My first entry in Crimes of the Century, really my first take on mystery blogging.
THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY by Freeman Wills Crofts.
Freeman Wills Crofts! The very name redolent of—something or other. I have read many mysteries in my day, but largely unscientifically, and am not an aficionado of the strict fair-play puzzle mystery so much admired by the mystery blogging community. Nonetheless, or perhaps for this very reason, I was pleased to discover that THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY would suit the #1933book rubric for my first-ever entry in the Crime of the Century collaboration; would introduce me to the work of Crofts, by reputation one of the most exacting of fair-play authors; and was available, in the new British Library Crime Classics edition edited by Martin Edwards, at the Brooklyn Public Library.
The situation: A semi-retired doctor disappears, in the course of five minutes, from the sitting room in his home in the Surrey countryside, below the Hog’s Back ridge that names the book. Has he run off, been kidnapped — or is he dead? There’s no sign, and after a baffled week the local authorities call in the Yard, in the person of scrupulously systematic Inspector French. Borrowing the local sergeant’s bike for transport, French searches the grounds and re-interviews Dr Earle’s friends (including Dr Campion, his partner, Campion’s sisters Alice and Flo, and Ursula Stone, visiting schoolfriend of Earle’s wife; relations (wife Julia and Julia’s sister Marjorie, also visiting); and neighbors (Reginald Slade and Colonel Dagger).
It seems unlikely that Earle, if he were to have run off (perhaps with the young woman with whom Ursula spots him driving “along the east side of Seymour Street” in London when he says he’s playing golf), would have done so in his slippers and with no access to funds, but there’s no evidence of anything else either: no body. Following the details and interviewing train ticket sellers and car park attendants, French is led to a new name and a new absence: Nurse Nankivel, evidently Earle’s London liaison, who has herself gone missing. French immediately reaches the obvious conclusion: “Earle and this nurse had gone off together. On the Thursday they had met to complete their plans, and on the Sunday they had put them into effect.”
Perhaps I need not say that French is wrong about this. It is, after all, not even the middle of the book.
Nurse Nankivel’s missing-persons case, too, is handed to French and in his interviews with Nankivel’s colleagues he discovers the original connection between Earle and Nankivel. Nankivel had been live-in nurse at a house in the Hog’s Back area a few weeks before. Campion was the chief doctor and Earle had been called in as consultant. French even tracks down a telegraph signed by Earle appointing a meeting with Nankivel just where a new road and overpass are being constructed at the Hog’s Back ridge. French will find time to enjoy watching the earth-moving and building work, reminiscing about happy times on an earlier case, that of the Whitness Widening.
Up to this point the book has been short on pace, Now, though, things perk up, in a manner of speaking. Ursula Stone, who has stayed on at the Earles’ house to support her friend Julia, disappears. This time evidence of a crime of violence is found almost at once, in the classic forms of a footprint (in a conveniently placed patch of sand, “which had evidently been thrown up by a rabbit [and which] was the only sand in the immediate neighborhood”), a few strategically placed drops of blood, and a depression in some grass (later known as Thicket No. 1). Thicket #2 is also found, confirmed by a thread from Ursula’s green sweater (furze is so very apt for snagging wool). From here on it is a veritable rain of clues: clean joints revealing a secret safe and a confidential manuscript, fingerprints, a distinctive yellow clay smeared in the footwell of Reg Slade’s car. Even a reader minimally driven to solve mystery stories will have twigged that yellow clay as matching the soil at the new road cut. A sticky and effortful night scene follows as construction workers and policemen dig up the new bank until the bodies of all three missing persons are revealed, at long last, on about page 226.
Eventually, of course, there are enough clues, and Inspector French spends enough time charting them out and pondering them, to work out Who, trickily, did What, Why, and especially When (it all comes down to close timing of alibis and car trips, fibbery and misdirection). The root of the three murders leads back to old Mr. Frazer, Dr Campion’s and Nurse Nankivel’s late patient. After everything’s wrapped up, all is explained by French to his police colleagues over drinks (“Fortified with another tot, French went on with his tale”) and smokes in the approved fashion, a narrative accompanied by time chart, diagram, and citations back to the page in this very volume where each relevant detail was observed. (If only French were active today, in the epoch of PowerPoint!) To do Crofts justice, French’s friends tease him for his deliberate and prolonged exposition.
So, on to reflection. The puzzle was certainly puzzling, and its disentangling scrupulous, to the point almost of absurdity. The tale’s strange lack of urgency, its willingness to take weekends off to go to Romney Marsh by train (express [p. 153]) and bus, to fuss with cigarettes and meals (“Breakfast was becoming quite a problem” as French searched the Earles’ house (p. 173), give it a narcotic detachment. I assume these small details are meant to give an illusion of humanness to the otherwise mostly wooden figures populating the book. There are occasional eruptions of humanity: the odd relationship between the snubbing Julia and her enamored young neighbor, for instance, though irrelevant to the mystery, is unusually startling and lifelike. Ursula Stone, from whose point of view we see the first few chapters, is another exception, but her interiority disappears long before her character.
Though the puzzle was, as the citations are meant to assure us, fair*, somehow it doesn’t feel fair, to me anyway. Is it that the murder/cover-up plot is so precise and at the same time so flimsy? Or that the motivation, though perfectly realistic, is never shown to us in anyone’s behavior?
Clearly, this is not my favorite style of story. But I can see its virtues and enjoy them, along with the guileless exposure of Crofts’ own passions for machinery and engineering, literal and figurative. (The tools in Campion’s workshop: circular saw, planing machine, mortising machine, vertical drill, lathe — these have nothing to do with the crime, French himself takes no note of them, and yet they are lovingly enumerated and “polished till they shone” [p. 27]). I’m not rushing to find more of Crofts’ oeuvre, but I’m glad to have read this one.
Note: Sadly, there seems to be nothing about this cover, with rolling landscape and unspooky mansion, that matches the Vintage Scavenger Hunt list.
*Although we do not hear of French’s researches at the Handcraft shop until his recapitulation.