Friday 26 November 2010

Forgotten Book - Sir John Magill's Last Journey

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


Anonymous said...

Martin - Interesting, isn't it, how writing style can add or detract so much from a story. I've read my share of books where the plot might have been quite good and the characters strong, but I couldn't tell because of the prose...

vegetableduck said...

Crofts is much better here than when he tries to provide human interest! Crofts at his best is about the puzzle. When reading a book like this for the best result you have to enjoy a puzzle for a puzzle's sake. In Magill's Crofts was not even attempting to provide human interest. This is not that sort of novel.

Some readers enjoy the train detail in this one, however. Probably his best detective novel with train interest is Death on the Way, which really takes advantage of Crofts' railway engineer experience. It's a workplace novel really, before Murder Must Advertise.

Another amazingly detailed locational alibi mystery is The Hog's Back Mystery.

Fiona said...

The quotes in your last paragraph sound as if they are taken from Billy Bunter, as spoken by a certain school chum from one of our (then) dominions..... It's hard to believe anyone could write like that seriously.

vegetableduck said...

Crofts wrote a children's mystery as well, and it's telling that the overall tone is not too much different from his regular books. It's my suspicion of Crofts that he was too nice and normal a man (he was very mild and devoutly religious) to be a perfect fit for the crime novel, even the Golden Age version of it. What do you think of that theory of crime fiction writers, Martin? Do they all have a subversive, quirky streak somewhere in their brains?

But I think Crofts' best books have a certain nostalgic charm today, as well as good plotting. It's unquestionably true, however, that he is the clunkiest of the Humdrum writers. Other stylistic flaws include an over-fondness for guidebook travel description and heavy dialect writing (Dorothy L. Sayers had the latter problem as well, if I may be so bold). Women in Crofts' books tend to be boring good girls or motherly matrons, with a few bad girls here and there (they come as a relief!).

Despite the common tendency to look down on Crofts today it's important to recall that he truly was one of the big names in Golden Age detective fiction (in the 1920s--arguably even after Roger Ackroyd--he was as big, or bigger, a name than Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers).

I'll add to I enjoy his books that emphasize business operation. That's an area that tends to get shorter shrift from the Crime Queens (Murder Must Advertise being an exception).

Fiona said...

According to Amazon, several of Crofts' books are being re-ssued in paperback next February.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. Interesting perspective, as ever, Curt. Your point about crime writers generally is definitely worth pondering!
I am keen on puzzles, very keen, but I do find the timetable/alibi stuff pretty mechanical and tedious, as are the worst of the locked room mysteries when they become over-technical.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, it's interesting you praised the title, because Crofts had to fight for it. His publisher wanted "The Magill Mystery." At least Crofts, a rather stodgy writer as you point out, was on the right "track" there! Unfortunately the title is more exciting than the book (I like the book, but what "excitement" you get from it mostly comes from solving the problem, so it's purely mental).

Emotional drama just is not Crofts' thing. When he tries to do it, it just comes off as corny (see, say, The Pit Prop syndicate). His action sequences aren't bad though (like the climax of Magill's, or the ship sinking that opens The Loss of the 'Jane Vosper').

When Sayers originally said that on the whole, love interest was better left out of the detective novel (ironic, huh?), I think she must have had Freeman Wills Crofts in mind as an example.

Another striking thing about Crofts' writing is his cheerful reliance on cliches and truisms. It became rather fascinating for me looking for these things when I was doing the chapter on him.

My personal opinion is that with a true humdrum mystery writer, what you want is serviceable prose, that doesn't get in the way of the plot. Unfortunately Crofts' prose sometimes gets so clunky it can distract. I still enjoy some of his books, but for the reasons you suggest he is not my favorite Humdrum. Yet he's also the one, as was pointed out by Fiona, that is the easiest to find in print. That's been the case for half a century.

One you might like better, if I may be so bold, is Mystery on Southampton Water, which is partly inverted (and doesn't depend on timetables). But on the whole I'd guess he is not quite your cup of tea!

In his day though, the thoroughness and detail of his plotting was pretty striking and impressive for people.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, as ever I'm fascinated by your GAD analysis. Will definitely seek out Southampton Water!

vegetableduck said...

Martin, I'll be reviewing Crofts' "The End of Andrew Harrison" over at mysterylist next week, please check it out (have one coming up on Ronald Knox as well).