Is The Cask, by Freeman Wills Crofts, really a Forgotten Book? Published in 1920, it was in its day a best-seller, far outstripping in sales most other Golden Age titles, and it remains the best known of Crofts' books, even though he was a prolific author who went on to write for more than 30 years. But yes, I think it is pretty much forgotten today, by all except really keen Golden Age fans. I count myself as one of their number, but even I have only just got around to reading it.
I've had my green Penguin copy of the book for years, but I confess that I'd been rather put off by its sheer length. It's a lot longer than most Golden Age novels, which normally (whatever their other defects) had the merit of being pretty short. I thought it might be a rather dreary read. But it proved not to be, and I must say I was glad I did make the effort to read through it, albeit belatedly.
The opening premise is gripping. Dock workers unloading some casks that have arrived in London from continental Europe drop one, causing it to split slightly. They discover that it contains gold sovereigns...and that's not all. They can see a woman's hand. The police are called, but a mysterious Frenchman arrives and claims the cask as his own. Soon Inspector Burnley is hot on the trail. The cask and the Frenchman, Felix Leon, are tracked down, and it is found that inside the cask is the body of a beautiful woman. It's a vivid and memorable image, though described in Crofts' sober style. Who is she, and what caused her death?
One of the suspects has an apparently unbreakable alibi, and much of the story is devoted to attempts to crack it. This was to become a trade mark device for Crofts. I was impressed by the way he maintained my interest in the story from start to finish.Yes, by modern standards, it is slow, but the elaborations of the puzzle are very well done. Much of the book is set in France, and the fact that many Golden Age novels had a rather cosmopolitan feel is rather under-estimated by their detractors. All in all, this is a book that is still definitely worth reading today.