In the late 1960s, the Collins Crime Club produced a ‘collected edition’ of books by Freeman Wills Crofts, a leading writer of the Golden Age. When I’d read all the Christies and Sayers I could find, I borrowed from our local library a Crofts book called Sir John Magill’s Last Journey. A good title, but I’m afraid I didn’t get very far with the book. For a boy aged about 13 it was simply too dull. But it’s a book admired by some fans, so I decided to give it another try and bought a copy from the same edition– and this time I battled on to the end!
It’s a good example of Crofts’ work, showing both his strengths and his weaknesses. Sir John, a wealthy businessman, disappears and his body is soon found in Northern Ireland. Who killed him? There are several possible suspects, and Inspector Joseph French, pleasant and determined, slowly and methodically seeks out the truth. After a prolonged reconstruction of the crime, there is a dramatic climax at dead of night.
Crofts is good on painstaking plotting – Raymond Chandler, no less, admired his work. He is usually much less careless with details than many of his contemporaries, although the trouble with French is that he specialised in breaking down alibis (‘Of alibis French was usually sceptical’, Crofts says in his ponderous way.) So anyone with a great alibi is our prime suspect. Crofts also uses many interesting geographical settings, and some of these, in Northern Ireland, Cumberland and Scotland, are quite well described in this book. I was interested by this sentence about Northern Ireland, written in 1930: ‘The “troubles” were definitely over and had been for years.’ Sadly, not very prescient.
The weakness is the clunky prose and thin characterisation. This is from what we are told of Magill: ‘Intercourse with his associates was therefore restrained in cordiality.’ No wonder the young Martin Edwards rather lost the will to live when reading that sort of stuff. And worse: ‘Of all the jobs that fell to French, the investigation of the life, habits and human relationships of a given individual was that which he found most tedious.’ This is a cop who is happier with train timetables than psychology. The result is a book that, despite various merits and historical interest, is a bit soporific for much of the journey