Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

Profit motive…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Joymount Cement Company is in trouble. Its main local competitor, Chayle’s, has found a new formula that allows them to produce cement more cheaply, thus undercutting Joymount. Joymount’s board of directors decide to give their chief chemist a few weeks to try to replicate the formula – if he fails, then the company may have to close. King, the chemist, tries his best but, as the deadline approaches, he is no nearer finding the solution, so he persuades one of the other directors, Brand, to sneak into Chayle’s with him one night to see what they can find out. That’s when things begin to go horribly wrong…

This is an “inverted” mystery, a format for which I understand Crofts was particularly well known. (For the uninitiated, this means that the crime is shown first including the identity of the criminal, and then the story joins the detective, showing the methods he uses to investigate it.) The story leading up to the break-in at Chayle’s and the resulting death that happens there is very well told, but only takes up about a quarter of the book. Inspector French from Scotland Yard is brought in because the local police suspect that there’s more to the break-in and death at Chayle’s than meets the eye. French soon confirms this, and now a murder hunt is on.

At this point, I was thinking that it was going to be a long haul watching French discover what we, the readers, already knew had happened. I should have had more faith in Crofts’ reputation! I can only be vague because I want to avoid even the smallest of spoilers, but suddenly another event happens that turns the story on its head, leading to another crime – one to which the reader does not know the solution. This second crime forms the main focus of the book, and a very satisfying mystery it is. The possible suspect list is tiny, but the clues are so beautifully meted out that I changed my mind several times about whodunit, and only got about halfway there in the end. It’s also a howdunit – until the method is discovered, it’s almost impossible to know who would have had the opportunity to commit the crime. So in the end, Crofts throws in everything – an inverted crime, a traditional mystery, alibis, method, motives, all wrapped up in a police procedural, and it all works brilliantly.

Freeman Wills Crofts

He also does a lovely job with the characterisation – not so much of French, who truthfully is a bit bland as detectives go, in this one at any rate, but of the men involved – King, Brand, their boss Tasker, and their opposite numbers at Chayle’s. They are each given clear motivation for how they act individually, and there’s a good deal of moral ambiguity floating around – while not everyone is guilty in the eyes of the law, very few could be called entirely innocent. The murkiness of the business world is at the heart of the story, and the lengths to which men will go in the pursuit of profit. (Yes, they’re all men – it was first published in 1934.)

I loved this. So intricately plotted but also with a very human set of characters to stop it from being merely a puzzle. It’s only the second book of Crofts I’ve read, the other being The 12:30 from Croydon, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. It too is an inverted mystery, but very different in how it’s done, showing that this particular sub-genre has more room for variety than I’d have expected. I will now add Crofts to my ever-growing list of vintage crime writers to be further explored! Happily I have another couple of his books already waiting on the TBR pile…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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42 thoughts on “Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

    • That’s good to know! I’ve always rather avoided inverted mysteries because the idea of knowing the solution first seems so odd. But the very few I have read have all been very different, so I’m ready to put my inhibitions aside and try some more now… 😀

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  1. Crofts really was good at putting together all sorts of different plot twists, FictionFan. He was, as you say, best known for the inverted story, but he played with all sorts of variations on that theme. I like the Inspector French character, too. We don’t learn much about his personal life, etc.., in the series, but he’s a solid detective. He’s very good at his job without having those flashes of brilliance that can take away from a character’s credibility.

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    • I’m finding that most of the police detectives of that era are a little under-developed by modern standards, but that works fine for me – allows the actual plot to be the focus. And I’m warming to the inverted mystery format – I’ve always felt it would be a bit dull to know the solution in advance, but in fact the few I’ve read have still had strong mystery elements, or strong suspense. Time to put my prejudices aside and investigate further!

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  2. In principle, the inverted Mystery probably shouldn’t work, but if well excecuted, it can be very rewarding. I’ve not read this particular one, but it sounds clever, especially with an extra twist to keep the reader’s attention. Glad you enjoyed it.

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    • Yes, I have a kind of resistance to inverted mysteries because I feel they shouldn’t work, but actually I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the very few that I’ve read – it’s all in the skill of the author! I’m going to put my prejudices aside and investigate them further, I think… 😀

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  3. Now THIS is an author who must have been adept at outlining! After all, to throw in an inverted crime AND a traditional mystery, plus alibis, clues, and so forth, takes a great deal of organization. Just reading your review makes me think of those old plate-spinners on TV, heehee!

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    • I’ve only read two or three myself, and have been surprised by how enjoyable the format can be – I keep expecting it to be dull to know in advance whodunit! Looking forward to trying a few more now…

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    • I think it was quite a big thing back in the Golden Age, but seems to have died out almost completely now. It takes so much skill to keep the reader’s interest when the solution is revealed so early on, but the few I’ve read have actually managed it really well.

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    • I’ve only read a few and have been surprised each time by how enjoyable they can be – I keep expecting it to be dull, when you know the solution so early in the book. But the skill seems to be in how the author manages to keep the reader’s interest after the main event…

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  4. So basically, an inverted mystery with a non-inverted mystery nested inside? Sounds like good fun and an interesting set of characters makes it even better! Now you got me thinking about, whether I’ve ever read an inverted mystery. Can’t think of one.

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    • Yes, it had both, which was great fun! I think the interest of the inverted mystery is mostly about how the author stops it from being dull when the reader knows the solution to the main event so early on, but here he just tacked on a whole other mystery! L. Marie (above) reminded me that the old detective series Columbo was in the inverted style, if you ever saw those…

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  5. I’m another reader who hasn’t heard the term ‘inverted mystery’ but now that I have, everything makes more sense. This story sounds terrific. Inspector French’s fictional detective competitors in the 1930s would have been difficult to compete against, perhaps the author made him bland on purpose!

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  6. Wow, high praise FF! Inverted mysteries don’t typically grab me, but once I start reading them I can quickly see the appeal as the author has to work a bit harder to keep people turning the pages. I’ll admit when you started off the review talking about a cement mix I thought ‘oh boy this sounds boring’ but you turned it around! haha

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    • Hah, yes, cement mix doesn’t have that romantic ring to it! I agree – it’s a real skill to make an inverted mystery work. If not done well, they could be incredibly dull. So far I can quite see why Crofts is so admired for the way he did them.

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