Rather more than a decade ago, I was sent a catalogue of books by a collector who was seeking to dispose of some of his treasures. A good many rare titles by Freeman Wills Crofts were available, some of them signed; although at that time I had very mixed feelings about Crofts' work, I was tempted and I fell. Taking a deep breath, I splashed out on five books. If I wondered whether I'd regret it, these days my only regret was that I didn't snap up some of the other titles that were on sale. With rare books, one has to be opportunistic, since the chances are that one will never get a second chance.
Today, I appreciate Crofts much more than I did, even though there's no denying his limitations as a writer. What's more, because he wrote a good deal, sometimes his standards slipped. But The Affair at Little Wokeham, first published in 1943, is a pleasing inverted mystery, set in the pre-war era. It's an inverted mystery, but rather different from Crofts' three previous ventures into this sub-genre. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of one of five main characters - four of them are embroiled in the case, the fifth is Inspector Joseph French. It's a device that works well.
At the time this book was written, Crofts had long been resident in Guildford, and Little Wokeham is a village in the area he was familiar with. We are first introduced to Anthony Mallaby, a likeable if naive doctor who settles there, and falls in love with a young woman called Christina Winnington. She is the niece of one of those unappealing elderly rich folk who so regularly crop up as victims in murder mysteries. And soon we watch Guy Plant plan the murder of old Clarence Winnington.
As so often with Crofts, the story turns upon a cleverly constructed alibi. Guy's cunning plan does, however, entail involving someone else in his plot, a high-risk strategy to say the least. When the crime is committed, French is initially at a loss, but the reader can be sure that he will pursue the murderer to the bitter end, and so he does. I really enjoyed this story, although it didn't appeal to me as much as Antidote to Venom, which I regard as Crofts' finest inverted mystery, given the unusual setting in a zoo, ingenious murder method, and rather likeable protagonist. Guy is a nasty piece of work, and we don't empathise with him as much as is, I think, desirable in a story like this. Instead, our main sympathies are directed towards Mallaby, who finds that one terrible mistake puts his own life in jeopardy. Definitely worth reading.