Friday, June 5, 2015

Sir John Magill’s Last Journey

Sir John Magill’s Last Journey was the sixth Inspector French mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts. It appeared in 1930 and it’s a textbook example of the Crofts style of the 30s. And that, in my opinion, is no bad thing.

Wealthy Belfast mill owner Sir John Magill has vanished. The circumstances are puzzling to say the least. Or rather it’s Sir John’s behaviour just prior to his disappearance that is puzzling.

Sir John is a very rich man. He has a reputation for being an honest straightforward old gentleman but somewhat inclined to meanness about money. A lot of people would stand to benefit by his death so the number of people with potential motives is rather large.

Sir John lives in semi-retirement in London, his son Major Malcolm Magill have taken over the management of the mill. Sir John had journeyed from London to Northern Ireland by train and steamer to see his son, he had been seen in Belfast, and after that the trail went cold. Since his journey had taken him from London to Scotland and thence to Northern Ireland the Royal Ulster Constabulary formed the opinion that the solution might be just as likely to be found in England as in Ireland and therefore it would be advisable to ask Scotland Yard for assistance. Inspector Joseph French of the Yard is despatched to Belfast.

French is a man who has very strong views on the appropriate methods for a detective to adopt. He has little interest in motives or in psychology. He is positively scornful on the subject of alibis. If anything he is inclined to be more suspicious of a suspect with a cast-iron alibi - after all in the general run of things an innocent man is unlikely to have an elaborate alibi. French is sceptical even of facts. To him a fact is only a fact when it has been ruthlessly tested. A witness might claim to have seen something, in which case he probably did see something. But what exactly did he see? It would be foolish to take anything at face value. Insofar as French has a genius for detection (and his distinguished record suggests that he does have such genius of a kind), it is a genius for scepticism, and for taking pains.

Joseph French is also a man who, by and large, rather likes the human race. He can certainly be tough when he needs to be but generally he believes that a detective can discover a lot more by being friendly and polite. There’s a lot to be said for treating witnesses in such a manner that they end up actually wanting to help. There’s also a very great deal to be said for treating subordinates with tact and respect. At one point in this investigation French makes the mistake of offending a police sergeant who was doing his best to help. French is immediately aware of his error, that he has hurt the man’s feelings, and he then goes to great pains to conciliate the sergeant. Since French has a knack for getting along with people his error is soon corrected. A man’s station in life makes little difference to Inspector French - he finds that courtesy works with most people.

In this investigation Inspector French gets to spend a great deal of time poring over maps and making calculations of speeds and times and chronologies. It might sound like dull work but to Inspector French it’s absolutely fascinating and it’s the genius of Crofts that he is able to communicate French’s enthusiasm to the reader. 

The principal interest in this tale is not the identification of the murderer (although Crofts does keep us in some doubt about that right until the end) - the focus is on the way in which French patiently and methodically builds up his case. If he spends a week chasing up a lead that ends up going nowhere he is not dismayed. He simply moves on to the next lead. Eliminating possibilities is all part of the process of investigation.

On this case French also spends a lot of time catching trains and messing about in boats. In fact this case has everything needed to make Joseph French a very happy man. Trains and boats are always a plus in a detective story and Crofts knew how to make extremely good use of such things.

Sir John Magill’s Last Journey is Crofts at his best, with his technique fully developed and firing on all cylinders. Very highly recommended.

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