“Well, we’ve got a bit of a puzzle now, no mistake.”
When a chance meeting with a stranger on a train offers Harry Morrison the opportunity of a lifetime, he grabs it. Charles Bristow has a brilliant new business idea: refurbish outdated ocean liners for inexpensive cruises that move continuously around the British Isles. Rather than a fixed cruise, passengers can hop on or off as they like, more like a floating hotel. Harry’s expertise as a travel agent will be key to making this plan work. Once they’ve added a third partner, bored millionaire John Stott, the enterprise seems foolproof.
Disagreements start cropping up between the partners almost immediately, however, and a competitor is trying to beat them to the market. Tensions rumble beneath the surface, until murder finally strikes during a cruise. Inspector French must plumb these murky depths in search of the truth.
Fatal Venture is cruise line roleplay with a murder tossed in more or less as an afterthought. If, like me (and apparently Freeman Wills Crofts), you find the logistics of setting up and operating a new cruise line fascinating, this story will enthrall you. If you’re looking for a murder mystery, however, that doesn’t even get started till nearly halfway through. Once it does get going, it’s a nicely complicated puzzle, a seemingly straightforward crime that actually relies on split-second timing.
John Stott is the source of much conflict. As the majority partner, not to mention a rich and ruthless businessman, he’s easily able to impose his will on the others. Morrison must watch helplessly as his vision of wholesome holiday cruising for the common man instead becomes a luxury gambling ship. (Several characters are opposed to the gambling, but it’s not heavy-handed.) The floating casino generates national controversy—some genuine, some drummed up by publicity agents—but also massive profits.
On the fateful voyage, Stott is joined on the ship by his two disgruntled partners, a number of estranged relatives, and the sinister figure of A. N. Malthus, who overheard Bristow and Morrison’s plans on the train and has proven to be a thorn in their sides. Stott’s lovely great-niece Margot is of particular interest to Morrison. The murder takes place on shore during an excursion, leading to great deal of intrigue with alibis and timetables.
The tone here is earnest and businesslike. Books about setting up new businesses are a huge weakness of mine, and Fatal Venture offers all the vicarious thrills one could hope for in that line. The fact that the company ends up being just a little bit shady is even better. Stott’s scheme to introduce a gambling ship into a country that has outlawed casinos is enjoyably slippery. The irony is that most of the passengers are just as happy without the casino. There was no real need to subvert the law in the first place, but the fact that they’ve done so establishes an unsavory atmosphere around the whole enterprise. It’s not surprising that things would end up badly.
Since gambling is illegal in Great Britain, the Hellenic is registered as a French ship and re-christened the Hellenique. This subterfuge, which Stott views as a mere formality, turns out to have interesting legal consequences. The murder is committed on shore in Northern Ireland, but the suspects are all on board the “French” ship. “Could British police function aboard a French ship? Would French police interest themselves about a tragedy in Northern Ireland?”
The solution is for Inspector French, who is already working in the area, to carry out a somewhat dodgy investigation on board the Hellenique. He can only question suspects within three miles of shore. Outside of those limits, he has no legal authority and must resort to various strategies to collect evidence.
The normally stoic French is already going through some emotional turmoil. He loves being a detective, but is increasingly dissatisfied with his job at Scotland Yard, and is hoping for a transfer to the countryside.
For some time, he had been working on unpleasant cases: tedious, wearisome, sordid, and without any intellectual interest. They had taken him either to slums, or to areas which were rapidly becoming slums: a world of grimy bricks and mortar, of smells and insects and unwashed humanity. He was sick of the work and of his less fortunate fellow citizens, and longed for a breath of clean, fresh air and the green of the country.
Although he is singled out for a prestigious assignment, French is discouraged by his lack of progress in that case. Ironically, he finds the new murder case much more to his liking, but worries that it is negatively affecting his other investigation. He also resents having a second case dropped into his lap so unceremoniously when it should really be a job for the Northern Ireland police. “My job, sirs,” he says testily, “is to do other people’s dirty work, usually with abuse instead of thanks.” He is often annoyed that his inquiries leave little time to take advantage of the ship’s excursions. At another point, he gleefully sends a huge request to the DI on shore, thinking, “When they get this those folk won’t be so pleased that they unloaded their beastly job on me.”
(It’s worth noting that Crofts once again can’t help spoiling a previous case. I haven’t read The Loss of the “Jane Vosper” and was not thrilled to have its solution revealed in Chapter 13 of Fatal Venture.)
What reinvigorates French is having a real puzzle to sink his teeth into, with practically all of the suspects having perfect alibis. As usual, it’s a joy to watch him dig into every clue, taking nothing at face value. Fatal Venture is really two books in one. The first half is a detailed study of establishing a business; the second half, a typically rigorous Inspector French investigation. For me, both halves worked admirably.
This is an enjoyable book if you like puzzle mysteries with difficult solutions. French is an upright and hardworking policeman which does not make him a very exciting detective.
Some criticize Crofts’s novels as being dull, a view with which I do not agree. Oh, sure, the prose is mostly pedestrian and occasionally the detailed confirmation or breaking of alibis can be a bit tedious, but on the whole, Crofts manages to hold at least my attention. Try this one, or one of his many others; you may agree.
Fatal Venture (also published as Tragedy in the Hollow) is out of print, with many used copies available.