“A cask containing money and a human hand—probably a body,” he mused. “It’s a queer business and something has got to be done about it.”
The Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company handles countless shipments every day. Accidents are rare, but they do happen. When some wooden casks are damaged, a clerk is sent to examine the cargo. To his shock, the crack in one of the casks reveals gold sovereigns…and a woman’s hand. Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard must pursue the mysterious cask all over London and Paris before he can discover the dark secrets it contains.
The Cask is the first novel by Freeman Wills Crofts, but it could just as easily be the tenth or the fiftieth. Aside from the absence of Crofts’ series detective Inspector French, there is nothing to mark this out as a beginner’s effort. The Cask is exactly the kind of calm, logical procedural that Crofts specialized in, and his hand is very sure already.
The story is told in three parts, all of which take place over a six-week period in 1912: the discovery of the cask, the identification of the body, and the arrest of a suspect. Although the shipping company quickly involves police, the cask slips out of their hands. Locating it will not be easy in this half-modern world where horse-drawn wagons share the London streets with motorcars. Indeed, much of the fascination of The Cask comes from watching Burnley and his colleagues, starting from almost zero, track down evidence and suspects through pure dogged effort, using only the technology available at the time.
Case in point, the very busy night of young Constable Walker.
Police Constable Z76, John Walker in private life, was a newly-joined member of the force. A young man of ideas and of promise, he took himself and his work seriously. He had ambitions, the chief of which was to become a detective officer, and he dreamed of the day when he would have climbed to the giddy eminence of an Inspector of the Yard. He had read Conan Doyle, Austin Freeman, and other masters of detective fiction, and their tales had stimulated his imagination. His efforts to emulate their heroes added to the interest of life and, if they did not do him very much good, at least did him no harm.
On his way to the movies, Walker spots a suspicious-looking vehicle hauling a cask. With no backup in sight, he pursues the wagon on foot for four miles then stakes out its destination for several hours (missing the movie forever in the process—no multiplexes in 1912). He then walks a mile each way to the local pub, where he is relieved to learn the nearest public telephone is within walking distance. After phoning Scotland Yard, he walks back to resume his stakeout. Inspector Burnley then attempts to track the mysterious wagon by walking up and down the road a quarter mile in each direction, checking every gate for fresh wheel marks. They all get home at dawn and go straight back to work because that’s how Crofts rolls. Want to identify a corpse by its clothing? You’re taking that clothing to every shop in the city, all of them, on foot, and liking it.
This is good old-fashioned police work to the nth degree, and it does go a little far at times. Did Burnley need to take an overnight train to Glasgow to interview a witness for five minutes? Maybe the local police could have handled that one. Still, there is something soothing about so much methodical competence in one place. It’s very pleasant to just let all this information wash over you, knowing that it will all come together in the end, somehow.
Of course the purpose of collecting that information is to determine who committed a crime, to amass enough facts to overcome the essential unknowability of guilt or innocence. But with so much evidence, Burnley must pick and choose which clues to pay attention to, which witnesses to believe. He winds up with a lot of pieces that fit together in a rough way, well enough to justify an arrest, without meeting up in a satisfying manner.
He could not help marvelling again at the luck that had pursued his efforts ever since the inquiry began. Nearly every one he had interviewed had known at least something, if not always exactly what he wanted. He thought how many thousands of persons crossed the Channel each week whose journey it would be absolutely impossible to trace, and here, in the one instance that mattered, he had found a man who had been able to give him the very information he needed […] Truly, if he did not get a complete case it would be his own fault.
And yet the evidence was unsatisfactory. It was never conclusive. It had a kind of thus-far-and-no-farther quality which always pointed to a certain thing, but stopped short of certainty […] He wanted certainty.
The suspect’s lawyer, Clifford, finds the evidence equally slippery. “The worst of it was that most of [the accused’s] statement might be proved without proving [his or her] innocence.”
This is where The Cask differs from Crofts’ later works. Though he is somewhat dissatisfied with the case against the accused, Inspector Burnley is willing to accept it. It’s up to Clifford and his clever private investigator George La Touche to go out in search of those missing pieces. Burnley, Clifford, La Touche, and many others all contribute toward the elegantly tricky solution. They can’t see inside the human heart, but they can do the next best thing: if all the evidence lines up perfectly, guilt is unmistakable.
The prime virtue of this and all the Crofts novels is their tight, logical plotting, in which every detail fits solidly and smoothly. His detectives work meticulously to piece the clues together, often in order to demolish a supposedly unshakable alibi; and because they are so logical, the endings are always exceptionally satisfying.
This title is in the public domain in Canada, where a free ebook is available from Faded Page.