The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest

Man hunt!

🙂 🙂 🙂

On the night before his wedding, American millionaire Robert Grell leaves his club, telling his friend, Sir Ralph Fairfield, that he’ll be back shortly. He does not return, however, and Sir Ralph later learns that he has been found murdered in his flat. Chief Inspector Heldon Foyle of the CID takes personal charge of the case since Grell is a prominent figure with ties to his government in the States. The case already seems difficult since no one has a known motive to murder Grell. But it soon becomes even more mysterious when it transpires the dead man is not Grell at all – it is in fact another American, called Goldenburg, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Grell. Grell has disappeared, as has his Russian valet, Ivan, not to mention the mysterious veiled woman who was in the flat around the time of the murder, who might be Princess Petrovska or is possibly Lola the showgirl or could be someone else entirely. So to have any hope of solving the crime, first Foyle must find all these missing people…

And that’s exactly what he does. The book almost entirely concentrates on the hunt for Grell and the others, the theory being that, when they are found, they will be able to reveal what exactly happened to Goldenburg and why. So there’s no real investigation of the murder in terms of motives and so on – it’s strictly a police procedural account of a man (and woman) hunt, filled with details of how the Metropolitan Police went about their job back in 1913 when the book was published. This isn’t too surprising since the author was himself an active police officer from 1879 until his retirement in 1912 from the post of Superintendent of the Met’s CID – effectively Foyle’s boss, though one feels Foyle is probably something of an alter-ego for Froest himself. Which is a bit of a worry, since Foyle seems to feel that as far as police officers go, following the law should be optional…

There were things, of course, that could not be put in writing, but Foyle never invited his subordinates to act against the law. Such things have to be done at a man’s own discretion without official sanction.

It seemed to me that Froest’s aim was not so much to tell a mystery story as to describe the workings of the CID and the types of people and criminality they deal with on a daily basis. So in the course of the hunt we are taken to gambling dens, we meet petty crooks and informers, we learn about fingerprinting and record-keeping and liaising with foreign police forces, we get an idea of the police hierarchy and discipline, we spend time with the river police on the Thames, and so on. Foyle and his colleagues also tell each other anecdotes about previous cases they have dealt with. It’s all quite interesting, giving a snapshot of police work at this specific time in these early days of the twentieth century, when forensic techniques were in their infancy.

Challenge details:
Book:
60
Subject Heading:
The Long Arm of the Law
Publication Year: 19
13

However, in order to have room for all this it’s necessary for the police to be singularly incompetent at actually finding any of the missing people! Near miss follows near miss, with all of the detectives making blunders just as they’re about to lay hands on Grell, letting him escape so that Foyle can go on hunting for another few chapters, then another few, and so on. I gradually found I had tired of the chase – I would probably have preferred to be reading a factual memoir of Froest’s time as a detective than have it all rolled into a fictional mystery. The mystery element is well set up in the first few chapters and then is put on hold for a couple of hundred of pages while the manhunt takes place, before being wrapped up rather quickly in the last few pages with a written confession from the murderer to explain all. I confess I started to skim at about the halfway mark, eventually leaping over chunks of the procedural stuff and only tuning back in properly when the solution finally hove into view.

Frank Froest

So overall I found it overly detailed, with too much concentration on the minutiae of detective work at the expense of moving the plot along. However, the minutiae was interesting, and probably even more so in 1913 when the mystery novel was still a new concept and the readership might well be reading about police practices for the first time. For those of us modern readers who have read a million police procedurals it doesn’t feel quite so original and therefore the detail just serves to slow the book to a crawl. I feel the impatience I developed with it is quite subjective, though, and I can imagine that plenty of people would thoroughly enjoy this detailed look at early policing.

I downloaded this one from Gutenberg.org – here’s the link.

30 thoughts on “The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest

    • Definitely not an essential read, though it was interesting enough in its own way. I still rather wish he’d written a memoir instead, though – I think I’d have preferred that format.

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  1. I’ll bet there is some really interesting information here about the workings of the CID at that time, FictionFan. And that might be worth reading. But I agree with you that the plot shouldn’t be sacrificed for it. I get the sense, too, that we don’t learn a lot about the characters, either. Hmm…. not sure this one’s for me, although it would be interesting from a history point of view. And I would like to know if Lola the showgirl ever actually recovered… 😉

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    • No, the only character we learn about is the detective, and even then only in relation to his work, which is why I assume he’s Froest’s alter-ego. All the stuff about how the police worked back then is interesting but it gets in the way of the story, and the story gets in the way of the procedural stuff! I wish he’d written it as a straightforward memoir – I think that would have worked better than trying to tack a mystery on at the beginning and the end…

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  2. This book sounds well meaning. But I like the entertainment of a mystery plot. So interesting how P.D. James does police procedurals with information and entertaining plots.

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    • Yes, there’s a definite art to getting the balance right in police procedurals, and very few writers get it just right. This was very early so I guess there were fewer conventions about it back then, plus his readers wouldn’t have read about police procedures as often as modern crime readers have.

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    • It is interesting to learn about how the police worked back then, so if you go in with lowered expectations about the mystery aspect then I think you’ll appreciate it more – hope so! 😀

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  3. Shame, it sounds like a fun mystery but to get bogged down in so much detail isn’t fun – a little would be interesting, but skimming whole chunks is quite boring. Luckily I don’t feel the need to read this one!

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    • Yes, it felt clear that he was more interested in explaining how the police did there jobs back then than in the mystery, which is why I think it would have been more interesting if he’d written it as a straightforward memoir. Far too much detail for a mystery novel!

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  4. Sorry, but this one isn’t for me. Perhaps our modern eyes and ears aren’t attuned to the early 1900s, but I don’t think I’d enjoy reading through the details of police work … especially at the expense of the plot. Thanks for reviewing it so I can turn my attention elsewhere, FF!

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    • Yes, there was far too much of the procedural stuff in this one at the expense of the mystery. I’d have preferred it if he’d written a memoir about his career – I’d have found that much more interesting, and it would have been great as a research tool for people writing historical crime fiction!

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  5. Hmm I see what you mean – audiences from back then would probably be fascinated by this, but we’ve been overexposed to so many police procedurals it is ho-hum for us mystery lovers 🙂

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    • Yes, that’s often a problem with reading vintage crime – what was original at the time now feels stale because so many other people have done it since. I often have to remind myself that audiences back then were reading crime fiction as something new!

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    • Yes, I think if you went into it for the procedural stuff rather than the mystery it would work better. I still wish he’d written it as a straightforward memoir rather than a mystery – I think that would have been much more interesting. The two aspects – the mystery and the procedures – didn’t really gel very well in this one, I felt.

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    • Yes, and of course that’s what Edwards was picking books as – points along the development of the crime novel. But some of them feel too outdated to be truly entertaining now – for me, anyway!

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    • Yes, I wish he’d written it as a memoir, but I suspect his contemporary audience might have been more satisfied with the mystery element than I was – we’ve all read so much crime fiction now, whereas it was still fresh and new back then, and they would have had fewer expectations about the conventions we’ve now grown to expect.

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