11 November 2008

Review: Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts

My first taste of Freeman Wills Crofts and he didn't disappoint with this nautical detection.

The writing-style is dated, but mostly easy-going and often compelling. Exclamation marks are used to denote moments of revelation and there's much "bless my soul, major, it's not often tragedy comes to Newhaven" type dialogue. Sterling stuff.

One notable difference between this Golden Age yarn and those historical detective fictions I've read by modern authors is that Crofts does little in the way of evoking atmospheres of the time through description. Journeys, even a trip on the boat-train to Dieppe, are usually over within a paragraph. Crofts wrote for a contemporary audience and not for historians yet-unborn, so backdrop details often seem taken for granted and merely sketched. But this hardly matters, for the `tache-twirling 1930s Boy's Own idyll of sleuthing with an engineering theme comes alive through the author's teasing voice and the exactitudes of his detective's reasoning. There are no female characters [notoriously hard to draw] and no attempt at a love-interest subplot, indicating Crofts knew his limits and knew his readership. This is a chap's book and, moreover, a book written for the kind of chap who had useful hobbies and who enjoyed tinkering in the garage.

The best bit, for me, comes in the final chapter. We're ten short pages from the close, on the edge of our fireside chairs, racing ahead yet wanting the fun to never end and Inspector French is staked out in the rain at 2AM, awaiting his quarry. What better time then, to spend a moment reflecting on those other cases he has investigated which also featured a sea-theme?

Crofts, you old sausage. But you needn't have worried. Even without Inspector French advertising your back-catalogue at this beautifully-judged point in the narrative, I'd still have been back for more.

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11 August 2007

Review: Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin

I have enjoyed the preceding books in this series. Well-written, vivid period detail and the tang of steam dancing from the pages. However, as has been noted by other reviewers, the weakness in Stringer's previous outings has been the whodunnit plotting, which has not always worked as well as it might.

Happily, for me, Murder at Deviation Junction is the book which addresses that shortcoming. Not so much a whodunnit this time, but more of a pursuit-storyline [which really gets going in the second half] recalling Buchan's The 39 Steps. Indeed, there is a certain playfulness here, as Martin teases with the readers' expectations concerning the fate of a certain someone who is, more than once, surely just a footfall away from being Scuddered.

Descriptions are perhaps more economical than before, but still convey a rich sense of class, place and time. Curiosities abound; coarse vocabularies in the dialogue between workmates, odd little bits of period detail and some memorable motifs, like the wind-gauge on that viaduct... The snowbound landscapes are drawn beautifully, as are the blast furnaces of "Ironopolis" and the hard men who worked them. Jim Stringer is an outsider in this environment, and we share his trepidation.

There's also some domestic rumblings riding the bow-wave of social change, as Jim's wife Lydia takes up with the Co-operative Society. Again, we share his unease. Well, this particular demographic did, anyway.

But never far away is the railway, with its fire-breathing Ivatt 4-4-0s, its ganger's huts and marshalling yards, clanking semaphores and lonely wayside halts. We ride the night train and, within the cocoon of our steam-heated compartment, we are transported back to an age when the railways really mattered.

Don't be put off by the rather naff "Steam Detective" marketing tag. If you appreciate a ripping yarn well-told, and have a taste for the Edwardian period as lived by working men, you will surely love this. And the denouement is truly stylish.

Published by Faber & Faber 2007

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