The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)

12_30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

How strange it was, Charles ruminated, that the useless and obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early! Here was Andrew Crowther, a man whose existence was a misery to himself and a nuisance to all around him. Why should he be spared and others who perhaps were doing a great work in the world be cut off in their prime? It didn’t somehow seem right. For the sake of himself and everyone else it would be better if Andrew were to die.”

Even the irascible Andrew Crowther has to admit that flying is the only way to travel as he enjoys his first airplane ride. He’s in for some very unexpected turbulence, however. By the time the plane touches down in France, Andrew Crowther will be dead—not of the heart condition that’s troubled him for years, but of poison. How did a seemingly harmless elderly man meet his death 10,000 feet above the English Channel? His nephew Charles knows all about it. Now if only he can keep anyone else from finding out.

12_30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
I would never get into this plane.

The 12.30 from Croydon is a superb inverted mystery rooted in the economic anxieties of the Great Depression. There’s no mystery about the fact that Charles Swinburn has decided to murder his uncle Andrew. The enjoyment comes from entering into the mind of a would-be killer, watching him plot the crime, step by step, and attempt to evade detection. This is an especially pleasing example of the inverted mystery because the crime itself is so well-planned and both the perpetrator and the victim are portrayed with relative subtlety.

The motive for the murder is simple: money. Charles wants to marry the lovely and expensive Una. However, the Crowther Electromotor Works has been slowly bleeding profits for some time. Charles has poured everything he has into the company, hoping that the economic situation would improve; a few thousand pounds would surely see him through the current slump. Charles doesn’t have it, but Uncle Andrew does. Whether he’s willing to share it will be a matter of life or death…for Andrew.

The murder plot that results is a marvel. A trained scientist, Charles works his way methodically through his plan, gathering supplies and laying groundwork without letting the reader in on the particulars of the scheme. This allows Crofts to build suspense in plain sight, revealing exactly what is happening while keeping the why and how under wraps. Even as Charles inches closer and closer to crime, he manages to convince himself that he isn’t really going to commit murder right up until the moment he actually does.

Somehow, alone there in the semi-darkness, the excellence of his own plans seemed less convincing than ever before. Stories he had read recurred to him in which the guilty had made perfect plans, but in all cases they had broken down. Those double tales of Austin Freeman’s! All the criminals had been so sure of their safety and the perfection of their schemes, and in every case these watertight schemes had been like sieves; just honeycombed with errors and oversights and clues.

Freeman Wills Crofts’ writing style, like his plotting, is clear and brisk, though admittedly his priorities are somewhat different from those of other authors, leading to some surprisingly coldblooded moments. In the opening chapter, he marvels at the miracle of flight through the eyes of a child—only to reveal that the little girl is unknowingly sharing a cabin with her grandfather’s corpse. The dance upon which Charles pins his romantic hopes is passed over with a handwave, as “one charity ball is very much like another,” while the narrative instead lingers over chamber of commerce lunches and descriptions of machinery.

He passed through the store, nodding to the storesman and running his eye along the shelves with their load of wire, castings, bolts, terminals, and spares of all kinds, and in another section the finished motors, stacked according to size and winding. Charles was very proud of his store, with the continuous card indicator system he had introduced by which at a glance the exact amount of everything stocked could be read off. Also it pleased him to see the neat way in which everything was stacked, and he complimented the storesman on his well-swept floor and tidy shelves.

Crofts never cares much for romance, even when it is meant to be a motive for murder, but his indifference doesn’t harm the story. It’s true that Charles’ desire for Una is less convincing than his love for the continuous card indicator system. Their relationship doesn’t take up much of the story, however, and is far from the worst romantic subplot that’s ever been foisted upon a mystery novel. Una is something of a femme fatale; one can easily imagine the noir version of this plot, but Crofts was never going to go there. He’s always more interested in the mind and the soul than in the heart.

Even as he is actively planning a homicide, Charles struggles to justify his crime from a logical and ethical standpoint. Andrew’s money does no good being hoarded by one old man. How much better for society if the money were being used to keep men in work—and Charles in luxury with Una. These characters are undoubtedly privileged, yet they are not immune from the effects of the Depression. It is oddly fascinating to watch Charles’ juggling act as he struggles to maintain the façade of a prosperous businessman even with the wolf at the door. By his own account, at least, he is a conscientious employer, supporting local businesses and keeping men on salary even when there is no longer enough work coming in to occupy them. It’s not just Charles, of course. Everyone is in trouble these days.

It’s frustrating to watch Charles try to convince the reclusive Andrew, who is something of a trendsetter in social distancing, that there really is a worldwide depression going on.

“Have you got this slump idea on the brain, too?” Andrew quavered. “I can tell you, my boy, that hard work on the right lines put into a business means prosperity, and slackness means failure. That has always been so and it always will. I suppose Bender is playing tennis and golf instead of minding his business.”

“No, I really think that you’re wrong there, uncle…Practically every firm is in the same boat. Look down your paper and you’ll see how receipts have shrunk in every direction.”

The old man chuckled childishly. “It’s only because nobody works now,” he persisted.

(With hindsight, it’s also difficult to watch Charles and his circle cash in everything they have to keep their doomed businesses afloat, knowing that the Depression is going to last so much longer than they expect. One character plans to make his fortune by investing in a farm in the United States. Enjoy that Dust Bowl!)

As much as I love inverted mysteries, there is one weakness universal to the genre. They always grow duller as soon as the police get involved. It’s inevitable—what can investigators learn that the reader does not already know? Crofts staves this off as long as possible by the simple expedient of keeping his series detective Inspector French almost entirely in the background. French appears late and infrequently. Of course, readers will suspect that French, that “pleasant, rather kindly and very ordinary man,” is up to something, and sure enough, there are some unexpected twists in store. Only the ending is belabored, with several long recitals of facts already known, though some of these scenes are at least delivered through an unusual point of view.

The 12.30 from Croydon is a must-read for fans of inverted mysteries, revolving around a meticulously plotted crime and a battle of wits between Inspector French and a clever killer. Even if the landing is a little rough, for most of its length, Crofts keeps the story flying high.

Second Opinions

Mysteries Ahoy!

Charles is ultimately responsible for his own actions and we feel closer to his thinking as he makes each decision that will ultimately lead him to destruction. After witnessing everything from his perspective, the ending has all the more punch. So much so that not even the inevitable tedious and long-winded explanation from French on the last few pages can spoil it!

The Grandest Game in the World

A rather interesting, if not entirely successful, experiment. 

Availability

The 12.30 from Croydon (also published as Wilful and Premeditated) is available in paperbook, ebook, and audiobook formats from British Library Crime Classics and, in the US, Poisoned Pen Press.

That Affair Next Door (1897) by Anna Katharine Green

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green

6 stars (7/10 stars)

“Though I have had no adventures, I feel capable of them, and as for any peculiar acumen he may have shown in his long and eventful career, why that is a quality which others may share with him, as I hope to be able to prove before finishing these pages.”

There are those who believe Amelia Butterworth is a meddlesome old maid. Among them are her neighbors, the Van Burnams. But it’s hardly Miss Butterworth’s fault that she happened to glance out her window one night just as a man and woman entered the Van Burnam house. Knowing the family is away in Europe, it would be irresponsible not to notify police the next morning. And when the supposedly empty house turns out to contain a dead body, it’s her clear duty to investigate.

Mr. Gryce of the police department is happy to indulge a lady’s fancies. What harm will it do to let Miss Butterworth believe they are rival investigators? Little does he realize how formidable a lady detective can be. “This aged detective is used to women, I have no doubt,” Miss Butterworth gloats, “but he is not used to me.”

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine GreenThat Affair Next Door is a fitting debut for the Library of Congress Crime Classics series, as it is likely the first American novel to feature a female detective. In fact, Anna Katharine Green is known as the mother of detective fiction. Her earlier works featured male sleuths, including Ebenezar Gryce, who also plays a significant role in That Affair Next Door. But it’s Miss Amelia Butterworth who steals the show here—not only the first, but one of the best spinster detectives. Though this is a tight story by nineteenth-century standards, modern readers may find it wordy and melodramatic. Whenever Miss Butterworth takes center stage, however, the narrative lives and breathes.

The young woman who lies dead in the Van Burnam house has seemingly met her death by misadventure after knocking a china cabinet down upon herself, smashing her face beyond recognition. Yet it is clear to both Gryce and Butterworth that there is more to the case. The two adult sons of the house, Howard and Franklin Van Burnam, were both in New York at the time of the murder, neither of them able to explain their strange activities. They staunchly insist they have no idea who the dead woman is. Even the finest families have their secrets, however, and no one is better placed to discover them than Amelia Butterworth. She coolly assures Gryce:

“You need not trouble yourself to show me too much politeness. If I meddle in this matter at all it will not be as your coadjutor, but as your rival.”

“My rival?”

“Yes, your rival; and rivals are never good friends until one of them is hopelessly defeated.”

As they struggle to identify the dead woman and her killer, the two detectives embark upon a competition that is light-hearted on Gryce’s side, but deadly serious for Miss Butterworth. Though she declares, “I am clever and am not ashamed to own it,” she can also be opinionated and interfering, which has not won her many friends. She has been bored for most of her life. To succeed in the investigation, Miss Butterworth must learn how to moderate her worst impulses while retaining her own capable nature. In the process, she discovers her life’s work.

I had not known up to this very hour that I had any special gifts. My father, who was a shrewd man of the old New England type, said more times than I am years old (which was not saying it as often as some may think) that Araminta (the name I was christened by, and the name you will find in the Bible record, though I sign myself Amelia, and insist upon being addressed as Amelia, being, as I hope, a sensible woman and not the piece of antiquated sentimentality suggested by the former cognomen)—that Araminta would live to make her mark; though in what capacity he never informed me, being, as I have observed, a shrewd man, and thus not likely to thoughtlessly commit himself.

The investigation is steeped in fascinating details of life in gilded-age Manhattan, as the indomitable Miss Butterworth charges through genteel parlors, grubby curio shops, and Chinese laundries in search of clues. Everyone she meets is subject to her withering judgment.

Much depends upon subtle details of dress that are less obvious to a male detective; even the unfashionable Miss Butterworth knows that the dead woman, soberly dressed in ready-made clothing, could not be the same woman who owned the expensive and flamboyant couture hat found in the closet. If that is the case, however, what happened to the victim’s own hat? (The idea that she might not have worn one is too horrifying to contemplate. Even the landlady of a boarding house insists, “if she had had no hat on, she wouldn’t have got as far as my parlor mat.”)

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine GreenThe smallest nuances of costume, manner, and appearance are dissected in light of nineteenth-century customs, most of them explained well enough to be understood even by those who may not remember the 1890s too well. Inevitably, some references will be lost on the modern reader, but it’s usually easy enough to get the idea. Miss Butterworth insists that her “puff” hairstyle is both stylish and becoming, for instance, but the dubious way everyone else refers to the puffs suggests that they are a long way from the height of fashion.

Since this is a high-society murder, issues of social class are front and center, sometimes presented in a way that seems shockingly blunt. One reason the fashion clues are so important is that they are assumed to reveal the social position of the wearer. The investigators are examining the quality and prices of the garments, but there is a difference between having money and being a lady. That hat in the closet is costly and beautifully made, but no lady would wear such a garish item. The victim’s clothing comes from an upscale department store, but no lady would wear a ready-made dress. Though Miss Butterworth is more of an all-purpose cynic than a snob in the traditional sense, she is finely attuned to what is done and what is not done in old New York families. The Van Burnam case seems strange to her from the start because so much of it does not align with what she would expect from such a family. Is this a clue in itself, or simply a sign that old money can behave just as badly as anyone else?

The mystery is wonderfully complicated. After a certain point in the story, it’s easy to identify the culprit, but harder to guess exactly what happened. There are a lot of small moving parts, each of which fits into its proper place by the end. Interestingly, Mr. Gryce and Miss Butterworth are both shown going about their rounds and, though they are moving in different directions, their solutions seem equally plausible. Neither comes off as buffoonish—they are both doing serious and credible work. Since for Gryce the work is what really matters, he’s able to put his ego aside when he makes a mistake, delighted by all the new possibilities Miss Butterworth is presenting.

Beautiful! I don’t know of anything more interesting! We have not seen the like in years! I can almost congratulate myself upon my mistakes, the features of the case they have brought out are so fine!

For Miss Butterworth, the stakes of their competition are much higher. She relishes the thrill of the chase without ever forgetting that she must show Gryce what female detectives—and Miss Amelia Butterworth in particular—can achieve.

“I never enjoyed myself so much in my whole life,” says Miss Butterworth after delivering her solution. While I wouldn’t go that far myself, That Affair Next Door is a well-crafted gaslight detective story that paints a striking portrait of turn-of-the-century New York City. Amelia Butterworth is the real treasure, though, a heroine who is almost too modern for the book she finds herself in.

Second Opinion

bookwormchatterbox

Some would say that Green purposefully bases her novel upon the actions of a spinster in order to subvert society’s expectations of her; ironically, the woman who is isolated in Victorian society and is effectively good for nothing is the one who solves the case. This in turn reveals to the reader the poor treatment of the spinster in that time period, and instead points the finger of ridicule at the community who takes her for granted. The stereotypical opinion of the ‘old maid’ is dismissed within this novel and I feel this is what makes it so compelling. Granted, a re-reading of this story will not evoke surprise at the outcome, but I believe that it is worth re-visiting Miss Butterworth again in order to observe her development as a strong-willed character in literature; she is a woman who will not accept defeat. Many people see Amelia as a joke, but she is the main character of her own novel and inevitably has the last laugh – a satisfying conclusion where the little old lady outsmarts all of the professional men. 

Availability

That Affair Next Door has just been reissued by the Library of Congress Crime Classics through Poisoned Pen Press. It is also in print from Duke University Press as part of a double volume with Amelia Butterworth’s second adventure, Lost Man’s Lane. This title is also in the public domain.

The Secret of High Eldersham (1930) by Miles Burton

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“What on earth or in hell are we up against?”

High Eldersham looks like an ordinary English village. The only unusual thing about it is the townspeople’s hostility to strangers, which Samuel Whitehead experiences firsthand when he takes over management of the Rose and Crown pub.

To everyone’s surprise, the retired policeman wins over his new neighbors…at least, until he’s stabbed to death in his own pub. Something devilish is going on in this seemingly tranquil village, and some residents of High Eldersham would do anything to keep their secret. Continue reading “The Secret of High Eldersham (1930) by Miles Burton”

Somebody at the Door (1943) by Raymond Postgate

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate 1943 book cover

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“We mustn’t,” said the Superintendent, “forget there are other people who would bear looking into. The trouble, in fact, seems to be that there may be too many.”

There are 125 good reasons to kill Henry Grayling. 124 of them are the pound notes in his briefcase, tomorrow’s payroll for the chemical works. The other is his own repellent personality.

During a treacherous winter train commute, Grayling spends his last conscious hour surrounded by people he hates, only to collapse on his own doorstep. His death is a strange one, even for this unhealthy time of year. Still, no one is prepared to learn that Grayling was poisoned with mustard gas in the middle of a crowded train compartment. As Inspector Holly tracks down the other passengers, he learns that each has a story to tell. But will it be enough to capture a killer? Continue reading “Somebody at the Door (1943) by Raymond Postgate”

Weekend at Thrackley (1934) by Alan Melville

Book cover of Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville (1934)

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’ve a sickening sensation that this is going to be one of the world’s worst weekends.”

Aspiring writer Jim Henderson can’t afford to turn down a free meal, let alone an entire weekend at the stately home of Thrackley. Admittedly, he can’t remember ever meeting his host Edwin Carson, who claims to have known his late father in South Africa. Still, once he manages to scrounge a set of evening clothes, Jim anticipates a pleasant house party.

It soon becomes clear that something very strange is going on at Thrackley. For one thing, none of the wealthy and prominent guests seem to know their host. And why is Carson’s daughter Mary so afraid of him? Wisecracking Jim and his slightly dim pal Freddie Usher are woefully unprepared for the conspiracy they’ve stumbled into.

Continue reading “Weekend at Thrackley (1934) by Alan Melville”