This entry was intended as a private note, but I thought it might be of interest to some regular or sporadic readers of A Crime is Afoot.
Freeman Wills Crofts, FRSA –Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, (1879 – 1957) was an Anglo-Irish mystery author during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
Crofts was born in Dublin, Ireland. His father, also named Freeman Wills Crofts, was a surgeon-lieutenant in the Army Medical Service, but he died of fever in Honduras before the young Freeman Wills Crofts was born. His mother, née Celia Frances Wise, remarried the Venerable Jonathan Harding, Vicar of Gilford, County Down, and Archdeacon of Dromore, and Crofts was brought up in the Gilford vicarage. He attended Methodist College and Campbell College in Belfast. In 1912 he married Mary Bellas Canning, daughter of the manager of a local bank in Coleraine.
In 1896, at the age of seventeen, Crofts was apprenticed to his maternal uncle, Berkeley Deane Wise, who was chief engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. In 1899 Crofts was appointed Junior Assistant on the construction of the Londonderry and Strabane Extension of the Donegal Railway. In 1900 he became District Engineer at Coleraine for the L.M.S. Northern Counties Committee at a salary of £100 per year. In 1922 Crofts was promoted to Chief Assistant Engineer of the railway, based in Belfast. He lived at ‘Grianon’ in Jordanstown, a quiet village some 6 miles north of Belfast, where it was convenient for Crofts to travel by train each day to the railway’s offices at York Road. Croft continued his engineering career until 1929. In his last task as an engineer, he was commissioned by the Government of Northern Ireland to chair an inquiry into the Bann and Lough Neagh Drainage Scheme.
In 1919, during an absence from work due to a long illness, Crofts wrote his first novel, The Cask (1920), which established him as a new master of detective fiction. Crofts continued to write steadily, producing a book almost every year for thirty years, in addition to a number of short stories and plays.
He is best remembered for his favourite detective, Inspector Joseph French, who was introduced in his fifth book, Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924). Inspector French always set about unravelling each of the mysteries presented him in a workmanlike, exacting manner – this approach set him apart from most other fictional sleuths.
In 1929, he abandoned his railway engineering career and became a full-time writer. He settled in the village of Blackheath, near Guildford, in Surrey, and a number of his books are set in the Guildford area, including The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) and Crime at Guildford (1935). Many of his stories have a railway theme, and his particular interest in the apparently unbreakable alibi often focussed on the intricacies of railway timetables. At the end of his life, he and his wife moved to Worthing, Sussex in 1953, where they lived until his death in 1957, the year in which his last book was published.
He was a member, with Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, of the Detection Club which met in Gerrard Street. In 1939 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Crofts was esteemed, not only by his regular readers, but also by his fellow writers of the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Agatha Christie included parodies of Inspector French alongside Sherlock Holmes and her own Hercule Poirot in Partners in Crime (1929). Raymond Chandler described him as “the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy” (in The Simple Art of Murder). His attention to detail and his concentration on the mechanics of detection makes him the forerunner of the “police procedural” school of crime fiction.
However, it has also given rise to a suggestion of a certain lack of flair – Julian Symons describing him as of “the humdrum school”. This may explain why his name has not remained as familiar as other more colourful and imaginative Golden Age writers, although he had 15 books included in the Penguin Books “green” series of the best detective novels and 36 of his books were in print in paperback in 2000.
Note: Freeman Wills Crofts writes exacting mysteries that are incredibly detailed, and Inspector French loves to break unbreakable alibis and chase after obscure technical points. Many are inverted mysteries, rather than whodunnits, so think of them as more police procedurals. Not everyone will enjoy Crofts style, but if you like one, you will probably like most of them! These are very unique mysteries and every fan should at least try one to discover if this is an author they want to read!
Selected bibliography: Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927), The Sea Mystery (1928), Sir John Magill’s Last Journey(1930), Mystery in the Channel (1931), The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933), Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), Crime at Guildford (1935) and The Loss of the “Jane Vosper” (1936) (Source: Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery (McFarland & Company Inc. 2012) by Curtis Evans).
Read more about Freeman Wills Crofts at Gadetection
Freeman Wills Crofts by Bassano Ltd half-plate film negative, 13 June 1939. Given by Bassano & Vandyk Studios, 1974. Photographs Collection. NPG x156451.
Licence details at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/.