Sunday, January 22, 2017

Freeman Wills Crofts' The Loss of the Jane Vosper

The Loss of the Jane Vosper is one of the Inspector French mysteries written by Freeman Wills Crofts and was published in 1936. It’s one of several Crofts novels that deals with the sea.

To be more specific, this book begins with the final voyage of the Jane Vosper. The Jane Vosper is an elderly freighter which makes regular trips to South America. She’s old but she’s well-built and a fine sea boat. The weather is somewhat dirty but Captain Hassall knows the old freighter can handle worse weather than this and he is not the least bit concerned.  At least he is not concerned until the first explosion rocks the ship.

The loss of the Jane Vosper is a set-back for the Southern Ocean Steam Navigation Company but it is nothing short of a disaster for the Land & Sea Insurance Co Ltd. They have insured part of the cargo for the sum of £105,000 and they have already had a very bad year. The Land & Sea Insurance Co Ltd is a very reputable firm which would never contemplate disputing a claim without very good reason but this is a very curious case. If the sinking of the Jane Vosper was not an accident, are they still liable? After all they insured the cargo, not the ship. The situation is uncertain enough to convince the directors to engage a private detective to look into the matter.

At this stage it is not a police matter, there being no actual evidence as to the circumstances of the sinking, although the explosions make it highly likely that explosives were placed on board the ship. The disappearance and presumed murder of a man does however make it very much a police matter and Scotland Yard is called in. Joseph French, having finally earned his promotion to Chief Inspector, undertakes the investigation.

It’s a very perplexing case. French has no doubt that the presumed murder is connected with the loss of the Jane Vosper but there is not a shred of evidence to support his belief. Even worse, although it is practically certain that the sinking was due to the detonation of a series of bombs, all his investigations (and very exhaustive investigations they are) seem to prove is that there was absolutely no way in which explosives could have been planted on the ship. It was an impossible crime, and yet it most definitely happened.

This, like all the Inspector French mysteries, is a classic police procedural and this is a genre in which Crofts really excels.

Any competent police detective must be thorough and methodical but Chief Inspector French takes these qualities to extremes. Every single lead is pursued as far as is humanly possible. Not even the tiniest detail is overlooked. Details which any reasonable person would consider to be completely insignificant are doggedly followed up, much to the amusement of French’s sergeant. But this is how French works and it’s an approach that has brought him a great deal of success. In this case French chases down leads that seem to be absurdly irrelevant and it’s just such an absurdly irrelevant lead that finally enables him to crack the case.

If Inspector French’s methodical approach brought him great success as a policeman then the equally methodical approach of Freeman Wills Crofts brought him equal success as a writer of detective novels. Crofts is all about the plotting and the investigative methods of his detective. If you want in-depth psychological analysis and well-rounded characters then you had best look elsewhere. Crofts did plotting. That’s the one thing he did really well, and he did it very very well indeed. When it came to plotting he had few equals. In fact I’d almost go so far as to say he had no equals at all in that area.

This particular novel is slightly unusual for Crofts in that the solution does not hinge on the question of alibis, and there are no railway timetables or shipping schedules consulted.

The opening sequence on board the Jane Vosper is one of the high points of the book. It’s atmospheric and wonderfully thrilling and suspenseful. Of course we know the ship is going to sink - the title of the book makes that much clear - but we have no idea if the crew are going to survive or not and Crofts manages to make us care deeply about that question. There’s another reasonably good action scene at the end.

The Loss of the Jane Vosper displays all Crofts’ failings as a writer but it also showcases his great strength - his superlative plotting. Your tastes may vary but for me his plotting is so good that it easily compensates for his weaknesses. And as a bonus this novel does display an unanticipated skill in writing action scenes. Highly recommended.

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