All Things Mysterious--Volume Five
Freeman Wills Crofts was a pioneer of the ‘inverted’ mystery, where we are aware of the culprit from the beginning and then follow the detective who endures the drudgery of investigation to ferret out the miscreant. Crofts published The 12.30 From Croydon in 1934, in which the identity of the killer-to-be is revealed very early on. R. Austin Freeman claimed to have invented the form in his story collection The Singing Bone, and while that is open to debate, certainly he and Crofts, along with Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley (Cox)) and Dorothy L. Sayers, were instrumental in creating and popularizing the genre.
The murderer peeked over his shoulder as he hurried to the platform where the 12.33 to Winslow was due to depart--he checked his watch--in four minutes! He bumbled along as fast as he dared, the giant trunk he was dragging slowing him by inches. If only he could make the train! Then he would be well and truly away, and his troubles would be over! No more rejection, no more battle-ax wife nagging him, no more worries! And no one would ever suspect!
As he dragged the trunk and his weary body along, his mind began to wander to the beginning of this sordid affair. Ever since his elderly Uncle Harry had praised a school composition he’d written in fifth form, Brand had fancied himself a writer of thrillers. Even as a youth, he’d read so many he thought he could do better. And so he began to write books--books that no one ever saw, for he never heard from a single publisher to whom he submitted. Of course, an objective look at the story would reveal a derivative, cliched mess of a tale, unfit even for the tabloids.
But Brand thought himself very clever. He had noticed a certain sameness among the many detective stories that he had read, and he resolved to create a new way of writing for the popular market. What if, he thought, the reader knew exactly who the killer was at the beginning of the story? Wouldn’t it be interesting to know the culprit and then follow along with the investigation as the rope of justice tightened around, say, a murderer’s neck? So his latest writings reflected this; they weren’t any better, mind, they were simply different, written back to front, as it were, with the mystery solved in the first few pages and then the investigation, and the beginning of the story thus at the end of the story.
Idiots!, screamed Brand in his mind. Shortsighted, blind fools not to see his brilliance!
Brand may have been able to live with the rejection of the publishers but what tipped him over the edge was that damnable Crofts. Well, he wouldn’t be stealing any more of Brand’s ideas,that’s for sure.
Lost in his reverie, he noticed with a start that he was at the train, and for a wonder, it hadn’t left yet! He was nearly in the clear!
He struggled to find his ticket and hoist the trunk onto the car, but when he looked up, his way was blocked by a uniformed man with a tall peaked cap. At first he thought it was a porter and said, ‘Right, my good man, a hand with this, there’s a good fellow.’ When the behatted man replied, ‘Kindly step down onto the platform, sir,’ Brand realized with a sinking feeling that the game might be up. He made one last attempt. “See here, I simply must make this train! Now, are you going to assist me, or must I call the stationmaster?’ The sinking feeling intensified when the conductor, or whoever he was, said again, ‘Kindly step down onto the platform, sir.’ When Brand did so, he was confronted by two more men similarly garbed, and at last he realized that they were ‘peelers,’ London cops!
He decided his best chance was to bluff it out with a show of indignation. ‘Now look. I’ve a very important appointment in Winslow today. Now, will you let me pass or must I call my solicitor?’ The laconic retort was only, ‘Best you do, sir. I must tell you that anything you say will be recorded and may be used against you.’
Brand shouted, ‘What? What’s the meaning of this?’
‘Mr. Brand, alias Mr. Iles, you are under arrest for the willful murder of the author, Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts. I must insist that you accompany us to the station.’
‘It’s a bloody lie!,’ shouted Brand.
‘Indeed it is, sir.’ The Detective Constable pointed down the train platform to the trail of blood from the trunk that had followed Brand all the way to the train.
‘Very bloody, but not a lie.’
For an introduction to Crofts’ work, try ‘Antidote To Venom,’ in which a zookeeper is under increasing pressure from all sides. Can he commit a heinous murder to get out from under? Available in a trade paperback:
For the collector, try a 1939 copy of Tragedy In the Hollow (UK title: Fatal Venture) in which a naive young fellow covers up evidence of misdeeds in order to protect his lady friend. Inspector French delves into the investigation with gusto!
To investigate inverted mysteries, check out Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers:
Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight by R. Austin Freeman:
The Best Dr. Thorndyke Detective Stories:
Before The Fact by Francis Iles:
We’re open here at Mysterious from 11 to 7 every day but Sunday, drop by and check out some Freeman Wills Crofts (who died of natural causes) and some of the many fine authors just waiting to be discovered. By you.