The suicide by drowning of a box office clerk leaves her friend Thurza Dark in fear for her life. Persuaded to seek help from Scotland Yard, she meets with Inspector Joseph French. Thurza believes her friend was murdered because of her involvement in a criminal scheme, a scheme that she too has also fallen prey to. Her story is one that French is all too familiar with. A naive girl is promised a surefire way to make extra money…and is drawn into a gambling scam and under the control of a group of criminals who threaten to expose her. French assures her that he will help, but then Thurza fails to turn up the next day. Her body in soon found, an apparent suicide by drowning. When French learns of similar deaths of girls all linked by their jobs and manner of death, he is determined to run this gang of murderers to ground.
I stumbled across a copy of The Box Office Murders about 10 years ago…the only Crofts I’ve every found while perusing the shelves of my local library…and liked what I read. So when JJ at The Invisible Event announced that he and Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp would be dissecting it in January, I decided to do a reread then see how my thoughts compare to theirs (my brain up against JJ and The Passing Tramp…oh I’m so going to regret this…). No spoilers here though. For those you’ll have to wait for January.
Crofts is well known for the fact that his books are realistic portrayals of police procedure, and this is no exception. Here he showcases the careful methods by which French sets about his investigation…complete with timetables, drawings, and multiple police circulars. The exception in this case is not determining the culprits, we already know the who. What is not apparent is the why. In order for French to bring them in, he must first uncover what the scheme is about. What are they up to, gambling, drugs, white slavery? And why do they need the girls?
As with any real investigation, French spends whole days in inquiries which often prove fruitless and days go by without any new information coming to light.
After his first day’s achievement there followed a period of stagnation. It is not that he did not show the energy and industry. On the contrary, no one could have done more. Rather it was as if the Fates disapproved his frame of mind and withheld the success which his efforts deserved.”
Yet Crofts still makes it entertaining without droningly on, using these periods as a means of revealing French’s sense of frustration, as well as his emotional involvement in the case. In previous books I found Crofts’ characterizations somewhat lacking in depth. I was amazed and delighted to find an Inspector French who was not just the dogged detective, and one or two other characters with a bit of brashness.
But most surprising is the extent to which French is willing to go to obtain information and the evidence he needs. He is willing to bully witnesses (and unfortunately put them at risk by doing so), and not only commits a couple of felonies himself, he enlists the aid of one of his team.
Sergeant Ormsby plays a fair sized role the story as French’s willing companion in bending the rules to obtain information. At one point he even happily volunteers his son to take part in some subterfuge.
‘I want to do a burglary to-night Ormsby,’ French began. ‘Are you on to give me a hand? I can’t tell you to, but I’d be glad of your help, and if there’s trouble I’ll stand the racket.’”
“Ormsby grinned. ‘Right-ho, Mr. French. It won’t be the first time.’”
Some may take issue with the repetitive nature of some portions of the story, such as the tailing of suspects day in and day out, but this is Crofts…it’s what he does. Oh, but the multiple times that the phase “by hook or by crook” was used did rather irritate.
As is the norm with Crofts, there is nothing showy or action-packed about this story, but in the end he does give us a damsel in distress (who helps to save herself), a boat chase, and a very short gun battle. Having read more of Crofts since I first read this, and knowing more about his writing style, I believe I enjoyed this more in the second read than the first. It may not be overly exciting, but it was entertaining.
My Judgment – 4/5