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?