It takes 219 pages before reading the word “humdrum” inside The Cask, the first novel written by Freeman W. Crofts. He did not know that such a word would be his nightmare. It is known that Julian Symons, inside his mystery genre survey Bloody Murder (1972), deemed as “humdrum” the work of some of the most famous British detective writers of the 1920s: alongside Freeman W. Crofts there are J.J. Connington, John Rhode, R.A.J. Walling, Henry Wade and many others. Symons used the term as a way of dismissing British detective writers he saw as dull and tedious, for they were focused more on the construction of the plot rather than on characters.
Symons had probably read a few novels by Crofts, but his judgment influenced many generations of scholars. Only in 2012 Curtis Evans published Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, a very good essay in which he revealed the real value of such authors as novelists: not only they produced fine fair-play mysteries, often well-written and well-planned, but their tales could be read as interesting social documents of the England post-WWI.
Freeman W. Crofts played a major role in the evolution of mystery. Born in 1879, he was an Irish engineer who wrote his first detective novel, The Cask, in 1916, during a long convalescence from illness. The novel appeared in print in 1920 and gained immediately a huge critical and popular success. At this time Crofts had obviously not invented yet Inspector French, but The Cask is considered one of his best novels. Together with Agatha Christie’s masterpiece The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1915 and published in 1920, The Cask launched the Golden Age of detective fiction, usually delimitated between the two World Wars.
According to the scholars, one the one hand Christie celebrates the Edwardian era, introducing the figure of an eccentric detective, Hercule Poirot, who investigates on a murder at an English country-house; on the other hand, Crofts writes a police-procedural, where three different sleuths (two police-officers and one private detective) investigate on the murder of a woman, whom body has been discovered in a cask. I think this distinction between the two texts is hasty and superficial.
Christie’s novel is the triumph of the eccentric and the bizarre: characters and clues are ambiguous and the logic of surprise rules the whole story. Croft’s approach, on the contrary, is quite the opposite: it is iper-realistic. With Crofts the readers go at school of detection, the real detection, conducted by methodical but fallible experts. The book follows the step-by-step investigation of the three sleuths, which continually find new informations, but at last they are not able to solve completely the mystery. It needs a confession by the murderer to answer all the questions the plot has posed.
The bigger difference between Christie and Crofts concerns the whole point of view about the mystery as a literary genre. Christie creates unusual situations in order to challenge and confound the readers through clues and red herrings. She plays the reader. Crofts has no intention to challenge the readers, he is constantly fair with them (also Christie is fair with readers, but in her own way). The character-drawing is not the strong point of Crofts, but he is very good at evoking the atmosphere of the 1910s (I loved the descriptions of Paris viewed through the eyes of an English-man, with its polite and kind people).
In Christie’s novel there is the unity of time and place and all the events are told through the distorted eyes of Hastings, whereas Crofts in The Cask changes the locations (London, Paris, Brussels) and he modifies continually the narrative point of view. Christie is influenced by Bentley, whereas Crofts follows in the footsteps the work of Richard A. Freeman, adding details and method.
Basically, there is nothing stagey and contrived in Crofts’ novels: his plots are logical and strictly believable and his solutions are always satisfying. We have to track the movements of the characters, talk to witnesses, analyze railway timetables and collect the evidences in order to break an apparently solid alibi. The Cask, indeed, contains the first of what will be a Croft speciality: the alibi plot. A suspect has a bombproof alibi and it seems impossible he has committed the crime, but the solution shows it actually is possible.
The Cask is neither a whodunit, for there are only two suspects, nor a howdunit (there are not impossible situations). Instead it is a pure novel of detection, accurate, well-written and enjoyable. It is an enormous work but never boring, rich of details and really well-constructed. The plot is ingenious and complex, but Crofts is able to handle it, and at last almost every detail fits solidly and smoothly. Crofts has a flowing prose style, clear and relaxing. The book could appear old-fashion nowadays, and the final chapter is probably rushed, but it is a great work, written when the ingenuity, fortunately, was a good thing.