The Sea Mystery confronts Inspector French with a particularly perplexing case. A body has been found in a wooden chest in an estuary in Wales. The body is clad only in underclothing and there seems to be nothing whatsoever to provide even the slightest clue to his identity.
Published in 1928, this was the fourth Inspector French mystery written by Freeman Wills Crofts.
Joseph French is not a man to be easily dismayed. There may be virtually no clues but he does notice that one of the man’s socks has been darned with the wrong colour wool. In his usual methodical way he makes a note of this. It will turn out to be quite important and it’s typical of French’s painstaking approach.
First of all French has to discover where the body came from in the first place, which he does in a tour-de-force of patient and meticulous reasoning backed up by experiment.
In this case Inspector French displays his strengths as an investigator but he also makes, as he freely admits, some serious errors. His careful methodology however ensures that even when he finds himself running down blind alleys he will eventually discover his errors and will in the fullness of time find the correct answers. He is a patient man and he does not give up.
One rather amusing aspect of his novel is the guilt Inspector French feels about having given a suspect the “third degree” - it’s amusing because his methods of interrogation would be considered extraordinary mild by the average detective in a hardboiled novel of this era. He does however demonstrate an enthusiasm for conducting illegal searches that would give a modern lawyer apoplexy.
Crofts has gained an entirely undeserved reputation for being a dull writer. He isn’t. His writing merely reflects his hero’s methods - it is unhurried and lacking in rhetorical flourishes but Crofts knows how to draw his reader into the mind of his detective. We feel French’s frustrations when he seems to be hitting a blank wall and we feel his excitement whenever he sees a glimmer of light that may lead to an important breakthrough. There’s also a considerable leavening of sly and understated humour.
This being a Freeman Wills Crofts detective novel it goes without saying that the plotting is intricate and constructed with care and precision. And naturally alibis and timing play a key part. French is continually constructing time-tables to test his theories and to establish whether his reconstructions of events are plausible or not.