Inspector French’s Greatest Case by Freeman Wills Crofts (1924)

On a cold night in the middle of November at the offices of diamond merchants Duke and Peabody, the body of head clerk Mr. Charles Gething is discovered, dead on the floor in front of the open safe. Missing are £33,000 worth of diamonds plus about £1,000 in bank notes. Inspector Joseph French expects the case to be fairly straightforward and easy to solve, unaware that he is up against a criminal who must conceal the truth, no matter what the cost.

I was eager to read this first case and learn more of French’s origins. What I found was an entertaining introduction to the police procedural in general, the investigative technique of Inspector French in particular, and it’s a pretty good mystery to boot.

We get our first description of French as “a stout man in tweeds, rather under middle height, with a clean shaven, good-humoured face and dark blue eyes,” and learn over the course of the story that he is a decent and rather kindly man. Even the most rabid of fans will admit that he certainly isn’t the most exciting detective, but he is a keen and tireless worker, deeply affected by a case, whether it be depressed when a lead dries up, or exultant that his efforts bring about a result.

The investigation in methodical and systematic. There are some likely suspects and a number of clues, yet each time French thinks he is getting closer the true culprit stays one step ahead of him, leading French through the Swiss Alps, on to Barcelona, Amsterdam, and finally on to a ship bound for Brazil. Crofts takes full advantage of French’s journeys, giving the reader a lively description of the scenery along the way.

Crofts is also very good with understated humor. I smiled through the scenes in which French vents to his wife Emily about difficulties with the case. Poor Emily must stop whatever it is she is doing to listen as he recounts the evidence and bemoans his lack of progress. Then when she leads him to see what he has missed, it was of course his idea all along!

Crofts as usual delivers a carefully crafted, detailed plot and in the end treats the reader to masterful twist that even French didn’t see coming. Now, if your looking for a dazzling detective, you won’t find that here. French doesn’t “leap to his conclusions by brilliant intuition.”   In short, he’s a regular guy, he gets things wrong, and keeps trying until he gets it right.

Be he “humdrum” or not, I enjoyed meeting Inspector French for the “first” time. My stockpile of Crofts is slowly growing taller and I’m looking forward to more French cases in the future.

My Judgment – 4/5

Prior Rulings – José @ A Crime is AfootVintage Pop Fictions, JJ @ The Invisible Event

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza –  Vintage Themes 2014 – Bingo: Read one book with a man in the title

Calendar of Crime Reading Challenge – June #8: Month-related item on cover: a tie 

3 thoughts on “Inspector French’s Greatest Case by Freeman Wills Crofts (1924)

  1. Given the general similarity of French, Burnely, Lafarge, Tanner, and Ross — Crofts’ detectives to this point in his career — I’ve been moved to wonder how much French was ever intended to make a reappearance. From his debut with The Cask (1920) up to The Affair at Little Wokeham (1943) 27 books later, the only year Crofts didn’t publish a book of his own was 1925, the year after Inspector French’s Greatest Case, and I can’t help but speculate that it was a fallow year spent debating the merits of a new policeman each time against picking someone to be a series character. I have no evidence for this, it’s just a game like to amuse myself with from time to time. And, of course, some of those earlier policemen to crop up now and again in later French books to help things along.

    I’ve read nine Insp. French books and consider this debut to be the weakest of them all, perhaps ironically. From here, Crofts hits his stride PDQ, and you have some great books in your immediate Croftian future.

    1. Your speculation sounds spot on. And that is something that the engineer in Crofts would have been thinking about. I’ve worked with a number of engineers and while they’re all about the craftsmanship, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it must work. But more than that, they always want to streamline the process.

      Now why he stuck with French is a question. Not that the Inspector wasn’t a good choice, and you can see from the Introduction that he wrote years later, that he has a definite affection for his creation. I would have chosen Ross(Groote Park), who struck me as a bit cheekier (?) than the others. But I can see how that maybe a mark against him in Crofts mind.

      Why couldn’t these writers have left reams of letters and diaries for us to pick over instead of making us theorize back and forth? But then, what would we have to do with our days…

      1. Yeah, I wonder if it was just a case of not wanting to move backwards to a previous character — and the latest creation simply came along at the point when Crofts saw the merits of a series as opposed to a set of standalones that would, I’m sure he’d be the first to admit, be squired by a lot of very similar policemen anyway. I’m a hue Crofts fan, and even I’m not entirely sure which book Willis was in and which was Tanner or Ross without going back and checking…

        And, hey, Crofts’ notebooks, if such things existed would make fascinating reading. John Curran did it for Agatha Christie, so maybe we can get him onto FWC, too 🙂

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