Mystery in the Channel was published in 1931, being the seventh Inspector French mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts.
A steamer discovers a yacht drifting in the English Channel. At first the yacht seems to have been abandoned. Further investigation discloses that there are two men aboard, but they are both dead. Very dead. Both shot through the head. The absence of a gun aboard the vessel makes suicide or even a murder-suicide very unlikely. This is clearly a double murder.
The two dead men were the principals of a large financial combine and the murders come fresh on the heels of rumours that the company is about to go bust. It’s clear to the Sussex Police that this is not a matter for them. Local police are sometimes resentful about having to call on the assistance of Scotland Yard but in this case they can’t wait to turn the whole case over to the Yard. Inspector French has the advantage, for once, of becoming involved when the trail is still fresh but there is a great deal of frustration in store for him. French has little regard for alibis - an innocent man rarely has an alibi and in his experience even the most unbreakable alibis can in fact more often than not be broken. He does have to admit, however, that some alibis just cannot be broken. You can’t break the laws of physics. A dead man can’t commit murder. A man cannot be in two places at once. Yet someone certainly committed murder.
The biggest surprise in this book is that Crofts delivers a pretty solid action set-piece at the end. Yes, an actual action set-piece.
This novel has everything that fans of this series could wish for. It has unbreakable alibis. It has railway timetables. The timing of event is absolutely critical and subject to painstaking experiments by Inspector French. It has numerous false leads that French has to pursue. It is totally plot-driven.
Mystery in the Channel also has some other characteristic touches. French’s investigation leads him far afield and involves multiple trips to France to consult with the French police. Crofts generally did not write country house mysteries in which the detective solves a murder without going further than the nearest village. As it happens French enjoys travel a good deal. He also enjoys working with foreign policemen. This brings us to one of French’s great strengths as a detective - his amiability. He is fundamentally kind and unfailingly courteous. He gets along well with his superiors and he gets along with his subordinates. He prefers to extract information from witnesses in a friendly and relaxed manner. It is (in his view) more effective but it’s also the approach that comes naturally to him. As a result people want to give him information, and he gets willing co-operation from other policemen.
Inspector French was deliberately created by Crofts as a contrast to the more usual brilliant amateur detectives of fiction. Any brilliance that French displays is a product of perseverance and a rigid adherence to correct procedures. He believes that most investigations will conclude successfully as long as they are conducted in a scrupulously thorough manner and as long as the detective is willing to press on despite setbacks. You won’t see Inspector Joseph French displaying any amazing flashes of insight. Intuition is unknown to him. And, happily, his interest in psychology is almost non-existent.
The Inspector French novels manage to be enormously entertaining because Crofts happened to be an absolute master of the art of plotting, he understood pacing and he created a very human detective with whom the reader could easily empathise. Inspector French does not pull rabbits out of hats and nor does Crofts. His books are about as pure an expression of the concept of the police procedural as you’re ever likely to encounter.