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review 2017-10-22 01:22
Inspector French and the Sea Mystery - Freeman Wills Crofts

I did not think--after having read three Freeman Wills Crofts books this year--that he could be anything better than a 4-star author for me, at best. Just a vague feeling, after watching him open and display the contents of his bag of tricks, in three different Mysteries (one "Inverted'). But, wow. He took it to the next level, and he did it without me reading The Cask, which is, at least as far as I can tell, held up as his best book.


It's my recollection that, if you search Freeman Wills Crofts at wikipedia, and you zero in on the subsection that lists the Inspector French novels, the only one that you can click on, opening a link for discussion of the book, is the admittedly excellent Starvel Hollow Tragedy; this seems to give it heightened standing, "oh look, Starvel Hollow gets extra attention, someone cares about it". In fact, that's why I read it first, when, on impulse I bought four Inspector French novels on a whim and wondered if I would regret it. So I decided that Starvel Hollow, thanks to the very slight distinction accorded it at wiki, would be my starting point. And it's a great novel. It's very clever. It does, however, showcase a certain weakness that I immediately deduced would likely haunt all the Inspector French books, maybe each and every Freeman Wills Crofts: that being, a "hyper-and-rigid linearity of plot development, resulting from the reader being glued to the rather bland, and certainly plodding, Inspector French, who seems to have no social life and no thoughts in his head that go beyond following 250 to 300 pages of trail to a murderer or murderers.'. 


This, I feel, is a significant difference between an Agatha Christie approach--which has remained popular and always in print--and the likes of Freeman Wills Crofts, or even Miles Burton with his Death in the Tunnel, and any other other authors who have dropped out of sight (until the recent re-discovery, and surprisingly healthy sales) perhaps due to the very way they approached and structured their novels. The difference being: the novel, at heart, is nothing more than a main detective working through a puzzling case. So what do you lose, in such a case? Well, if you don't have a Hastings or a Watson sidekick in place, perhaps even narrating, then the "Great Detective" can't disappear for 20, 30, 50 pages to follow up on tricky clues, and then suddenly reappear to start revealing cool stuff. Or re-appear and maybe reveal a few little cool stuffs ("Wow! Watson, don't feel bad, I'm smackin' my forehead too! And it ain't all even solved yet!") but also, like the best Great Detectives, get all cagey and cryptic and hinty and mysterious and make a big deal of pokin' around and hinting that even more little details are important and then being a big dazzler show-off by saving all the best stuff for the drawing room revelations at the finale! That's cool, right?


The author can even move away from the bigshot Great Detective, and maybe Watson or Hastings go off to a garden party and socialize, and have what seem to be breezy conversations with social butterflies and debutantes and exotic foreigners and financiers and scandalous thespians...and people are throwing opinions and prejudices around and it's all jolly and then catty and then jolly and people are drunk and loose-lipped...and then lo and behold the sidekick, or maybe not even the sidekick, maybe just some supporting characters, whomever, eventually wander back to the Great Detective and pass along how the party went, and then suddenly WOW!, the Great Detective picks the biggest clue of all out of that (doesn't reveal it right then, of course), so an Agatha Christie has scenes that make the novel more expansive, and more like real life where people are still doin' their social thang while a murder investigation takes place, but yet the brilliant part is, you still have to watch for tricky shit, no matter how far away from the main action and the main detective you may roam...


That's all gone, with Freeman Wills Crofts. You are locked in a tight space, with his books--the Insp. French Mysteries, anyway. Inspector French does not narrate--not so far, in my excursions with him--but you will be with him the whole time, and he will not be doing anything except following up clues to a murder, and trying to figure them out as they come up, and moving on to wherever the figuring-out leads. And if Jack Bauer never took a piss on 24, Inspector French never phones his wife. Nor does he sneak off for a nooner with his mistress, come to that. There is no mistress. There is just the case. And it will take him all over the place. And he will not save any epiphanies or reveals for the drawing room, to try and ratchet up the suspense, and have it boil over brilliantly in a drawing room at the end by revealing 30 amazing revelations culminating in the reveal of a murderer, who, up to that point, could not have and/or would not have done it. But did.


No, you are more likely get the 30 brilliant detections by Inspector French as they happen, if you see what I mean. You will not lose him, as he slips into disguise for 50 pages to prowl around somewhere in an attempt to cultivate info from people who don't give the time of day to cops. No no--French goes around pretty much as the plodding cop he is (though he will dissemble or prevaricate or fake a reason for seeming interested in something so as to coax the truth out of someone--so there's that) questioning everyone in logical order, doubling back, yes, if in possession of new information that goes against what he heard earlier or suggest something is omitted. Etc. Etc....and so it feels like a bit like an arrow's path, basically straight ahead, and the reader is Inspector French's silent companion, allowed to sit in French's own head. Nobody sneaks off to a garden-party and accidently learns something while someone pisses on their shoes in the washroom...and Inpsector french certainly never gets drunk and violent due to a case from five years ago, if you were wondering about that.


So, with heavy restrictions in the structure (which, in a worst case scenario, may have helped keep, let's say, a book out of print for 70 or 80 years, while Orient Express is out in its thousandth edition due to another film version), it's all going to come down to how wonderfully brilliant and inventive and shocking all aspects of an Inspector French case end up being, by last page. If I'm stuck on a straight line, and every word relates to what Inspector French is worrying over next, this better be the most brilliant straight line I ever traversed.


The Sea Mystery is brilliant. When I think of all the little things that came and went in this Mystery, to fill out all the things initially hidden but methodically plucked out of the duplicitous shadows by Inspector French, I would say this is the book has got to be one of his best. Sure, wikipedia gives good link to Starvel Hollow Tragedy; sure, Martin Edwards mainly has time for the big favorite, The Cask--and when he diverts, he diverts to Antidote to Venom; sure, I say those two are solid, 4-star reads (Antidote, and Starvel, I mean--have not sampled Cask yet); and sure, after I read Box Office Murders I figured it might be downhill after that (except for Cask), and forthcoming cases featuring me joined at the hip to Inspector French might be, at best, dated in concept, or worse, slightly charming but rather unimaginative.


Sea Mystery bowled me over. Hard to say who died. Hard to say where and when. Hard to say how the body got into a crate, and then into the sea. Hard to say if there was one murderer, or two, or a whole platoon. Hard to deal with the alibis. Hard to figure out a motive (I mean, you gotta nail down who, and how many, are dead, first!). Hard to realize certain assumptions made earlier (at least, by me!), need to be re-assessed way, way later, after the whole case has changed its complexion (and I'll just leave it at that).


Hard to say...but Inspector French works and works and works, and his ass is off by the end. Metaphorically, but it's off. And I was with him the whole time. And he's a little dull, and has no concept of how to keep things from the me on his hip, so it's all laid out as it comes out. But I loved it. A straight ride, with a wonderful, complex, endlessly contorting and expanding case, dancing down the straight line along with me and French. This is the one that should be highlighted with a Link at wikipedia. But, it's not.


Enough. Oh wait. I think the author spoils the solution to The Cask, in this book. So, I thought I'd mention that. Half a star off, for that, you think?




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text 2017-10-21 20:22
Reading progress update: I've read 156 out of 266 pages.
Inspector French and the Sea Mystery - Freeman Wills Crofts

am I nuts, or did this author just give away the ending of his earlier, breakthrough novel The Cask?! that was annoying! why would an author do that?? weird. well, all I can say is, until I know for sure, don't read this book if you haven't read The Cask yet! he mentioned a small detail of the Starvel Hollow Tragedy too...but didn't actually spoil anything from that book; I wish he had spoiled that one, and not Cask. I've read Starvel Hollow already so he could ruin that one all he wants. and the kicker is, The Cask isn't even from the Inspector French series--but suddenly it's necessary for Inspector French to start ruminating about some old murder involving someone hiding a body inside a cask, in circumstances where it seemed impossible that someone would be able to do such a thing, and then French remembered who did the murder. oh thanks, Inspector Bigmouth French. y'know, when I read your adventures, French, old prune, I imagine you like Colin Firth, but for this transgression, I think you're Andy Dick from now on. 


sigh. anyway, despite all of that, Sea Mystery seems to be a winner. Crofts really relies on a...let's say "basic, unadorned" style, that is very methodical and machinelike in its effect, but I've kinda got used to it, if the cases are fun. it also helps when I figure out something that makes me feel clever, and then French figures it out not long after, and yet I'm still hazy on the overall murderer. and French also figured out something a bit more complicated, but easy to see in hindsight, where I thought to myself "okay, self, your clever...but you're not that clever.". still, it was neat that he didn't get that one little thing past me. 


a further note: I'm hitting a lot of books with bogs or quicksand coming into play, and it's a bit unsettling because I consider death by getting sucked down into a bog to be particularly nightmarish--call it a full-tilt phobia of mine--and despite the fact that I keep myself at least 500 miles away from the nearest oozing, sucking pit of death, I'm finding every nasty Crime or Horror novel where characters can't take a step without wondering where their foot went, and whether they can save the rest of themselves. okay, fine. this trend has got to let up eventually (and in this book, things aren't quite the way they seemed, out at the 'ol slime-pit, anyway).


so, to sum up, lots to talk about, lots to think about, and I like this one better than The Box Office Murders, but it's not clear yet whether it will rank as high as Starvel Hollow Tragedy, or Antidote to Venom (though that's an "experimental" novel, and not easily lumped in with the rest of the Inspector French titles that have been reprinted; I really enjoyed it, though).



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text 2017-10-21 00:54
Reading progress update: I've read 1 out of 266 pages.
Inspector French and the Sea Mystery - Freeman Wills Crofts

okay, well, I guess no one is more surprised than myself, but I it seems I'm not reading Family Matters next. turns out I can't reject this alluring old Mystery, after carrying it around all day, as if it were going to be next. crunch time...and it will be next. I feel like a whodunit, and that seems to be more in the works here than what is waiting for me in the Anthony Rolls novel, good as it sounds. won't be long before I get to it, that's for sure. but...who knew...I want this one now. lead on, Inspector French!

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-10-20 18:39
Mind Games
Pietr Le Letton - Georges Simenon
Pietr the Latvian - Georges Simenon

Oh boy.  This is the first of the 70+ Maigret novels that Georges Simenon published over the course of 40 years, beginning in 1931, and it's perhaps a sign of just how far crime writing has evolved since then that this book was published (in serialized form initially) "as is": I'm willing to wager that no author writing today would get away with this amount of plot holes, plot elements that don't even stand up to the most basic level of fact checking, disregard for even rudimentary police procedure, and an emphasis on a(n open! and solitary) pursuit that initially doesn't seem to accomplish much besides

getting a junior officer left behind in the lurch as well as two other people connected with the case killed, and the senior officer engaging in the pursuit seriously wounded, even if not incapacitated to the extent that he immediately has to turn over the case to someone else.

(spoiler show)


(The good news is: Over the course of the aforementioned 40 years, the plots got better, and Maigret did get to engage in investigations that even from today's point of view can be taken a bit more seriously.)


It is equally clear, however, that these weren't the things that Simenon himself was most interested in, to begin with.  Rather, even in this first novel, Simenon's chief interest was in the mind games going on between the detective and the criminal, the hunter and his prey:

"Il serait peut-être exagéré de prétendre que, dans beaucoup d'enquêtes, des relations cordiales naissent entre la police et celui qu'elle est chargée d'accculer aux aveux.

Presque toujours, pourtant, à moins qu'il s'agisse d'une sombre brute, une sorte d'intimité s'établit. Cela tient sans doute à ce que, pendant des semaines, parfois des mois, policier et malfaiteur ne sont préoccupés que l'un de l'autre.

L'enquêteur s'acharne à pénétrer plus avant dans la vie passée du coupable, tente de reconstituer ses pensées, de prévoir ses moindres réflexes.

L'un et l'autre joent leur peau dans cette partie. Et lorsqu'ils se rencontrent, c'est dans des circonstances assez dramatiques pour faire fondre l'indifférence polie qui, dans la vie de tous les jours, préside aux relations entre hommes."

(As translated by David Bellos in the 2013 Penguin edition -- copied from Google Books:

"It would be an exaggeration to say that in most criminal inquiries cordial relations arise between the police and the person they are trying to corner into a confession.  All the same, they almost always become close to some degree (unless the suspect is just a glowering brute). That must be because for weeks and sometimes months on end the police and the suspect do nothing but think about each other

The investigator strives to know all he can about the suspect's past, seeks to reconstitute his thinking and to foresee his reactions.

Both sides have high stakes in the game.  When they sit down to a match, they do so in circumstances  that are dramatic enough to strip away the veneer of polite indifference that passes for human relations in everyday life.")

Again leaving aside the question how true this is actually of every single police investigation, Simenon, in other words, posits the sort of mind games that continue to drive highly charged thrillers even today, from John le Carré's Spy Who Came in from the Cold to Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses and Bleeding Hearts, the movie Heat (starring Robert de Niro and Al Pacino) and just about every single seriel killer plot ... and which certainly also factored in Golden Age mysteries involving "great detectives" such as Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, both of whom emphasized the psychological angle of their investigations, and who repeatedly engaged in "mind game" encounters of their own with some of their adversaries (cf., inter alia, The Final Problem and The Mazarin Stone for Holmes, Curtain and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding for Poirot). -- Taking this element as the one that ultimately drives the entire novel, then, Maigret's open and solitary pursuit of his quarry makes sense at least from the writer's point of view; and Simenon would go on to explore mind games of this sort not only in many another Maigret novel but also, and even more so, in his "romans durs," his standalone novels; repeatedly there also from the point of view of the criminal.


That said, the "mind game" angle is only one of several recurring features of Simenon's writing that is present from this first Maigret novel onwards: another is (obviously) Simenon's rather terse style, and yet another his rather obvious affinity for dingy seaside locations -- I swear, there can hardly be any dreary seaport and fishing village on the coasts of Normandy and Brittany (and elsewhere in France, but chiefly on the Channel and North Sea coast) that does not feature, in all its desultory glory, in one Simenon novel or other; rain, fog, smelly harbour and fish market, seedy bars, corruption and a general sense of hopelessness included.  By these standards, this novel's feature rundown Normandy port city of Fécamp is actually getting away lightly, even though we are treated to plenty of rain and November weather, as well as a visit to a shabby bar at the train station.


I read this book for the "Cosmopolitan Crimes" / chapter 23 square of the Detection Club bingo, which actually features a detail taken from the Penguin edition's cover of this novel, and which summarizes the overal atmosphere -- particularly of the early and final chapters -- rather well.


Previous status update: 117 of 191 pages.




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text 2017-10-18 16:30
Reading progress update: I've read 117 out of 191 pages.
Pietr Le Letton - Georges Simenon

Well, one thing is obvious: Simenon was writing for an audience that clearly had specific images in their mind whenever a Paris locale was invoked -- no need to go into great descriptive and atmospheric detail; mere name-dropping of the location was sufficient.  All of which is fine for today's readers as long as they are at least familiar with the present-day incarnations of these places (and possibly their history), or have seen period images, but which makes the novel somewhat inaccessible if you've never been to Paris nor have other ways of evoking the same sense of instant recognition that Simenon's contemporaneous audience would have had.  Which probably goes some way towards explaining (in addition to their several TV adaptations over the decades) why his books are still incredibly popular in Europe -- and not merely in France, either -- but somewhat less well known elsewhere.


Also, I note that Maigret is another one of the "great detectives" who didn't age in real time.  We're told at the beginning of "Pietr le Letton" that he was 45 years old in 1931, when this book was published, which would have made for retirement in the early 1950s.  Yet le commissaire Maigret was still investigating crimes in the early 1970s ...


36 Quai des Orfèvres, the police headquarters of Paris, then and now.  There's a neat blog page (in French) looking at the history of the place. (Note: Linked place names hereafter contain similar links to information found on the web.)


Simenon's "Majestic" is a luxury hotel in the vein of the Meurice (left) and the Georges V (right) (both photos from Wikipedia).  Its interior might well have looked like this:

... and we're told that it's on the Champs Elysées, which looked like this then:

 Maigret and the man he pursues take the train from, and arrive back in Paris at the Gare St. Lazare:

Maigret then follows his quarry on foot all the way from the Gare St. Lazare across the city centre to the Rue du Roi de Sicile, via Rue du 4 Septembre and Les Halles, which is easily a 50-minute walk. (NB: the police headquarters at 36 Quai des Orfèvres are on the southern bank of Île Notre Dame, just below Sainte Chapelle in the below map, in the direction of Pont Neuf):

Les Halles, the famous "Belly of Paris" epitomized in Émile Zola's novel of the same name -- razed in the 1970s and replaced by a forum, which in turn was replaced by a canopy roof in the 2000s:


The Rue du Roi de Sicile was part of the old Jewish quarter in the Marais (video on YouTube -- opens on BookLikes only in blog view, not in dashboard view):

Rue due Roi de Sicile (photos from Wikiwand)

... and elsewhere in the old Jewish quarter.

The Marais (which literally translates as "swamp" -- for a [geographical] reason) today is an area of bars and nightclubs, and in the early 2000s used to be one of the centres of the gay scene (don't know whether that's still the case).

As Simenon highlights, it is only a few hundred feet from the Rue de Rivoli, next to the Champs Elysées one of the most luxurious shopping miles of Paris -- in the 1930s, the contrast between the poverty of the Jewish quarter and the splendour of the Rue de Rivoli must have been staggering:

(Rue de Rivoli, then and now)

The evening of that same day, Maigret follows the American billionaire Mortimer-Levingston and his wife to the (théâtre du) Gymnase on Bd. Bonne Nouvelle (on the above map, the stretch between Bd. Haussmann and Bd. Saint-Martin) where they attend the performance of an opera. (Note: Today's incarnation of the Gymnase is a cabaret; it's still in the same building, but the shows presented are entirely different):

Afterwards, the billionaire couple proceed to a dance bar on (or near) the Rue la Fayette (bottom row: the same corner of Rue la Fayette, then and now -- photos from CParama / Le Métropolitain de Paris):

Bars in Montmartre, Montparnasse and Saint Germain des Près similar to what Simenon's Pickwick Bar would probably have been like (photos from various sources):

And, finally, a few images of Fécamp (Normandie), where Maigret follows the man identified as Pietr le Letton at the beginning of the book (right: an early 20th century painting of Fécamp harbour by Robert Antoine Pinchon; both images from Wikipedia):






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