Appearing in 1927, Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (also published as The Starvel Hollow Tragedy) was the third Inspector French mystery of Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957). Irish-born Crofts is today an author known only to vintage crime enthusiasts but in the interwar years he was one of the big guns of British crime fiction.
Crofts was one of the first writers of detective fiction to focus on the work of official police detectives rather than gifted amateurs or semi-professionals who worked in conjunction with the police. He can be considered to be one of the originators of the police procedural sub-genre.
Crofts was also regarded as being exceptionally strong in the plotting department. In fact Raymond Chandler’s view was that Crofts was the best plot-constructor of them all.
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy takes the dogged Inspector Joseph French to Yorkshire, the scene of a particularly horrific crime. Three people were burnt to death when the house owned by old Simon Averill was gutted by fire. This was rather unfortunate for the old man’s niece Ruth Averill since most of her inheritance went up in smoke. Old Simon was a notorious miser who placed no trust in banks and kept most of his fortune in his safe. Slightly less than £2,000 in gold sovereigns survived the fire but more than £30,000 in bank notes was completely destroyed.
Initially the fire was regarded as a tragic accident. The first hint that foul play might be involved comes from the manager of the local bank. Simon’s fortune derived from investments, the money being paid into his account at the bank, the bank then paying most of the money to Simon in £20 notes which the old miser then added to his hoard in his safe. As a result the bank retained a record of the numbers of the bank notes and the local branch manager was rather surprised to be informed by his head office that one of the notes presumed to have been burnt to a crisp was passed in London. This odd occurrence is enough to bring Scotland Yard into the case and Inspector French soon uncovers some other disturbing indications that the tragic accident may in fact have been a daring and particularly heinous multiple murder.
While French is now very suspicious indeed he has no evidence whatsoever to allow him even to form a theory. Finding the evidence will require infinite patience and a painstaking devotion to methodical police work. Fortunately those are the very qualities on which Inspector French has based his already distinguished career.
One of the strengths of the Inspector French novels is that the hero’s investigative methods almost precisely mirror the author’s approach to writing crime novels. There is nothing flamboyant about Inspector French, he is a man with no discernible eccentricities, he places no reliance whatsoever on sudden flashes of inspiration. He simply keeps digging away. When he finds a lead, no matter how unpromising, he follows it through until he either makes a breakthrough or is convinced that the lead is a dead end. He then turns his attention to the next possible lead and repeats the same process. No-one would describe French as a genius, but there is a kind of genius in his thoroughness. The chances that Joseph French will fail to solve a case as a result of overlooking something are very small indeed. Unlike some fictional detectives he generally has no idea of the identity of the criminal until the very end of the book - he usually discovers the solution at the same time the reader does.
Crofts unfolds his plots in the same methodical manner, and with the same painstaking skill.
This might sound rather dull but just as there is a kind of genius in French’s methods so too is there a kind of genius in the author’s approach. Everything fits together perfectly. His writing style is somewhat austere but it has a simple direct elegance. Crofts was the Hemingway of the English golden age detective novel. Hemingway’s style was deceptively simple but produced very entertaining books when Hemingway wrote them but very dull books in the hands of so many of his imitators. Crofts’ style and his whole approach to writing could easily become dull in the hands of a less skillful practitioner but his own novels are not in the least dull.
Part of the secret to his success is that the reader is drawn completely into Inspector French’s struggle to find the solution to the crime. We share his exultation when a lead seems about to produce a result and we share his disappointment whenever a lead runs into a dead end. But like Inspector French, we are never tempted to give up.
For all his ordinariness French is a character we cannot help liking. He is a very decent man. He is scrupulously fair. He prefers to charm witnesses into helping him rather than to bully them. He is ambitious but he intends to succeed in his career by getting results rather than through intriguing for favour. He does not believe in taking short cuts. He is happy to put in the necessary hard work because experience has taught him that it pays off. He is methodical but never mechanical. He is certainly not in any sense an emotionless machine.
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy has all the virtues that made Crofts one of the most successful detective writers in Britain in the years between the wars. Highly recommended.