THREE CORPSES FOR INSPECTOR FRENCH A chance invitation from friends saves Ruth Averill's life on the night her uncle's old house in Starvel Hollow is consumed by fire, killing him and incinerating the fortune he kept in cash. Dismissed at the inquest as a tragic accident, the case is closed - until Scotland Yard is alerted to the circulation of bank-notes supposedly destroyed in the inferno. Inspector Joseph French suspects that dark deeds were done in the Hollow that night and begins to uncover a brutal crime involving arson, murder and body snatching …
Freeman Wills Crofts was one of the leading authors of The Golden Age Of crime Fiction (the period between the two world wars). He favoured the police procedural, and his recurring serial character Inspector Joseph French is a professional unlike the amateur sleuths employed by Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers.
A while ago I read Crofts’ alleged masterpiece The Cask and was quite impressed by it. The way the story was told and the investigation unfolded almost struck me as a precursor to the novels of James Ellroy or modern TV shows like The Wire or The Killing.
The subsequent Crofts novels I tried were however not quite of the same quality. The Starvel Hollow Tragedy was recommended as one of his better works. Let’s see whether this is true!
Ever since the death of her parents Ruth Averill has been forced to live with her uncle, a curmudgeonly old miser who cares little for his niece. Ruth is twenty years old, but without money and with few prospects her life is a gloomy affair. She has little reason for happiness.
So imagine the surprise when one day Ruth is presented with a note from a relative asking her to visit them accompanied by ten pounds from her uncle. She can barely comprehend the reason for this unexpected generosity. It seems almost too good to be true, and unfortunately as it later turns out it is.
Upon returning Ruth is confronted with a horrible tragedy: as it appears her uncle’s house has burned down, the catastrophe claiming the lives of three people, the elderly man and the two servants. It seems like an unfortunate accident, but soon the police is irked by little details such as this: The old man seems to have kept all his paper money in his safe, the contents of which are found badly burned even though the manufacturer assures the detectives that this particular model was fireproof.
Inspector French from Scotland Yard is called in. French is a meticulous man who goes over everything twice, he is not one to jump to quick conclusions double-checking any piece of proof or alibi. Crofts presents the detective not as an intuitive genius but as a hard-working man not free of making mistakes. French begins to suspect that the accident was in fact a very clever murder, but it will take him a lot of time and effort to catch the perpetrator.
This was an interesting enough classic crime novel though not quite as well-thought-out and gripping as The Cask. For long stretches the reader is already a step ahead of the investigating detective who uncovers the truth rather slowly. The ending however turned out to be a genuine surprise.
So, if you haven’t read any Crofts yet, I recommend that you start with The Cask.