he’s dead. And it’s soon discovered that he’s been murdered.

This is an interesting take on the crime novel, and innovative for its time. We may have seen crimes from the perspective of the murderer fairly often now, but apparently this was one of the first when it was published in 1934. Following the rather brilliantly described flight to Paris, at a time when planes were still held together by little more than chewing-gum and prayer, the book flashes back a few weeks in time and we meet Charles Swinburn, nephew of the murdered man. It’s from Charles’ perspective that the story unfolds from there on.

Charles had inherited his uncle’s successful manufacturing business but the depression of the 1930s has brought him near bankruptcy. Unfortunately, he’s also fallen hopelessly in love with the beautiful but mercenary Una, who makes no secret of the fact that she will only marry a rich man. So when his attempts to raise a loan meet with failure, Charles begins to imagine how convenient it would be if his rich uncle would die so that Charles can get his hands on the inheritance he’s been promised. The reader then follows along as Charles decides to turn this dream into reality.

I found the first section of the book fairly slow. Crofts describes Charles’ business difficulties in great and convincing detail, with much talk of profit margins and wage bills and so on. It’s actually quite fascinating, giving a very real picture of a struggling business in a harsh economic climate, but since I spent a goodly proportion of my life working in business finance, it all began to feel like I was reading financial reports, and I found myself inadvertently formulating business plans in my head to save the company. I’m sure it wouldn’t have that effect on normal people though… 😉

"Hengist" flying over Croydon airfield - the very plane in which Rose flew to Paris...
“Hengist” flying over Croydon airfield – the very plane in which Rose flew to Paris…

However, once Charles decides to do the deed, I became totally hooked. It carries that same level of detail over into the planning of the crime, and I should warn you all that I now know lots of incredibly useful stuff should I ever decide someone needs to be murdered – just sayin’. In the planning stage, it’s almost an intellectual exercise for Charles and he goes about it quite coldly. But in the aftermath of the crime, we see the effect it has on him – not guilt, exactly, but a kind of creeping horror at the thought of what he’s done. And when Inspector French arrives on the scene to investigate, we see Charles swaying between confidence that he’s pulled off the perfect crime, and terror that he may have missed some detail that will give him away. I won’t give any more away, but there are a couple of complications along the way that ratchet up the tension and the horror.

There’s a final short section, an afterword almost, when we see the investigation from Inspector French’s perspective. To be honest, this bit felt redundant to me – I felt it would have been more effective had it finished before that part. I suspect it may only have been added because French was Crofts’ recurring detective, and perhaps Crofts thought existing fans would have felt short-changed if his part in the story didn’t get told.

Freeman Wills Croft
Freeman Wills Croft

So, a slow start and an unnecessary section at the end, but the bulk of the book – the planning, the crime itself, and the investigation as seen through Charles’ eyes – is excellent. I like Crofts’ writing style – it’s quite plain and straightforward, but the quality of the plotting still enables him to make this a tense read. The question obviously is not who did the crime, but will he be caught? And, like Charles, I found myself desperately trying to see if he’d left any loopholes. In fact, it was a bit worrying how well Crofts managed to put me inside Charles’ head – I wouldn’t say I was on his side, exactly, but I was undoubtedly more ambivalent than I should have been. The format leads to some duplication as we see the same events from different angles and perspectives, but this was a small weakness in what I otherwise thought was a very well crafted and original novel. Highly recommended – another winner from the British Library Crime Classics series. Keep ’em coming!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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47 thoughts on “The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. You’re really highlighting some mystery books I never would’ve heard of! This sounds interesting, not only because the airplane sounds downright scary to take the journey in but because you said it’s more of a will he get caught…intriguing!

    • I’m loving these re-issues of old crime at the moment. They’re not all brilliant, but they’re always fun even if just for seeing how detective fiction has developed. But this one is an excellent book in its own right, and still felt quite original to me despite its age. 🙂

  2. Funny how when I read the title of the book, I assumed it would take place in a train, rather than a plane, and I can imagine that for readers at the time, it would have been a very and unusual setting. had to laugh at the thought of you writing strategy plans to save the business though…

    • Funnily enough, Martin Edwards mentions that in his foreword, that it sounds like a train rather than a plane. The description of the flight was great – really gave a feel for how unusual and exciting flying was at that time. Haha! It brought back all the horrors of late nights preparing budgets… 😉

  3. That point of view/perspective really was innovative for the times, FictionFan, so I can see how it would have been considered ‘fresh’ and ‘new.’ And the story itself sounds absorbing, too. If only Charles had consulted you about his finances long before he got desperate, the murder wouldn’t have seemed necessary…

    • Yes, and interestingly it still felt fresh and original, even after all these years. Haha! There were many late nights preparing budgets and cashflows when the thought of murder may have slipped into my own mind… 😉

    • Haha! It’s not my fault – blame the British Library! Seriously, though, I’m also enjoying being introduced to a lot of these authors who’ve been kinda forgotten, though to be fair this author was still quite well known when I was young.

  4. Glad you enjoyed this, although it is quite untypical of the “French” books, except in the detail – FWC always leaves me feeling that I know how to commit the crime!

    • Yes, I suspect the BL might be looking for the less typical stories but since the series has been such a success, I’m hoping they reissue more than one or two of each author’s work eventually…

  5. I liked the way Crofts focused on the psychology of the murderer. Charles’ personality is thoroughly explored, showing his ingenuity, efficiency, and the ways he overcame his scruples about murder, but I thought the in-depth detail of the planning was too much. So whilst the plotting is clever my interest in the outcome flagged as the only thing to work out is would Charles get caught out, and would Inspector French break his alibi. But I did want to know how it would end.

    • I didn’t mind the detail once it got to the planning of the actual crime, but i did find the whole section about his business problems dragged a bit. But yes, the examination of Charles’ psychology was great, and felt quite realistic in a cold-blooded kind of way. I liked that he didn’t make him overcome with guilt so much as terror at being caught…

  6. Hmm, another interesting book. No, I can’t read everything out there, but I just might have to check this one out. Have a lovely weekend, FF!

    • The good thing about these old crime novels is that they tend to be a bit shorter than modern ones – so you can squeeze it in, I’m sure! 😉 Have a great weekend, Debbie! 🙂

  7. I think this sounds fascinating but wonder if it will be too slow for me. I struggle sometimes with books of this era. The detail you describe makes me nervous.

  8. Your descriptions of being inside the murderer’s head and feeling ambivalent about his murder made me think of Strangers on a Train. Miriam is so awful that I don’t feel anything when Bruno kills her. In fact, I’m more bothered by Patricia Highsmith’s description of Bruno’s pimple on his forehead. *shudder* I thought you were exaggerating when you wrote that planes were held together with chewing gum and a prayer, but holy moly your picture convinced me of the truth! I just flew last week, and I gotta say, it’s still not pleasant. Ugh.

    • Ha! I haven’t read Strangers on a Train yet, but Miriam’s pretty awful in the film too – though the murder scene is so well done I lost any sympathy I had for Bruno at that point. And I never had much sympathy for Guy – he was so totally concerned about himself!

      I remember years ago (though not as long ago as this book!) flying on a little 12-seater plane to a regional airport, and it was the most terrifying thing ever! Big planes at least give the illusion of being safe… 😉

      • For some reason I like the smaller ones more. I think it breaks the illusion and I’m sitting there like, “Yea, it’s a tiny thing in the air. That’s what this is.” The one thing the Strangers on a Train film doesn’t capture is how awfully Bruno harasses Guy. It’s some serious stalking. When I taught the book, it creeped my students out. Bruno is described more like the main character in A Clockwork Orange than the young man from the film. I felt he was too fancy. You should definitely read the book; it’s speedy and engrossing.

        • See, I don’t really believe flying is possible, so I prefer not to think too much about it while I’m up there! 😉 The book is on my list (of course!) but it’s going to have to work hard to beat the film – I love that film with my whole being! Especially the music in the fairground scene…

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