Friday, 26 February 2016

Forgotten Book - The Ponson Case

The Detective Story Library imprint of Harper Collins has revived several fascinating titles, including some of my favourites. The Rasp by Philip MacDonald, which has an excellent intro by Tony Medawar, is an example. But Freeman Wills Crofts' second book, The Ponson Case, is a mystery I'd never read until I read the DSL reprint. This nicely presented reissue benefits from an intro by crime novelist Dolores Gordon Smith, who talked about Crofts at last year's hugely successful Bodies in the Library conference.

Dolores tells a story about Crofts' meticulous approach to the plotting of this novel, which was a follow-up to his best-selling debut The Cask. He spent three hours persuading his publishers that he had researched the plot detail with intense attention to detail. And this shows in the book, although I have to say the result is not totally gripping. There's a nice description of an English country house at the start of the book, but once the body of Sir William Ponson is discovered in the river, the focus is on alibis, and how to crack them.

Crofts ditched Inspector Burnley, who took the lead in The Cask, and introduced the equally painstaking Inspector Tanner. A sketch map of the scene of the crime is supplied, and Tanner ventures as far as Portugal in search of the truth about Ponson's death. But there is a shortage of suspects, a failing of several Golden Age novels. Why is it a failing? Because the characters are not explored in enough depth to compensate for the limited nature of the mystery.

Eventually Tanner gets to the truth, but it turns out to be rather anti-climactic, to say the least. But I'm really glad I read it, and not only because it filled a gap in my knowledge of Crofts' writing. What we have here is a book which shows a capable crime writer at the start of his career, trying to do something unusual  in genre terms to build on the conspicuous success of his debut novel. It was this determination not to get stuck in a rut (despite his long-term fondness for alibi puzzles) that set Crofts apart from lesser writers. If you look at his inverted novels, such as Antidote to Venom, you see how keen he was to experiment, and that same freshness of approach is the most notable feature of The Ponson Case..A welcome reprint, then, which has given me a better understanding of Crofts' approach to his craft.

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