Friday, 7 April 2017

Forgotten Book - Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy

Freeman Wills Crofts published Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (aka The Starvel Hollow Tragedy) in 1927. It's often cited as one of his best books, and I concur with that view. The story is readable from start to finish, and the plot is worked out rather cleverly. So although I latched on to one aspect of the solution at an early stage, Crofts managed to confuse me with some rather neat twists.

At first, the focus is on an attractive young woman who lives with her miserly uncle in a Yorkshire mansion - the location seemed from internal evidence to be somewhere in the vicinity of Helmsby and Thirsk. After she goes away on a short visit to a friend, she returns to find the house burned to the ground. Three corpses are discovered, evidently those of her uncle and two servants. At first it looks like a tragic accident.

But a local bank manager takes a different view, and before long Scotland Yard are called in, in the person of good old Inspector Joseph French. He's portrayed in a rather human fashion, yearning for promotion and keen to keep on the right side of his superiors, but utterly relentless in his pursuit of the guilty once it becomes clear that this is a case of arson and multiple murder.

As with The Cask, Crofts manages to sustain interest in the detailed police investigation by offering a sequence of surprising developments. I enjoyed this book - which was reissued by Hogarth back in the 80s - and can recommend it to anyone who likes Croftsian writing. Crofts was an engineer by profession and this mystery is certainly engineered with high calibre craftsmanship.


John Graves said...

I agree entirely with your remarks about this book, Martin. You didn't mention this so I assume that you don't know but it's just been re-published in paperback (along with five other titles) by Harper Collins under The Crime Club imprint.
FWC seems to be experiencing a mini-renaissance just now, begun no doubt by you with the British Library reprints and I, for one, am very pleased as it's allowed me to enjoy a writer I had hitherto tended to write off as worthy but dull, to the point of sometimes being turgid. While it's true that he's not the most exciting of authors, his plotting is masterful and, in Inspector French, he's created a credible, likeable and very human hero who, if I was a criminal, I would NOT want on my case!

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the review Martin. :) I've only read 'Hog's Back Mystery' (through the British Library selection) and I enjoyed it. Looks like I need to pick up something by Crofts soon!

Val said...

This story was adapted as a radio play by Alan Downer in 1987. It was broadcast as a part of the "Crime at Christmas" series of plays and was a fun listen.